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Interview With Dirk Hayhurst: Sabermetrics in Broadcasting

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When Dirk Hayhurst retired from professional baseball early in 2012, he thought he was done with the game he had spent his whole life playing. He had planned to pursue further education while working on his third book, a follow-up to his two hit books, The Bullpen Gospels and Out Of My League. Instead, in the mould of The Godfather III, just when he thought he was out, the baseball world pulled him back in.

Hayhurst is now a baseball analyst for Rogers Sportsnet 590 Radio in Toronto, co-hosting Baseball Central at Noon every weekday during the season. I spoke with Hayhurst at length about his transition into broadcasting, the challenges associated with his new career, and the introduction of sabermetric analysis into baseball telecasts.

Blake Murphy: As a Jays fan I was privy to your work with Sportsnet over the summer. I appreciated you occasionally mixing in some of the more advanced stats that may not be familiar to everyday fans. Was this something that was requested of you or something you wanted to incorporate on your own?

Dirk Hayhurst: When I started with Sportsnet for Baseball Central at Noon, Sam (Cosentino, his co-host) and I had never met each other before. So we’re going to work together on this show and I had never done broadcasting and he had never worked with me. So we were trying to get each other felt out, and he said, "I think it’d be great if we did advanced sabermetrics because that’s stuff’s getting big!" and I was like, "sure." But I didn’t want it to be like Dungeons and Dragons conversation.

So I was intimidated. I’m not great with stats. Actually, most of the players I know don’t do any of their research themselves; it’s all brought to them by somebody who is hired to do this. So we’d get color sheets, just these squares with colors, and you want to go at the blue ones and stay away from the red ones, and that’s about it.

I didn’t want it to be like Dungeons and Dragons conversation.

So I’m thinking we’ll have somebody at the radio station who does this, surely. It’s a ubiquitous part of the game, Moneyball and all. Everybody has to understand this by now, we just need somebody to make it stupid for us. But I found out no, it’s not like that in the outside world, you’ve gotta do all this yourself. I thought, "oh this will be easy, I’ll just hop online and figure out advanced sabermetrics," thanks to Fangraphs or Baseball Reference, and they don’t explain it to you either. They’ll explain some things, but not others. And then some stats, WARP and VORP and such, are different for each site, the math that’s used for each individual site.

I actually contacted Baseball Prospectus and said, "you’ve gotta explain this to me, because I’m going to be using your site a lot." So I got a front row seat at a lecture from the Baseball prospectus people and they broke it all down for me.

BM: I’d assume that was quite a learning experience.

DH: I learned a couple things about stats, the stat world, fans, and the game of baseball. And the first thing is that you don’t have to understand stats at all to enjoy the game of baseball. It’s baseball first and stats second. You can still appreciate the game without knowing stats, but if you know stats it helps you understand the context that the game is set in.

But then the advanced stats, I feel like those are fantastic for people whom really enjoy the micromanagement process of the game. I enjoy that, I’m a big RPG player, I love that stuff. So the more I know, the more that factors in for me.

What does he dislike about advanced stats?

But what I abhor, and this is why I think a lot of people hate stats, is that people fight to the death over obscure numbers. I hate it when I’ll be talking about a guy as a player, and I’ll say like "this guy has a great personality, he’s good for the clubhouse, and I think every team has a player on the team who is great at diffusing tension," or something like that, and you can’t quantify that. And people who want the quantifiable numbers will get pissed at that statement and say, "well you can’t spend that kind of money just because he’s a clubhouse clown." But then you’re neglecting the personal element that is involved in the game.

So I really enjoy adding the stats in there, but they have to mesh with the reality of working with teams that are built from human people. The stats have to have context to make them really valuable, but they have to take a secondary place.

But there's the human element...

In the last couple of years, the pressure among athletes and psychological disorders has lit up. There’s no stat for that, how do you track that one? So when you say a guy fails and you look at it purely objectively from a numerical standpoint, he’s a huge bust and you’re massively disappointed because you boiled him down to the numbers.

As a player who went through a lot of psychological issues myself in my career, the reason I wanted those stats was so that I can control people’s perception of them better. And I can help people understand the game better but also understand the person better. And I don’t think you can talk ill of one or the other, I think they both have a place, but they have to mesh. And I try to help them mesh.

BM: I know some stations are making an effort to use stats, Sportsnet has started to use Game Score, for example. Do you feel there’s a greater need for that now?

DH: I think there are better stats now. For example, I feel that WHIP and FIP are better evaluations of a pitcher than ERA, and I feel they should be used more. And people say, "yeah but people aren’t gonna understand FIP." But you just tell people what it is consistently and they’ll figure it out. I think if you give the right context and you give a clear explanation, once you get it, all it takes is an explanation to people. Sam is weary of it becoming a classroom, but I think that’s really what we should be doing.

I feel like if, at the end of the day, if I haven’t at least taught the person listening something about the player or the stats, I’ve wasted their time, I’m just filling up an hour running my mouth.

Because the Jays are a Rogers product and Rogers owns most of the venues in which they’re communicated about, Rogers has a unique opportunity to change the way baseball is communicated about that a lot of other venues do not have. Because they’re the main venue through which it is distributed, you can change the information and the context of the information around the game to educate the fan more. In Canada, there’s only one team and one network, really. If you lose the fan in an American broadcast, they can always go somewhere else, so I think Rogers has been smart (to take advantage).

I feel like if, at the end of the day, if I haven’t at least taught the person listening something about the player or the stats, I’ve wasted their time, I’m just filling up an hour running my mouth.

If you’re a television analyst you only have a minute to three minute window to talk about what you saw on the field, give a personal insight that’s relatable, and kick it back to the game. As a radio show guy you’ve got more time, and that’s what’s important. It’s the amount of time you have to break down the stats.

BM: Plus with the Jays, you have a GM in Alex Anthopoulos who talks publicly about advanced stats.

DH: All GMs lean heavily on advanced stats. But he conveys advanced stats, and he’ll mention them when talking to the fanbase. He’s talking about it, so he’s offering a new environment wherein people have to understand definitions they may not have known about baseball before.

Can advanced stats change opinions?

The more stats you have out there, the more you start to see the hidden value and talent of some of the guys, where you’d be like "oh his batting average sucks, he’s terrible," but then you realize, "oh wow, he’s one of the league leaders in defensive Wins Above Replacement."

When people start understanding how that works, they might reject it but they were probably rejecting it anyway if they’re just boiling somebody down to just this or just that. If you give them more numbers to attain value from or plot and scheme through, instead of losing them you might just get their interest. And I’ve seen that happen, and people are coming out more satisfied because they get it.

BM: We’ve talked a bit about the importance of simplicity with these stats. Is it even a matter of the simplicity of the names of the stats, do you think, making them easier to accept?

DH: I’ve seen some acronyms that are called things that they’re not even abbreviated into being. Like FIP is a good example, Fielding Independent Pitching, could be Pitching Independent of Fielding, or Pitching Minus Fielding, PMF doesn’t sound as cool as FIP. And Wins Above Replacement, you know, that’s not a true telling. What the hell is a replacement? Wins Above the Next Best AAA Talent Base? You can’t say that, WATNBATB, nobody would say that!

There’s a market for fan retention, you want people to know more about the game but you also realize, and no offense to the people who run blogs on stats, if you spend too much time in the realm of entertainment, it’s wasted time you could be spending in other venues of real life. There’s a time and place for busting all this stuff down, and that time and place is people who stand to profit off doing such a job. For the rest of the world, they have to go off and do other things, and baseball is still meant to be an enjoyment or distraction for them. So the people who need to know what all that stuff means, it’s in their best interests.

What the hell is a replacement? Wins Above the Next Best AAA Talent Base? You can’t say that, WATNBATB, nobody would say that!

For the casual fan who wants to be entertained by baseball, you have to Keep It Simple Stupid for them because they’re only going to retain it by bumping into it again and again in passing. In order to make it accessible to everyone, it has to be boiled down into something that’s really easygoing or at least easy to pick up and understand. If it wasn’t, people would reject it, and I think that’s key to any adoption process.

The accidental alliance between sabermetrics and fantasy sports

People in the past who came up with this and broke ground and loved it, it’s going to get simplified down to the point where more people are going to understand it. They’re going to have access to it and feel empowered because they have access to it. You’re seeing this happen now because you’re seeing things like Yahoo fantasy league tools or ESPN fantasy league tools that break it down for you and make it dumb, and they let you sort it through tables or whatever. And now there’s a monetary value to a move, and I’ll be the coolest guy at the water cooler if I make it. And I think that’s important.

BM: Have you had any feedback on your use of the more advanced stats? Have people been understanding it?

DH: I’ve gotta be honest, I don’t even understand sometimes. I struggle with Weighted On Base Average, for example, because I don’t always understand the weights, they change every year. So trying to explain that to people all the time, if you explain it wrong, one group of fans is all over you because they have spent way more time on it than you have in your one hour prep session before you go on air. The fans who really love the in-depth technical analysis stuff will get upset because the radio guy has to understand that 90% of the fanbase doesn’t understand, and so they don’t spend a ton of time talking about it.

You try to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And it sucks. It’s not my nature to want to appeal to stupid people, I don’t like it. I’d rather appeal to the smart people, but I run into two problems. One, it’s not my show, so I have to appeal to the biggest base. And two, I’m kinda stupid myself, so I can’t always understand all this stuff, I’m terrible with math, I don’t always understand the metrics in play. If you go too in depth, people get upset with you for spending too much time talking about math. If you go not in depth enough or screw it up, people get pissed at you for screwing it up.

You try to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And it sucks. It’s not my nature to want to appeal to stupid people, I don’t like it.

Note: We got off topic a bit for this part but I had to include it for the Undertaker reference. On reaction to him suggesting Jose Bautista should be traded…

I believe that, I do, because I don’t think he’s ever going to hit another 50 home runs, I think he has good value right now, I think that someone else could really use him, I think the Jays need starting pitching, there’s a tonne of reasons why. It’s easier to get somebody who can hit for power if you have payroll freed up, maybe not as much power as him but nonetheless.

That’s just my opinion, but people will tell me I’m a bastard and I should go to hell because it’s Jose Bautista, and I’m an idiot and I should be fired and Sportsnet should kill me and Rogers is gonna hunt me down. It’s like wrestling fansites, that kinda stuff, "the Undertaker is gonna come for you if he hears you talking about him, and he’s gonna put you in the Tombstone."

I hate that, but I understand it. I hate even worse, getting corrected for not using something correctly, being called out because I talk about an advanced metric wrong, but most people probably heard it for the first time in my broadcast. So I stay away from stuff that I can’t figure out. It’s not like there’s a tonne of people to go to out there in the world who are gonna help you break it down in a competent way. I call on Tom Tango a lot. When I don’t understand what I’m doing, a contact him and he does a good job breaking it down for me. He slammed my book on his website for not giving him enough inside the locker room math, and I like jumped him, and ever since then we’ve become good friends.

BM: If there was one thing you wish everyone in your audience understood, statistical or otherwise, what would that be?

DH: I would say the one thing I wish fans understood more than any is that they are talking about human beings. Those people out there are humans but also performers. Their job is to entertain and when they fail, they’re disappointed. A lot of those guys can’t make the separation between who they are as a person and who they are as a player. They hear what other people think about them, and it’s impossible to separate yourself from what the world around you perceives you as.

A fine example is look at Ricky Romero. He implodes this year, he feels like everyone hates him, he’s getting hate on Twitter to validate that. Even though of the amount of people that follow him on Twitter, probably a fraction of those were actually mad at him for any reason. The angry local sports population represents a small population but nonetheless that stuff gets back to the player. And the player is a person, and so he gets damaged by it.

...the one thing I wish fans understood more than any is that they are talking about human beings. Those people out there are humans but also performers.

The negative stuff for performance, the hatred, that branding, it’s damaging. It’s hard for those guys to separate their personal life from their private life because sports are so frenetically over-covered. If you feel like everyone in the world looks at you as a failure as a human being because you have bad stats, it’s crushing if you can’t separate it. It’s stress, a huge amount of it, and I always feel bad for the guys that go through this because they’ve done something as trivial as fail at a baseball game.

I wish fans truly understood what that meant and how hard it is. That’s actually what my third book is completely about it.


You can find more from Dirk on his website. You can also expect his second-and-a-half book, Wild Pitches, in early 2013, a collection of untold stories from his first two books in advance of his third major book.