Touching All the Bases: An Interview with NY Daily News Writer Jesse Spector

It's pretty much a stathead cliche.  The mainstream media just doesn't understand what's important in baseball.  They worship at the altar of batting average, pitching wins and productive outs.

Like most cliches, there may be a kernel of truth, but the reality is quite different.  While there are many  writers who are hostile to sabermetric concepts, there are many, from Joe Posnanski to Dejan Kovacevic to Tom Verducci, among many others, who have embraced the idea that there's something to be learned from looking at the game in a new light.

Beyond the Box Score was lucky enough to score an interview with one such writer. 

Jesse Spector has written the statistical baseball blog Touching Base for the New York Daily News since 2005.  His columns provide an easy on-ramp to sabermetric thought, blending it with the more traditional approach that readers may be more used to.

Spector virtually sat down with the Beyond the Box Score editors and discussed what it was like to write a numbers-based blog for a mainstream readership, his thoughts on the Yankees and Mets in 2009, and some other interesting experiences he's had in baseball, including attempting to buy out Jeffrey Loria.


Beyond the Box Score: You write a statistically oriented blog for a mainstream paper. How you do approach writing about non-traditional ideas or stats for that audience?
 
Jesse Spector: As much as anything else, it's a matter of trying to make the non-traditional ideas and stats more accessible for a mainstream audience. I think someone who's already interested and knows about the "advanced" stats doesn't mind the sentence or two that it takes to explain what a certain stat means, while the traditionalist can take the explanation and then make of the stat what they will. And if they're not interested, odds are that the next blog post is going to be an interview or some kind of observation, so it's not all stats, all the time -- maybe when you come back for the next statistical entry, you'll be into it.
 
In a lot of ways, I find that talking to my dad is a pretty good barometer for how I'm doing -- he's a smart guy, a lifelong baseball fan and loves a good argument. But you're not going to find him reading Baseball Prospectus. So if he calls me and jumps right into a deeper conversation of what I've written, I know I've done a good job. If he doesn't really get it, then I probably need to make sure I do a better job explaining whatever it was.


BTBS: Is there an easy/better way to try and show people the way they've been thinking about baseball is wrong that you think most sabermetric types should look into? It's not easy to tell someone "Hey you know that batting average you love so dearly, it's not the best measure of offense. On base percentage and OPS (still fairly simple metrics) are much better" Would showing them correlation graphs help or do you think things like that just further confuse them?

 
JS: I think part of the problem is right there in the question when you say "the way they've been thinking about baseball is wrong." One of the biggest obstacles for the sabermetric community, since it's taken such a hold on the Internet, is getting over that "mom's basement" stereotype. There's enough room in the world for people who like batting average and people who like on-base and OPS. Let's say you're talking about Joe Mauer -- he led the American League in batting average last year and was second in on-base. No matter how you approach it, the statistics are going to tell you the same thing: Joe Mauer's a darn good hitter.
 
There's a lack of respect going both ways, and that's what's most troubling to me. Take the old "clutch" argument. I know full well that you're dealing with issues of sample size and luck, but is there a Yankee fan alive who would rather have Alex Rodriguez up than Derek Jeter with two outs, the bases loaded and a two-run deficit in the ninth inning of a playoff game? The game is played by human beings, and the "old guard" has a point when they call out statheads for forgetting that. But that doesn't give them the right to flat-out ignore empirical evidence and call it gobbledygook.
 
How much a person gets into advanced stats is their own choice, and I think we have to respect that. I mean, John Hollinger has all these great basketball stats, but I'm not a hardcore NBA fan so I don't really care. You're not going to convince anyone with graphs -- it's a gradual process for stats to take hold. Take a look at box scores from 70 or 80 years ago, and you'll see that they had putouts and assists where we now have walks and strikeouts. Topps started putting OPS on the back of its cards a few years ago, and kids now are growing up with richer statistical understanding. The shift to a more sabermetric world will happen, and really is happening... we all just have to accept that people are going to take in the depth and breadth of stats that they choose.

Now, that's talking about fans. If you're in the media or running a team, and willfully ignoring the most advanced statistics possible, then we have issues. But again, take a guy like Dusty Baker, who gets ripped a lot for things like batting Corey Patterson leadoff. He's been in baseball a long time and has earned respect -- not to mention a winning record in his career as a manager -- because of his success with the human side of the equation. Remember, they loved him in Chicago when they were one win away from the World Series -- and they'll love him in Cincinnati if Aaron Harang has a bounce-back year and the Reds are contenders. And if they're not, he'll eventually get fired.
 
Sorry, I think I've taken a bit of a tangent -- the straight answer to your question is: no, there is no easy or better way to tell people that they're wrong. In a battle for people's hearts and minds, you have to make your arguments both convincing and inviting.

BTBS: Have you ever received any push back from your editors when trying to use advanced analysis or statistics?
 
JS: Not at all. I'm really thankful for the space I'm given to do what I want to do.

BTBS: Obviously many mainstream writers have been resistant to sabermetric concepts. Does it bother you to see the arguments used during award voting? Do you see the general attitude towards advanced analysis changing? Which publications do you think might lead the charge?
 
JS: Awards voting is more than just an argument of mainstrem and sabermetric (which I don't think are diametric opposites, but more on that in a minute). Take last year in the National League -- the Dodgers don't win the NL West without Manny Ramirez, and the Brewers don't make the playoffs without CC Sabathia. I don't think you'll find a lot of people who disagree with those sentiments. But I couldn't really quibble with Albert Pujols being named the MVP on a sort of "best player" argument, because while maybe he wasn't valuable to a playoff team, you've got to acknowledge that the best hitter in baseball is a valuable player.
 
So it comes down to what you see "valuable" as meaning in an MVP race, and while I often disagree with the results, it doesn't necessarily bother me. Awards voting is, by its nature, a subjective exercise, and I think most people understand that. If you wanted to give out an award to the guy who leads the league in Win Shares, you could do that -- the NHL gives out the Art Ross, Rocket Richard and William Jennings Trophies for leading the league in various statistics.
 
But, of course, the awards voting remains very much in the hands of BBWAA members, the people who cover the teams on a daily basis. There's something somewhat flawed about that in the era of the unbalanced schedule, and maybe some national writers should be included in the process. But it's up to them to make those decisions, and I think that the BBWAA has shown signs of moving in a positive direction lately -- someone like Will Carroll becoming a member is a pretty big deal. Obviously, BP is pretty big in making advanced analysis a little more widely accepted, but you also can't discount the influence of someone like Rob Neyer, who's been at ESPN for as long as I can remember and has been the gateway for so many of us to really get into thinking more seriously about the numbers.

BTBS: You worked with Alan Schwarz on his book The Numbers Game. Did you have a statistical background before then? Where would that experience rank in terms of your personal "bests" list? What did you learn from the experience?
 
JS: It's strange to think about my "statistical background," per se, since I've been interested in the numbers for as long as I can remember. I mean, back in 1996, when I was in high school, I saved all the issues of Baseball Weekly one year and went through the Yankees' box scores to see where in the lineup Joe Girardi had his best numbers, and to figure out which hitter he was best hitting in front of. I also worked a couple of summers at Small World Sports, where I helped devise the scoring systems for some of their fantasy games and helped set the opening salaries for the players.
 
I had an absolute blast working for Alan, and he's always been a great guy for me to turn to when I have questions about the business. Most of what I did for him on the book was transcribing interviews and doing microfilm research at the library. The interviews were all really interesting to hear, as he'd talk to John Dewan about the history of STATS and stuff like that, and I always get a kick out of looking back at old publications, seeing how sports used to be presented in newspapers and magazines.
 
A lot of what I learned was really the kind of stuff you'd get out of reading the book -- the history of statistics and how they've been used in baseball. I don't know where it would rank on a personal "bests" list, as you put it, because I really haven't thought of it that way -- it was extra work at a time that I needed it (I wasn't full-time at the Daily News yet) and really good to work for Alan, but I didn't even really think of it as work.

BTBS:
While in college, you led an effort to put together a group to buy the Expos and keep them in Montreal. How did you come up with the idea? Why is the team in Washington now, and not in Montreal with you as the owner?
 
JS: The night that MLB announced its plans for contraction, I was in the offices of the Daily Pennsylvanian -- my college newspaper -- with Sub Stockman and Jon Shazar. We thought it was a terrible idea and ridiculous that they couldn't find a buyer for the Expos, and pretty much started joking, "Hey, I'll put in $10 to buy the Expos." By the end of the night, we had a bunch of people at the paper pledging money, and I started asking everyone who came to Smokey Joe's, the campus bar where I worked the door on Thursday nights, if they wanted to chip in with a pledge, too. Then the Internet got involved. I sent an e-mail to the members of my fantasy baseball league, a league of DP Sports folks, and among them was Alan Schwarz. He wrote a story about our little office gag for ESPN, and away we went. We were in a bunch of newspapers, Canadian TV, radio everywhere... and then finally, Baseball Tonight when we took a road trip to Montreal in April.
 
The reason that the team is in Washington now is the usual -- money. We didn't actually have any, or collect any -- otherwise we'd be in federal prison for securities fraud. But it would be nice to see baseball come back to Montreal someday -- I've talked to a lot of former Expos who feel the same way. The city got a bad rap because the fans didn't come out, but they'd been repeatedly stabbed in the back by MLB. They were really devoted to the end up there, and I believe that the city would support a fresh team with committed ownership.

BTBS: It's clearly a big year in New York, with two new stadiums and a lot of offseason spending for both teams. What are your predictions for the Yankees and the Mets?
 
JS: I have the Yankees winning the AL East, but losing to the Red Sox in the ALCS. I figure that Boston will get better as the season goes on, and has more flexibility to make a splash at the trade deadline, and a healthy John Smoltz could be a difference-maker in October. The Mets, I think, have deceived themselves by believing that guys like Carlos Delgado, Daniel Murphy and Fernando Tatis will be able to replicate what they did in 2008 -- they needed a lineup upgrade, and Gary Sheffield is not the answer. I'm also not sold on the Mets' rotation beyond Johan Santana, even if they did upgrade the bullpen -- part of the reason the bullpen struggled the last two years is that the starters didn't give them enough innings. I don't see that changing. I've got the Phillies winning the East again, with the Marlins second.
 
And for anyone who disagrees, well, you can point to the fact that I had the Mariners winning the World Series last year. But I did have the Phillies winning the National League pennant.

BTBS: Since I know you're a long-time Mets fan, have you been to Citi Field yet? How does it compare to Shea?
 
JS: I grew up rooting for both New York teams, actually. That was OK in my house, and wasn't really a problem until interleague play started. I think I rip both New York teams enough on my blog that it might be hard to tell where my loyalties lie -- and quite honestly, as the years have gone by, I've started to root more for individual players than for teams. A bit of that is the forced impartiality of being a journalist, and a bit of it is recognizing that teams have so little continuity that it doesn't matter so much. A lot of the time, now, if someone asks my favorite team, I'll say the Expos -- hey, they never let me down... haven't lost a game in four and a half years.
 
And you can call all of that a stall tactic. I haven't been to Citi Field yet, but I'll be there plenty this year. The new Yankee Stadium, too, both as a journalist and a fan.
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