With the release of his brand new book, Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game, I was afforded the opportunity to sit down and chat with the inimitable Rob Neyer. The book—which I would gladly have bought were I not fortunate enough to have been given a copy to read/review—is seriously fantastic. It’s a must-read for any serious baseball fan.
What follows is the third of four portions of a 45-minute conversation between Rob and myself. Rob was gracious enough to sit down and answer whatever questions I had about Power Ball. I was ecstatic to have the chance to pick his brain.
You mention how broadcast teams have a tendency to present information in less than ideal ways, specifically how they tend to ignore advanced metrics that they struggle to understand while using newfangled Statcast features like exit velocity or launch angle without providing context. Are there any broadcast teams who you think do an especially good job of contextualizing new data?
Frankly, I don’t listen to enough broadcasts, with one exception, to get a good feel for which ones are doing a good job. It’s the context-free information, it’s the clumsy use of numbers that always jumps out at me when I listen to a game on the radio. I listen to a lot of radio broadcasts on my phone.
The only team I listen to regularly is the Mariners, and they do a pretty good job. Aaron Goldsmith gets the numbers, and he sprinkles them in occasionally with context. He’s not the only one. I’m sure I’m leaving some people out. Jon Sciambi at ESPN does a tremendous job with the numbers. He completely buys in. He gets it. He’s gotten it for a long time. Honestly, I suspect that CJ Nitkowski does a really good job, but I don’t watch games on television very often. He’s on the TV broadcast, so I really can’t say for sure, but CJ’s really sharp and has been into the numbers for a while.
They’re out there, but I would say generally speaking broadcasters are just about as lost with the new stuff as they were with the old stuff. It’s a step forward to talk about the new stuff. A lot of guys are still on the old stuff. You can still watch a game and hear guys talk about team fielding percentage which is useless. So that’s still out there too. They have a long way to go. I think they’ll get there.
When it’s really going to get interesting is when—it’s generational—and some day you’re going to have a lot of players in broadcast booths who grew up with this stuff and used it when they were playing. They will be able to put it in context. It’s really then going to be a matter of the people who run the broadcast, the producers, the people that make the hires who go out actively looking for players who can speak this language. And they’ll be out there. There a going to be a lot of players who grew up with this stuff in literally high school. This data’s being used by high school coaches now. It’s just gonna take a few years. Some ex-player—
Like a Brandon McCarthy.
Yeah, Brandon McCarthy would be great, but there are a bunch of guys out there who—you know, can you convince Brandon McCarthy to spend six months on the road every year? I don’t know about that, maybe not, but there are other guys too. Maybe guys who didn’t make as much money as Brandon did, so it’s going to be interesting. The broadcasts in 10 years are going to look quite a bit different than they do now.
Dealing with Bruce Maxwell had to be a little tricky. You touched on him kneeling for the national anthem toward the end of the 2017 season, but just in a footnote. Were there incarnations of the book in which this was talked about more or was that too far astray from the book’s focus on baseball?
Yeah, it really was. If his troubles with the law had happened before the game, I would have written about it quite a bit more, I think, but I actually spoke with Maxwell, as you know, in spring training. This was after the incident, but he was at that point still very much a part of the A’s plans, so we talked about catchers’ masks. We talked about something else. But I didn’t ask about that.
I think that some writers probably would have asked about it to see what his reaction was and maybe he doesn’t want to talk about it--and that’s my guess--or maybe he has something you can use and you put that in the book and it makes the story better. I think—you know, just being honest about it—I think I just wasn’t comfortable with asking.
So I didn’t. And then there’s a little footnote that talks about it a little bit. I thought that it needed to be in the book. I don’t think I knew how to do it elegantly. So whenever there was something that I didn’t know how to do elegantly, I just created a footnoote, so there you go.
So if somebody really wants it, it’s there, but there’s no insight.
The woeful rate of pay for minor leaguers is covered quite a bit. Was there any consideration of including minor leaguers’ legal battles for getting paid at least minimum wage?
You know what? That’s one of those things that I meant to write about and completely forgot to put in the book, so yes. There should have been a footnote or a short paragraph at least talking about that. I think that there might have been a decision on my part subconsciously at least that the legal battle was so amorphous or inconclusive that I didn’t want to try to dive into it without having a real story to tell, but it should have been mentioned. Absolutely.
Why do you think the MLBPA has shown zero inclination to help out minor leaguers?
That’s a good question. If you ask the players—I haven’t, I have to admit I have not asked the players—I’ve seen them asked somewhere once or twice anyway, and the general consensus seemed to be that “I put my dues in and made it. They gotta put their dues in, and if they do, they’ll make it.” Which, you know, whatever, there’s sort of a sense of entitlement there.
But I think the real reason why nothing’s happened, or a reason, another reason is that if the major leaguers were to fight for the minor leaguers, the owners might well say, “You know what? We can do that. It is gonna cost you a few million bucks every year.” I don’t mean the individual player. There’s only so much in that pot of money, right? The owners are willing to devote X percent of their revenues or their profits to labor, and if we’re going to give an extra whatever to the minor leaguers, we’re going to have to take that away from you guys.
I think that’s the biggest sticking point. The players are willing to give things up, but they’re not willing to give up any money. Even if it doesn’t make a real difference to their bottom line, which it wouldn’t, I don’t think. Just the very idea of giving back anything or giving up anything is just anathema for the union. That’s not why they exist. Unions specifically exist to improve the living, the working conditions, and the compensation of its members. So the minor leaguers don’t even seem to be an afterthought.
Fair enough. Was there any indication in your talks with Sig Mejdal that the Astros were going to actually be addressing the need for better food for their minor leaguers, as some other teams have already done?
I can’t answer that question.
OK. Fair enough.
No comment. [laughs] I would say you can guess the answer to that question from what’s in the book.
Tune back in tomorrow for the final part in the conversation. More importantly, buy Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game wherever you can. It can be found on Amazon here, but please feel free to support local business and hit your local bookstore to get this wonderful book straight off the shelves.
The final chapter of the conversation can be found here.