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Bringing Objective Analysis to TV: An Interview with MLB Network's Brian Kenny

While I wouldn't call advanced statistics in baseball mainstream just yet, we have certainly seen a marked increase in their usage among baseball fans, the press, as well as in broadcast media. Many were surprised earlier this year when some broadcasts mentioned wins above replacement (WAR) during their in-game coverage, and when WAR and BABIP made their way into Baseball Tonight's broadcasts.

Some were skeptical as to whether the general public was ready for more advanced statistics, whether they were being introduced in the most effective way, and whether shows claiming to focus on "the numbers" were simply capitalizing on the increased awareness without really digging into meaningful statistics.

Which brings us to a new show, Clubhouse Confidential, set to debut tonight on MLB Network. The show will be hosted by former ESPN anchor Brian Kenny. The show bills itself as an open forum to discuss and debate the day's news and moves using modern statistical research and value projection. While not explicitly "saber", the show puts advanced statistics and analysis front and center.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Brian for a short interview where we talked about his move to MLB Network, how coverage of baseball has evolved to incorporate advanced statistics over the years, and how he and his colleagues plan to advance that evolution on his new show.

Bill Petti (BP): So I have to get the perfunctory question out of the way. You obviously had a very long and successful run at ESPN. Can you talk about what led to your decision to leave and move over to MLB Network?

Brian Kenny (BK): Oh, there's so much that goes into it. Baseball is my first love, and I loved what they were doing here on the network. It was a very tough choice for me and my family.We’d enjoyed our time at ESPN, but it just felt like we had so many reasons to come to MLB Network. The management was terrific, they’ve been paying close attention to my attention to detail and baseball which I appreciated. Just a perfect fit.

BP: Given that your new show, Clubhouse Confidential, has been very explicit in its inclusion of advanced analytics, can you talk about how the coverage of baseball and the use of analytics in that coverage evolved while you were at ESPN and how that compares to this show where the use is much more explicit?

BK: Well, it is something that is the first of its kind. There has not been a show on television based on just what should be real baseball analysis. It’s kind of been put on the back porch, and now this will be front and center. I think there are two ways to analyze baseball: one way is as a craft and the other way is as a science. And I think they both blend together. The baseball industry has recognized this, knowing that you still need to do your proper scouting but you also need to analyze with all the latest tools available. Every single major league club does this.

And by the way, so does Larry Bowa, so does Dan Plesac, who also look at things analytically. It’s just that there are different labels on things. And so now, I love this show in that it’s up front and we’re saying this is what we do. We’re using logic--whether you call it analytics, sabermetrics--it’s just a logical way to look at baseball.

BP: I think that’s a good point. I know a lot of folks in the advanced analytics community have always felt, you can call it what you want, you can use whatever metrics you want, but it’s all about trying to apply a bit more rigor, more logic, and try to be as objective as you can when analyzing a player and their value. What’s interesting is that over the past few years you’ve seen some advanced metrics make their way into mainstream broadcasts like Baseball Tonight, and one of the concerns was is the general audience ready for that. So a big question for this show is how do you plan to introduce the audience to these different metrics, different ways of evaluating talent if the majority of the audience may not be as familiar with them yet?

BK: I just approach each subject in a logical progression of thought. And there isn’t one magic number out there. There’s just a way of looking at things logically. I try to explain to people, look, if you read Bill James and you’ve read him through the decades he’s not there just doing math formulas, he’s asking the right questions. And then you get one answer you dig a little deeper. Once you get that answer, dig even deeper. And then you keep digging. And that’s what we do. Not everything we do on this show is sabermetrics, it’s just baseball. But it’s baseball using, as you’ve said, rigorous analysis. Not coming in with a conclusion, but reaching a conclusion--as far as you can reach one--given the evidence you have.

BP: I think that’s the right perspective to have and it’s refreshing to hear.

BK: I’m here for you Bill! Believe me, I’m here for you! Look, I have two sons who are at Berkeley right now. One of them is studying econ. And I talk to them all the time about this show and how I’m finally getting to do the show that I’ve always wanted to on baseball they keeping saying, oh my god, you’re going to have a big audience. Especially among college-aged guys who have grown up on the Internet studying baseball. And I think a lot of people, like you, are out there and have been waiting for a show like this--not a show on math, but a show on baseball using everything that’s out there.

The industry is already there. Teams are there. The young fans are there. The mainstream media has been slow to get there. Well, we’re here now.

BP: So who are you planning on having on the show, both from within baseball, and from the greater community at large?

BK: Well, whoever makes sense. But we will have folks from the analytics community. For example, Rob Neyer will be on the show. I’ve worked with Rob for 10 years. I wish I could have gotten him on Baseball Tonight 10 years ago. Peter Gammons, of course. Peter is very evolved in his thinking and joined the revolution years ago. And all of our analysts. Larry Bowa for example. I love listening to Larry. He’s very analytical and has a brilliant baseball mind. Someone else that we have booked is Buck Showwalter, someone I worked with on Baseball Tonight who's of course the Orioles manager. Buck is a brilliant baseball mind. So I’m going to try to get the smartest baseball people I can on the show and that includes a lot of the guys we have here on staff.

You know I’ve learned a lot here talking baseball with Mitch Williams and Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac. A lot of the time we’re talking about the same things but we’re going about it in different ways. So we’re going to have guys on that may agree with what I’m saying, other times they won’t, but it’s not going to be just an us versus them scenario. And I’m not looking to pit Geeks versus Jocks, that’s not what we’re doing. It's overdone and not accurate, anyway.

Oh, and for the first show we already have Brian Cashman, GM of the Yankees. We’re going to have regular guests and our guests will be primarily GM’s and folks like that.

BP: You’ve already mentioned Bill James. Besides James, who are some other writers or sites that you read regularly when it comes to baseball analysis.

BK: You know I read as much as I can, and I am still catching up on a lot. I’ve always read Rob Neyer. I’ve always read Joe Sheehan, formerly Baseball Prospectus and now at Sports Illustrated. And Joe’s already been involved with shows here at MLB Network. I’ve brought him in as what I call a performance evaluator a few times. And Peter Gammons of course, Tom Verducci, Buster Olney, Jason Stark, Tim Kurkjian. I’m always seeking out the best and most interesting writers.

BP: What about some of the more saber-slanted sites?

BK: Oh, every day. Baseball Prospectus is where I first read Joe Sheehan and Jonah Keri. FanGraphs is something that I’m on all the time. I like that the Internet is a meritocracy. It doesn't matter what company you work for, if you’re good I’m going to go back to that person and read their stuff. I should also throw in Hardball Times. Bruce Markuson. He doesn't do a lot of sabermetrics, but he just writes about the history of the game. I love the baseball Hall of Fame and he writes from Cooperstown, he’s a historian for the Hall of Fame. I just look for good stories and people who love baseball.

BP: In your opinion right now, who are the best at objectively evaluating talent?

BK: You know, obviously Andrew Freedman and the Rays have done amazing things, maximizing what they have there. So if I were to pick the one best team right now it would have to be them. And yet, I think in a lot of ways Cashman is undervalued as a GM. He’s got the most money, but he makes very small, shrewed moves all the time.

BP: Are there advances in player evaluation or tools for evaluation that your excited about, for example PitchF/X?

BK: I will use anything that makes sense. PitchF/X is a very big part of that. It’s a very big part of the scouting, knowing the patterns of pitchers, knowing what batters can and can’t hit. But my main thing is it’s not about specific tools or formulas out there. It’s about asking the right questions.

I’ll give you an example. C.J. Wilson is the first guy we’re putting in what we call the Shredder, meaning we put a player in and break him down to his essential components. And it’s simple. Ok, Wilson has a 2.94 ERA, but he pitches in a hitter’s park. So what’s his road ERA? Do you know where he ranks in the American League?

BP: I believe he’s in the top three.

BK: Yeah, he’s number one. He’s number two overall to Roy Halladay in all of baseball. So that’s interesting, but the next thing is though what’s his strength of schedule, for lack of a better term. Well, he pitches in the AL West and his ERA against non-AL West opponents is very high. So there’s two contradicting points just asking the right questions. So it tells you he is a better pitcher than he appears to be in Texas, but he’s facing a weak division. The important thing is you just have to keep asking question after question. Bill James was exhaustive when it came to asking all the possible questions.

BP: Well, Brian, this has been great and I am excited about the show. I know for me, and a lot of folks like me, we’ve been waiting for a balanced show that looks at the scouting, looks at the data, looks at the opinions of people that played at the highest level and the nuances of the game, and throws that all in a blender. Now, it airs at 7:30pm EST daily?

BK: It airs at 5:30pm EST, and then re-airs at 7:30pm.

BP: Excellent. Well, thanks for your time, Brian, and best of luck with the show.

BK: Thank you, Bill.

As with anything whose concept sounds great, it's all about the execution. But after speaking with Brian I have very high hopes. If the execution meets the concept this could be the show that many in the baseball analyst/writer community, including me, have long been waiting for.