Excited for Webb vs. Harang? Peavy vs. Oswalt late night? Of course you are. But before Opening Day commences, enjoy this interview with ESPN baseball writer Keith Law. He’s got a unique background you may or may not be aware of: schooled at Harvard and front office experience with the Blue Jays. Plus, he’s got a non-ESPN blog, which is always neat to see. He appears to be an optimist, expects AJ Burnett to explode this year, is a non-salary cap guy, and thinks the best restaurant in Bristol, Connecticut (home of ESPN, for the uninitiated) is Five Guys.
Q: Let’s start with the obvious: You graduated with honors from Harvard and received an MBA from Carnegie Mellon. What the heck are you doing in journalism? And how frequently do you get asked this question?
Not that often, actually. I think the influx of Ivy Leaguers and kids from similar schools into MLB front offices makes a baseball writer with that kind of education less interesting.
As for what I’m doing here … I tried the traditional route, consulting, high-tech, etc. Nothing held my interest, and so I never stayed anywhere for very long. I was always bored and fiddling around with baseball stuff on the side, so when I fell into an opportunity to do it full-time with Toronto, I jumped at it. As it turns out, if I like what I’m doing for work, I work harder. Go figure. I love baseball, and it turns out that I really love writing, more than I ever realized until I did it full-time. I’m hoping to branch out into other kinds of writing as I go on.
Q: Everyone loves to be a computer chair GM, but you actually worked in the Toronto Blue Jays’ front office for four years. How’d you land that gig, and do you think the experience has helped you as a baseball writer? And did the laughable AJ Burnett signing (5 years, $55 million) happen before or after you left?
I really did fall into it. Right place, right time. And the relationships I had built with some of the other Oakland guys helped me get in the door.
There’s no question it’s helped me. It served as my introduction to scouting – I was fortunate enough to work with some good evaluators who were also great people and willing to help me even though I started from zero – and it provides some grounding to my writing. I have a sense of what’s realistic and what’s not, and I understand how various processes work within a baseball operations department. Running a baseball team is a hell of a lot more complicated than the average fan realizes.
I was there for Burnett and Ryan, but argued against both deals. The opt-out in Burnett’s deal was awful – it’s a two-year player option, and I don’t see why any club would ever give a player an option like that. You’re ceding your upside to the player and locking in your downside. And Burnett’s performance in his contract year (2005) was out of line with the rest of his career. Of course, 2008 is a contract year for him now, since he can opt out and his agents have told the Jays they will do so if Burnett has a good year, so don’t be shocked if he goes bananas this season. The BP guys found that players do improve their performances somewhat in contract years, and Burnett has already done so once, earning a pretty significant reward for his actions.
Q: We always ask this of baseball writers: Shouldn’t there be a salary cap? Some advocate a salary floor, but that still wouldn’t solve the problem of one team spending $200 million to field a team, while other (cheapskate) owners are spending $50 million. Although a few teams with a low payroll in 2007 made the playoffs (Cleveland, Colorado and Arizona), only one team in 2005 and 2006 with a low payroll reached the postseason. And the argument about all the different champions in the last decade means nothing.
I hate the idea of a salary cap, and hate a salary floor even more. A salary cap will do nothing to affect competitive balance – which is actually very strong in baseball right now – and it will simply transfer profits from players to owners.
Baseball is a funny sport in that money is so much less of a panacea than it appears to be. By the time a player reaches free agency and can start to earn a salary commensurate with the value he produces (his marginal revenue product to you econ-heads), he is at least 28 years old and typically in his 30s, by which point his peak production years are probably past him, and the outlook for his next 5-6 years is below what he produced in his last 5-6 years. To capture a player’s most productive years, you need to acquire him before he reaches free agency, preferably well before so that you control him during the years where his production is highest relative to his salary. That means acquiring players as amateurs (through the draft or, for Latin American prospects, as free agents) or as minor-league prospects through trades. If you look at the teams in the playoffs last year, most of them were built around homegrown cores. The Rockies were mostly homegrown. The Phillies’ lineup revolved around four homegrown guys (Rollins, Utley, Burrell, and Howard) plus a player acquired in trade when he was still young and cheap (Rowand), and of course their first two playoff starters were homegrown. Cleveland was built around players acquired in trades before they reached their peak values plus some great Latin American signings. The Angels haven’t fared that well with their free agent signings beyond Vlad, with homegrown guys at their core too. And so on. You can build a strong team without dropping nine digits on your payroll if you’re smart and aggressive in the draft and internationally; the better-run teams are ignoring the idiotic slotting system in the draft and expanding beyond Venezuela and the D.R. in their international departments.
The problem with strictly looking at payrolls and playoff appearances is that there’s a bias in the data. If a team enters an offseason thinking it has a chance to contend in the following year, that team will spend more to acquire talent because the marginal benefit of adding, say, a four-win player is higher. (The financial gain to a team of reaching the playoffs – think of it as turning playoffs=0 into playoffs=1 in your revenue equation – is substantial.) A team that knows it won’t compete in the short term will tend to trim its payroll, shedding expensive players who are not likely to be around when the team is competitive again and acquiring inexpensive players with longer periods of control remaining. This is just good business.
Q: You have a blog that appears to be independent from ESPN. Before joining the WWL, did there have to be a clear understanding that you couldn’t discuss work matters on the blog? Do they care if you drop the occasional obscenity? And is there any reason everyone else at ESPN – and we do mean everyone – doesn’t have a blog? For instance, we’d really like to know what Chris Berman is thinking on a random Tuesday afternoon.
The dish didn’t exist when I joined ESPN; I started it because I was generating content that ESPN didn’t want. When I travel for work, I like to try to find interesting local restaurants, and then I write up capsule reviews. I’ve since expanded it to include book and DVD writeups, which also helps offload some of that stuff from my ESPN.com chats, which were threatening to become less than 50% baseball. I’ll kick around other topics as the muse moves me, but food and books are my two non-baseball passions.
I don’t discuss any internal ESPN matters on the blog and wouldn’t do so. No one had to explain that to me beforehand; I wouldn’t think of doing it.
As for other folks at ESPN blogging, I can only offer my opinion, which is that it’s a great idea because it represents a way to increase our touch with our readers/viewers. Giving the audience more ways to interact with us is a good thing. And seeing us out of character humanizes us, which I think is critical in the online environment, where it’s easy to forget that it’s an actual person on the other end of the conversation or behind the article. I think the dish has helped me build a loyal audience, and that locking in readers there then locks them in to my baseball writing too. Reading my stuff anywhere should be like an extended conversation, where I put a premise out there and readers can react and discuss, both with me and among themselves.
Q: On your blog, you often talk about the economy. We’re part of the doomsday sect – load up on barb wire and weapons and start planting fruit trees in your yard (inflation!), because the end is nigh. Are you optimistic about the economic landscape in this, an election year? Do you chortle at the thought of a new president taking over this mess? And don’t you hate how the middle class is evaporating?
I don’t know that I’d call myself an optimist or a pessimist. You, on the other hand, are a pessimist of the highest order!
I’m a lot less concerned about the mortgage mess than the average person. The US economy – and the global economy by extension – has survived major shocks before, and I don’t see any evidence that, say, the supply of investment capital is going to be smaller on a permanent basis as a result of the subprime mess. People took unwise risks, and now they’re going to suffer the consequences. I’d actually like to see more Bear Stearns incidents, a sort of controlled failure, to reinforce the lesson that high-return investments carry high risks and no one is going to come in and save your ass if you’re stupid with your money. If you convince investors that the government will always step in at the last second to bail you out, then those investors will take unreasonable risks because they’ll view the chances of outright failure as zero.
What I am concerned about is the unending rise in government spending. We have two political parties in this country: raise taxes and raise spending (Democrats) and modify taxes and raise spending (Republicans). If you’re forcing me to choose one, I’ll take the latter, since the Republicans have at least grasped some basic principles, like the benefits of freer trade and of reducing marginal tax rates, but neither party shows any willingness to match spending to revenues. I’m definitely concerned that Obama is already talking about tax hikes – one of his proposals around Social Security and the payroll tax would raise the top marginal rate in the U.S. to just over 50%, which would do a lot more damage than good – rather than talking about cutting spending.
The middle class … people have been talking about its evaporation for a century. Hasn’t happened yet.
Q: How little would you say the fans actually care about steroids? The Mitchell Report and the Rocket Clemens madness this offseason were two black eyes for baseball, but do you get the sense fans just give it a shoulder shrug, and assume everyone cheats, or do you actually think so fans are going to quit following the sport and going to the ballpark?
Serious baseball fans don’t care. The fans who are most up in arms over PED usage are bandwagon fans – they didn’t care much about baseball, but they jumped on the train to complain about it, and when it’s over, they’ll disappear again. Baseball revenues continue to increase despite all the hand-wringing in the media over it.
If you look at the names in the Mitchell Report, most of the users identified were scrubs. If a player is just short of being good enough for the majors, then the marginal benefit to him of using steroids is huge – it’s the difference between making the major-league minimum ($400K today) versus making a minor-league salary, which is $50-60K for guys with some big league experience or who’ve reached minor league free agency, and only about $15K for your typical minor leaguer with no big-league experience. And that’s without considering the financial benefits from staying in the majors for four years or more, at which point your salary goes up due to arbitration and your MLB pension kicks in. But that’s not how the story is presented in the media – the attention is all focused on the stars, the Bonds/Clemens/McGwire crowd, and as it turns out, those guys are the exceptions and not the norm. It’s not sexy to talk about how Mark Carreon was a juicer, because his use of PEDs doesn’t appear to have had any tangible effect on the game as a whole, but Carreon and Adam Piatt and their ilk seem to be the players who were really using the stuff.
And that’s without even getting into the way HGH has been presumed to be an effective PED despite a lack of any scientific evidence behind this.
So no, I don’t see fans turning away from the sport. My readers tell me they don’t care about PEDs, and they’re glad I’ve avoided the subject and stuck to real baseball topics. I’ve been fortunate that the baseball editors at ESPN.com have allowed me to stay out of that fray.
Q: Let’s say the Yankees miss the playoffs this season What would the fallout be? Chalk it up to a new coach and Hank taking over? Or would there be genuine panic?
Cashman’s doing a great job of messaging through the media that this is a new strategy of building from within, and that there might be some small bumps in the road. Messaging is a huge part of the GM’s job, and it’s why I think strong communications skills are critical for a successful GM. Look at Billy Beane – he is the king of messaging among GMs in baseball, perhaps in all of US sport. Cashman has gotten enough of the local and national media on board with his message, and I think many, many Yankee fans are on board as well. Maybe enough of them remember Steve Trout and Ed Whitson and Bob Sykes and, by extension, Doug Drabek and Willie McGee, and are happy to see the Yankees throwing their money around to acquire young talent and not blowing it in dumb trades.
Q: We want a few sleepers from you: A team that will reach the postseason that won fewer than 80 games last year, a Cy Young candidate in each league who won fewer than 10 games last year, and a budding star who nobody’s really paying attention to right now, but could be a household name come September.
Most likely team to go from < 80 wins to the postseason: Cincinnati. But I think Dusty will screw it up. He already is with this Corey Patterson fetish.
Cy Young candidates from < 10 wins: The Cy is all about win totals, so I’ll take two guys on teams that will provide plenty of run support: Yovani Gallardo (expected back by mid-April) and Philip Hughes. If you let me cheat, though, here are two 12-win guys who’ll contend for the award: Chad Billingsley and Dustin McGowan.
Budding star: Is Rickie Weeks still under the radar enough? I’m completely sold on his bat. His glove … less so, but who cares if he’s -5 or -10 at second base if he hits like he’s going to? Howie Kendrick is another candidate.
Best restaurant in Bristol. There’s a Five Guys not too far away. Can’t give you anything better than that.
Give us your five favorite cities in the US, and since you worked there, let’s make Toronto eligible. NYC, Seattle, New Orleans (although I haven’t been since Katrina), Phoenix, Toronto. It’s all about the food for me. I might add San Diego if I spend more time there.
Who is the most competitive non-ESPN baseball news writer? Ken Rosenthal is the best non-ESPN baseball writer. He’s tireless, intelligent, connected, and a good person too. I enjoy talking baseball with him when we meet at the GM or winter meetings.
Gavin Floyd – Will he win 10-15 games for the White Sox this season? No. Saw him this spring – the plus-plus curveball he had as an amateur appears to be gone. Fastball is very true, and he’s in the league’s most HR-friendly ballpark. Get a good chiropractor, Gavin.
Will the dow dip under 10,000 at any point this year? No. And I think we’ll see a rally in November no matter who wins.
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