Keith Law is a senior baseball writer at The Athletic. After becoming a huge part of ESPN's baseball coverage over the last decade, he joined The Athletic in January of this year. His scouting pieces, draft coverage and Top 100 Prospects list are all must-reads for baseball fans.
This week I caught up with Keith to discuss his move and how his job has changed under quarantine. We also chatted about his new book The Inside Game, which explores cognitive biases through the lens of baseball.
What was it about The Athletic that made it an attractive destination at this point in your career?
The chance to do some different things, some different kinds of writing. To expand beyond being maybe just a prospect guy. I like what I do, I don't want to give that up, I don't want to stop scouting players certainly, and I enjoy all the prospect stuff. But also I have interest in larger issues.
I think I have the ability to write longer pieces and have enough of a business, economics background -- not a ton, but I have this MBA and did work for a consulting firm for a little bit. I think I have the ability to understand issues like labor issues and this minor league contraction issue and that I can speak intelligently to them. One of the things I think I can do well as a writer is take something that's not super simple and make it accessible to more people. I want to do that. It's just something I think I can do and we've got a big CBA negotiation coming up. I want to do that, I want that to be a core part of my job.
How has the coronavirus shutdown impacted your job and the way you work?
In the short-term it's definitely hurt because I just want to be out and seeing players. That's what I do. I took three scouting trips this spring -- all draft-related, I never got to spring training. I miss it and of course that's what I want to be writing about. That's absolutely a thing I want to be writing about. I'm fortunate that I still have stuff to do, but a big part of my job is just on hold until we get games somewhere. Even if it's just big-league games, I could talk about those, I could scout those and I could write those. I just usually don't because you don't need me to tell you that Mike Trout is good and Albert Pujols isn't.
I know this is a "best guess" situation, but do you think we'll have baseball this year?
I am cautiously optimistic that we will see games without fans in the second half of the year at some point. Recognizing that there is a pretty significant chance, a non-zero chance, that we just don't get any games. I think there's no chance we see fans before September 1. The more I understand about this, the less chance I think there is that we see fans.
It's going to be enough of a logistical challenge to get players, coaches, staff, and stadium ops people together in ballparks safely before we even consider putting fans in the stadium.
How will the shutdown impact how teams handle the 2020 MLB Draft? Does it impact how they will approach it?
I think it does. I think it's really hard. The biggest shift I would have if I were running a scouting department would be, 'let's go with the players on whom we have more data' particularly up top. That's going to be college players. Now, this was already a really strong college draft, so combine those two things. Assuming we have a regular-looking draft in June or July, it would not surprise me at all if 20 of (the first) 27 picks were college players, because teams are just going to say, 'these are the guys we know.'
There are a few high school guys who were scouted pretty heavily last summer and the fall, and a few of them will go in the first round, but far fewer than would, I think, in a typical year. Because, again, you're going to flee to the safety of the players you know and on whom you have more information. That's always going to be the college guys.
So the lack of spring games favored college players more than prep players?
I think that's accurate. I think it's definitely going to favor college guys. Also, college guys played more, all the colleges had started before the shutdown. Many high schools had not. Prep pitcher Nick Bitsko never got on a mound. He worked out, he threw a bullpen in front of some scouts and that was it. He never played a game. Mick Abel in Portland, Oregon, same thing. Two high school kids who were clearly first-round talents -- I mean, they are still first-round talents -- but they never got scouted this spring. If they can't throw for anybody, that's going to make it hard for teams to pay them what those kids were likely going to get and may still be expecting.
Tampa Bay Rays infielder Wander Franco is your No. 1 prospect this year -- so does virtually everyone else. What stands out about him that makes him special?
Let's boil it down to just three things so I'm not going on forever. One, he's a middle infielder, whether you think he's a shortstop or a second baseman, he's a middle infielder and whatever position he ends up at he's going to be good there. If he's not a very good shortstop, he's going to end up an excellent second baseman. Two is that he's got crazy bat speed that's going to produce hard, hard contact. Third is the guy never strikes out. Usually if I tell you he's got huge bat speed and great power, you think well he's going to strike out. Even Mike Trout strikes out almost 20 percent of the time. Wander Franco had, I think, the second lowest strikeout rate in the minors last year, despite being 18 in two levels of full-season ball. The only guys who stuck out less often was Nick Madrigal who has less than half of Franco's power.
Franco is just such an outlier. To me, your No. 1 prospect in a typical year should be the biggest positive outlier. He should just break the scale in multiple ways. That guy doesn't always exist, but Franco does do that.
Is there a guy maybe not in your top five or top 10 who is just fun to watch?
There's a lot of guys like that. (Padres prospect) Luis Patino is a kid who pitches just with a ton of energy and enthusiasm. In the Futures Game last year -- I forgot who it was he struck out but obviously he was a good prospect -- he was walking off the mound before the umpire even made his call, because he just knew. He threw 99 I think it was, he's hit 100. It's easy. He's got a really good changeup, he's got a chance for a plus breaking ball.
He's a young pitcher, I know a lot of them break, there are no guarantees and he's not super large, but I just love the way he goes about it. Anybody who goes out there with that kind of fire or energy, the Marcus Stroman and the Jose Fernandez, give me those guys all day long. I just want to watch them play. Give me a guy who just loves to play and, by the way, who also has incredible ability.
You have a new podcast, how have you tried to differentiate it, since everyone seems to have a one these days?
I wanted to incorporate some other interests. Not just baseball but literature, movies, board games, food and whatever else catches my eye at any given moment. As long as it doesn't require a ton of physical effort I'm probably interested in it. The idea was potentially crossing a lot of platforms, a lot of boundaries and bringing in people who have some of these multiple interests. Then the world ended and I had to change tactics a little bit and twice have had older scout friends of mine come on and talk about players they scouted a few decades ago who've since become stars.
I had Doug Mapson who scouted and signed Greg Maddux out of high school on. And Eddie Bane was my most recent guest, he was the scouting director who picked Mike Trout. But when I called Eddie and said, 'hey would you come on my show'" He said, 'I'd love to tell you about Bill Bene' who was the fifth overall pick in 1988 and a complete disaster in pro ball. He said he was one of the best pitching prospects he'd ever seen. I'll never get enough of those stories and baseball has hundreds of them.
So, sort of in the absence of baseball, I've shifted towards being a little more of a baseball show. When we get back to something like normal life, I would like this to be a bit more of an expansive show. And also one where you get a little more of my voice, I've taken a little more of a step back and just tried to be the good questioner, because we all need a little baseball right now.
Your second book, The Inside Game, is coming out next week, how did the idea for this book come about?
It took a while after after my first book (Smart Baseball) came out. Harper Collins was interested in doing another book but I wasn't interested in doing another straight baseball book. Baseball is the day job, I love baseball but it is work, baseball is work. I associate baseball with work. I review board games, I write quite a bit about board games, board games do not put food on the table. It is not an obligation in the same way. So I view these things very differently. Baseball is no longer a hobby. So if I was going to do another book, it had to be something that wasn't just baseball.
This idea came from the fact that a lot of people within baseball front offices were reading some of these books about cognitive biases. And I had this idea about two years ago to use baseball to explain cognitive biases to everybody. So I'm relying on the thing that people know me for, baseball, and then using it to talk about something that's very much not baseball. I got an invitation to speak in front of a corporate group in July about the stuff in this book. This is not a baseball-related thing. Now, of course, I'll use baseball stories but I'm talking to a group of people who would never have invited me to talk about Smart Baseball because it wasn't as relevant to everyone's daily lives. But I wanted to write something that would just reach more people.
Again, I think this is a thing I do pretty well. Explain concepts that might not be obvious or immediately accessible to the lay reader and kind of explain them in a way that most people can get it. My hope for The Inside Game is that if you read this book and you didn't know about these cognitive biases and illusions, you will put the book down and say, "I understand those now and maybe I'll spot them in my own life." That would be great. Hopefully they're entertained also.
Finally, you're obviously a big board game guy, what's the best board game for a family that's in quarantine and needs some help?
We all need that right now. I'll throw a couple at you. If you've got a bunch of people in the family, my favorite board game of all-time is called 7 Wonders. You need at least three players, it actually plays better with more and plays up to seven. It moves really fast. The rule book is not especially well-written, however once you get the hang of it, you play a whole game in half an hour because everyone does their moves at the same time.
I have to recommend the game called Pandemic, of course. It's a really great game. Pandemic the board game is a cooperative game, two-to-four people play together to try to clear the world of four different diseases that are spreading at the same time. Matt Leacock who designed it actually wrote a piece for the New York Times saying, "hey I designed this game. By the way if we're going to defeat COVID-19, we're also all going to have to work together." It was a really great piece.
The last one I'll recommend is Jaipur. It's a two-player game, if you just home with one other person it's great. It's the best two player game that I've ever played. It's also fast and very easy to pick up.