Many of you know Jonah Keri form his time at Baseball Prospectus, or his time at ESPN.com, or .... well, everywhere else. He's everywhere nowadays and even has a book coming out next year covering the Tampa Bay Rays rise to prominence. He was also kind enough to answer a few questions from our staff.
The most obvious question; how is the book coming along?
Book's going well. I've done a huge number of interviews (looking like it might be up to 150 by the time I'm done) and all kinds of interesting and unusual research. My favorite parts of the book reporting have been things I hadn't expected: Learning amazing stories about how the Rays first came into existence for one thing. Even better are the conversations I've had with various players that had nothing to do with baseball. I have no idea how much of it will make it into the book and how much will hit the cutting room floor. Might have to publish a director's cut at some point.
You remarked that this is the first time you've actually cheered for a team since the Expos were relocated. Do you find yourself making comparisons between the two squads (e.g. B.J. Upton/Carl Crawfordstaring as Devon White [Ed note: I meant Rondell,typed Devon, this is why you don't send late night emails everyone)?
Should I be polite as a Canadian and gently point out that Devon White played for the Blue Jays, or should I be a jerk and get insulted that you mixed up Devon White with Marquis Grissom (or Mitch Webster, or whoever you mistook for Devo). Anyway, to answer your question, I never compare the Rays to any Expos teams. I do root for the Rays in the moment, but it's not visceral the way it was with the Expos. Then, it was the team I grew up with. Now, it's getting to know the people who play for the team and run it, and finding a mutual rooting interest. It's night and day, in a way.
Earlier this season, you opined that Jarrod Washburn had the potential to be this year's Cliff Lee. That prediction looks solid thus far thanks to, as you noted, the Mariners improved outfield defense. I think we're at the point now where it's safe to say that defense is the new on-base percentage, which leads me to ask you; what's the next defense?
I felt good about Washburn, though comparing him to Lee was done for effect, to a certain extent. I expected him to post better numbers, but not to win the Cy Young or anything. As for the next defense, to me it has to be mastering the injury problem. Saito's procedure that allowed his arm to rejuvenate itself, that's the kind of breakthrough that could point a team forward. It's an open question as to whether one team would have this kind of breakthrough, and not every team. Medical breakthroughs tend to get shared, in a different way than, say, a team making great strides with Hit or Pitch F/X. When Dr. Frank Jobe figured out Tommy John surgery, it's not like the Dodgers held a patent on it.
The Wall Street Journal has Dave Cameron, Tim Marchman, and yourself amongst its baseball content. That seems like a ridiculous set of intelligence. How progressively minded are the sports editors at the WSJ compared to those of which you've dealt at ESPN and elsewhere?
To be fair, I've mostly been covering basketball for WSJ, leaving most of the baseball writing to Cameron and Marchman, as well as Carl Bialik, Darren Everson and some other smart folks. The sports editor there is Sam Walker, and he's great. Sam's the author of "Fantasyland", a great book that took a unique look at fantasy baseball and how people play it. He runs WSJ's sports section the same way, looking for idea-based stories that ultimately all come back to the same basic tenet: How does Process X lead to wins and losses? Working with Sam is Geoff Foster, another great editor who ran the late, great New York Sun sports section, which featured the likes of Marchman, Aaron Schatz, Steven Goldman, various other Baseball Prospectus staffers, and other great writers.
Russell Branyan has done you proud, which player would you call a fantasy sleeper for the second half of the season?
Predictions are a funny thing: What do I get for calling Russell Branyan my must-have fantasy sleeper of 2009? About what I'd get for picking Mets-Indians for the 2008 World Series. For the second half, I'll take Alexei Ramirez. Just looking at how bad he was in the final couple months of the season, to what I expect his numbers to be at year's end, he's a solid choice. Traditional fantasy baseball is not like real-life baseball, or even sim--OBP is not a matter of life and death (it barely matters at all).
What do you consider most fascinating development in baseball analysis since you left Baseball Prospectus?
Everything that's been done with Pitch F/X and Hit F/X. Teams are doing some remarkable things with all this pitch and batted ball data, and there's still more than enough out there in the public sphere for the rest of us to chew on too. I'm in awe of the work being done by the great, up-and-coming analysts working for places like BP, THT, BTB, Fangraphs etc. I never fancied myself an analyst, just a journalism school grad who read Bill James growing up. So the work that's out just blows me away.
When people saw your book announced, a lot of people assumed, with your background in business and advanced baseball analysis, that this would be a Moneyball spinoff so to speak. Are you going to attempt and craft this towards the baseball and business fans, or is this going to favor general baseball fans?
I don't want to get into too many details about the nuts and bolts of the book. But yes, as a general rule, there will be baseball elements to the book, there will be business elements to the book, and there will be business of baseball elements to the book.
I believe the home opener this year was the first time you've made a trip to the Trop. Do you have any impressions from the few games you attended? It really is better than the reputation garnered over the years, isn't it?
This year's home opener was the second time I'd been to the Trop. The first time was 2003. Walked up to the ticket booth five minutes before game time. Me: "Three tickets, what's your best available?" Vendor: "15 rows up behind home plate. 20 bucks." Me: "Sold!" I liked the Trop then, and I like it now. I'm not one of those stadium fascists who believes that all ballparks have to look the same. I love variety. I grew up going to games in the Big O. I've never considered baseball with a roof on it to be weird or unholy. It's just a different spin on a great game.
You did a recent post on Jorge Posada potentially being qualified for the hall of fame. This go me to thinking about contemporary players who should be in the conversation. The best I could come up with is Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds. Outside of Tim Raines, who else would you add to such a list?
Recently retired players who should be considered for the Hall? Well Clemens, Bonds, Piazza, Maddux, those would be automatics for me. Bernie Williams would have an interesting case, but his noodle arm hurts him a lot. Kenny Lofton will never make it, but he had a pretty damn good career. Mike Mussina I'd like to see get some support. Ultimately I'd just like to see more in-depth discussion about players, rather than this weird Hall of Fame perception that you're either Babe Ruth, or you're second-class. People like Tim Raines and Ron Santo and Bert Blyleven should be in already. But guys like Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich and Alan Trammel and others should've least warranted some serious, thoughtful discussion, even if the final answer was No.
Not going to ask for World Series predictions or anything like that, but instead: which team will have the best second half win percentage?
I don't really put much stock in teams that supposedly play better in the first half or second half. At the start of the season I felt the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays were the three best teams in baseball. So I expect them to all play well in the second half.
And finally, in 500 words or less, why should people keep a look out for your book?
Too early to look out for my book. Go play outside, it's 75 degrees out (or 147 degrees, if you live in Florida). Check back in early 2010.
Huge thanks to Jonah again. Remember to check out the latest updates on his book on his personal site.