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Let’s Go Read: A chat with Rob Neyer

Reviewing Power Ball and how the game has continued to change

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Colorado Rockies at Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

One of the most fascinating things Rob Neyer said to me about his book, Power Ball, is that it is not very original. It’s a hell of a statement for an author to make: This thing I wrote, you can find it all elsewhere. Of course, he’s not wrong, and he made the statement in the context of all writing, that it’s hard to come across something truly new anywhere. But even if Power Ball isn’t truly new, it is truly enjoyable and informative.

By structuring the book around nine innings of a game, Neyer’s narrative loosely follows the path my own mind wanders. I love baseball, Neyer loves baseball, I’m sure you love baseball, but the game lends itself to thinking about other things. Hell, you might even be reading this review while watching a game. So I found a real logic to the flow of the book, even if it hardly follows the game it is ostensibly structured around.

In his writing, Neyer does a good job balancing the old and the new. Whether that’s counting and sabermetrically inclined stats, notions of how the game should be played, or even social issues that affect our everyday life as much as baseball. More than anything, Power Ball does exactly what its subtitle promises: it details the anatomy of a modern baseball game. And even those of us who feel like we have a good grip on what modern baseball is (for example, writers contributing to a team blog) can find something new and illuminating within the pages.

One of the most interesting things about Power Ball, a book about a game that occurred in late 2017 that was published in late 2018, is that it made me think of new questions in 2019 that I want to explore. Which gets back to Neyer’s point in our interview: Nothing is original. His writing will surely influence my writing and maybe someone else will read my words and think of something they’d like to write. A lack of original content could be seen as a withering criticism to some, but in this case I think the author gave himself high praise. His work, however original, will continue to inspire more work, and that is pretty remarkable.

Below you’ll find my full conversation with Neyer, lightly edited for clarity. Thanks for reading with me.

Chris Davies: You’re commissioner of the West Coast League, how much of that informed your writing?

Rob Neyer: Hardly at all, maybe not at all. I finished writing the book, most of it, by ... well my deadline was the end of May ultimately. So I spent May furiously writing and revising, but my tenure as commissioner didn’t begin until May 1st, so there wasn’t much overlap. I didn’t get into the nitty gritty of the job until — I think Opening Day was the day after my deadline — so I really ramped up being commissioner after finishing the book. It was very fortunate, the timing.

CD: Do you think you could go back and write a lot more now with the experience of being commissioner?

RN: That’s a really interesting question, and not something anyone has asked me. First of all, it’s almost impossible to answer accurately because if I wrote the book today it would be significantly different, even if I hadn’t been commissioner, because I’m a different person than I was as recently as a year ago. Having said that, the most elucidating part of my job is learning just how different every organization is, every franchise is. Of course, you can’t really draw a precise parallel between a Major League Baseball team with 250 people on their payroll, or whatever it is — probably way more than that now including all the players — and a West Coast team. But it is true that every team is different. You have the perspective that I did, to some degree at least, there’s a uniformity within a league: every West Coast team is basically the same, every Major League team is basically the same. The more you look at these things, the more you realize they’re not the same. The one thing almost every team has in our league is different ownership, and everything flows from the top. Of course, in MLB every team does have different ownership and that’s where the tone is set. If you have different owners, you’re going to have different environments within the organizations. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned as commissioner. I didn’t really write much about organizations and front offices in my book, so I don’t think it would have changed much. So, a very long-winded way of saying that I don’t think being commissioner has changed my perspective of MLB much. Human nature? Yes. The way organizations work? Yes, to some degree. But there isn’t a lot of that in the book. I’d love to write another book sometime where I am able to use that education, but probably not in this book.

CD: In the book you chronicle a game from 2017. Perhaps the most striking thing that has changed is the free agent market and the slow offseasons we’ve seen the last two years. There’s some discussion about players who are making a lot of money but not necessarily giving the value back, and how they are not as valuable as young players making next to nothing. Do you think the way free agency has dragged on has changed a lot of the way modern baseball works?

RN: Well, the impact on the players is clearly highly significant. I mention in passing in the book Tony Sipp, because he pitches in the game — of course he started his career with the Indians — I think I read this morning that he signed for $1 million, coming off a pretty good season last year. In past offseasons, pitchers like Sipp probably would have made a great deal more than $1 million. That’s an incredible sea change. His last contract was 3 years, $18 million or something (note: this is correct) and he is no worse a pitcher today than when he got his last contract (note: also correct, 0.9 fWAR in 2015 and 0.9 fWAR in 2018). So, that’s a huge sea change for the players himself. Sipp is just one example, there are many, many others. What’s happening is marginal older players — by marginal I don’t mean not good enough to play in the majors, just clearly major league caliber but not by a lot — the market for those players has gone down massively. It means a great deal for the future of Tony Sipp and players like him, it doesn’t mean that he can’t afford to put his kids through school, it doesn’t mean that for most of these players. What it does mean is they’re not going to be set for life as they might have been two, three, four years ago. Of course, on a more macro level, it’s making the major leagues much younger than it was. The veteran players just aren’t getting the same deals, or they aren’t getting deals at all. So they’re going to retire rather than take deals that are far, far less than they were making before. There are some players that just can’t countenance that sort of a decrease in their compensation, and that’s fine. There are guys that will pitch as long as someone will give them a uniform, that’s fine too. I think, even more macro, the level of baseball on the field is little affected. It’s not that we’re not seeing the best players or are in danger of not seeing the best players because the money is not there for them, we’re still seeing all the best players. Put it this way, we’re seeing the best players, they’re not going away. There are players like Tony Sipp who we will not see anymore. So, the overall level of play is probably going to drop by some measurable percent, but it would be in the single digits, probably the very low single digits, because a Tony Sipp had decided not to pitch this season because he couldn’t pitch for a million dollars a year. That’s not even a ripple on the surface of MLB. (note: My recorder briefly died here, and rather than try to extrapolate from my notes, I chose to leave Neyer’s answer at this.)

CD: Keeping on the theme of the way the game is changing, MLB is instituting changes to the Atlantic League as a trial balloon. Pace of play is something you mention in the book and you see it as an issue, but you see that MLB is trying to overcome it. How would the game change, how would things of the modern baseball game that you wrote about change, with some of these more extreme ideas, such as moving the mound back two feet? Are you going to need to update your book?

RN: I haven’t seen yet, and I probably just missed it, any compelling study of what moving the mound back two feet would do. I think frankly, and I say this in the book, this is what baseball should be doing. They should be experimenting, and the Atlantic League is probably the best place to do that. If you do it in Triple-A you’re hurting the development of legitimate Major League prospects, and nobody wants to do that. The Atlantic League is perfect, these are players that are roughly Double-A or Triple-A talent, but very few pro prospects because they are too old. They throw just as hard as pitchers do in Double-A and Triple-A, they hit the ball just as far, all those things. So I think the Atlantic League is a perfect test for these ideas. I don’t really understand ... all the changes they’re instituting to me are perfectly reasonable and worthy of consideration except for moving the mound back. I don’t understand it, which doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but I can’t figure it out. To me, two feet seems radical. If you’re going to experiment, I’d move it back one foot if you have to move it back, if you decided to try, and then see what you got. Then maybe another six inches, then maybe another six, whatever. Two feet just seems radical. It doesn’t particularly bother me that they’re doing it. Maybe they have some really smart people at MLB that were consulted and said ‘This is where we should start.’ That’s fine, I just haven’t seen anyone say that yet. My preference would be to lower the mound, not move it back, but I’m not an expert. MLB pays people to answer those questions, so to some degree I trust that it makes sense on some level. Again, really what it comes down to, to me, is the value of the presentation, so I applaud just about anything that they’re doing.

CD: Another aspect of the changes would be the psychological aspect of the changes. In the book you quote former Indians manager Lou Boudreau about how the Ted Williams shift maybe wasn’t a victory on the field, but it was a psychological victory. How much of an aspect do you think psychological effect do you think changes to the modern game play and are teams fully grasping that?

RN: There’s an assumption in the question that the shift did have a psychological effect on Williams, and I’m not sure it did. His numbers were fine with the shift. It’s hard to imagine he could have been a better hitter in the 1950s when so many teams were shifting on him. I do think that you could more reasonably argue that if you throw a shift at a player that he’s never seen before that it could have an impact. Because he’s sitting there thinking, ‘What is that? What are those guys doing?’ instead of focusing on the job at hand, which is to anticipate whatever the next pitch is going to be and reacting to it. I don’t think that, generally speaking, the shift has a great psychological effect on players because most of them have decided they’re not going to worry about it, they’re not going to think about it, and they don’t. Clearly, hitters are most of the time not changing their approach, they just keep doing what they’re doing. I think players today are more than ever focusing on doing the things they do best. Every ream has a mental skills coordinator or something like it that teaches them those tings. I don’t really buy into the psychological impact, I did see some studies saying it does work, but I don’t think that it does. I don’t think that it ever really has, at least not over the long term.

CD: One thing you talk about in the book is press conferences and reporter access, and how MLB might shift toward college- or NBA-style conferences. Reading about Trevor Bauer this spring, he detailed how he’s going to record people recording him to make sure he’s never misquoted. He’s also started his own video organization to share the players’ perspective. Do you think this all would be a positive for players and the game, to have different media representation and to put themselves out there more?

RN: We’ve already see that with the Players Tribune, so will we see more of that? Sure, maybe. This is the first I’ve heard of Bauer’s new enterprise, but it sounds like the Players Tribune to me. It seems to me that it’s inevitable there will be less and less free-range reporting, simply because neither the teams nor the players care that much about it. If the players come to the owners in the next labor negotiation and say ‘We’re tired of getting bugged by reporters in our clubhouse every day’ — I should mention that when I was working on my book, most of the players were great. I was in the clubhouse five or six times, roughly three times per team I was writing about. Most of the players I approached were fantastic. A few players didn’t seem as if they wanted to be approached, and I didn’t approach those guys, but for the most part everybody was really open, the media relations people I worked with were great and helped me talk to the people I wanted to talk to. At this point, at least with the teams I covered, and there’s a lot of differences between teams — basically the more popular a team is the harder it is to reach their players, but the A’s and Astros are pretty easy, at least where I was — but I think that most players, not all, would not like to deal with the media. It’s just one more thing to think about, to worry about, one more thing to get in the way of their game preparation, or playing cards with their teammates, or watching videos on their phones, whatever it is. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if, in the next labor negotiation, one of the things the players push for is less media access. And that’s a very easy give for the teams, I think. If they have to give up something why not give the players more free time. They players think of their locker rooms as their inner sanctum. They’re more and more opulent all the time, that’s been an amazing change over the last 25 years. Spring training clubhouses now are far more opulent than the regular season stadium clubhouses were 15-20-25 years ago. That’s their place, and they’re there for two, three hours before each game. They would just as soon not have to deal with anybody, any reporters. So I wouldn’t be surprised if that went away. There are certainly some people in baseball who see a value in media, independent media, and reporting and features and all those things. But I won’t be surprised if access is more limited five years from now than it is now. That certainly seems to be the trend in every other sport.

CD: Do you think it could help baseball’s efforts to promote their players? To change the common refrain about Mike Trout not being known by half the population or whatever.

RN: Well, not really. I don’t know that giving five reporters access to the Angels clubhouse every day for an hour and a half contributes much to national awareness of Mike Trout. I don’t think anyone in baseball would ever suggest we shouldn’t give some reporters or some writers access to the game’s stars, that’s not going away. Everyone realizes there’s a value there. Side note: in my opinion, media access has nothing to do with how well known Mike Trout is. That’s a function of many other things, most of which baseball has no control over. Mike Trout’s not famous because there are very few baseball fans who care about anyone not on their own team and their fantasy players. Mike Trout isn’t famous because the media doesn’t cover sports, certainly not baseball, as it once did. Mike Trout isn’t famous because he plays for the Angels. Mike Trout isn’t famous because he’s never had a single big postseason moment that got people talking about Mike Trout. So there’s a lot of reasons why Mike Trout is not famous and why various other superstars aren’t famous. I personally think that has almost nothing to do with media access and I think that will continue to be the case. Even if media access was cut by 90% a superstar could come along in MLB, you’d just have to have an amazing confluence of events: team, postseason success, overall performance, his personality — a lot of things would go into it and I don’t think traditional media access goes into it.

CD: After finishing your book I was looking at Goodreads, and the very first comment says ‘I liked the book but hated the social-political stuff,’ or something like that. How did you try to balance that in your book and what have you made of that kind of reaction?

RN: First of all, I’ve only seen it once. I haven’t read all the reviews, I sort of was poking around in Amazon and Goodreads when the book first came out, but I haven’t kept up. I did see that one, and it was frustrating because in my mind there’s nothing in the book that’s political at all. I never thought about it, never made a conscious effort to balance anything because, to me, I’m just reporting facts. Now, could you read into my writing the opinion that a gay player shouldn’t be a big issue? Yes, you could read into that. Is that a fact? No, it’s my opinion. I think it’s a fairly common opinion. I don’t think it’s that controversial. But, yes, people will see that or read into it and say ‘He’s being political.’ Okay, that’s fine. It was never a goal of mine, I’m not trying to advocate for any political position. I do think that gay players should be treated the same as everyone else, should feel free to talk about their spouse or partner or love life, whatever it is, just as everyone else always has been. I do think that minor league players should be paid more money. Is that political? I don’t know, to some people it probably is. But I didn’t enter into the book with any sort of agenda. I just wrote about these things as they came up, as I’m watching the game and thinking about modern baseball. These things all came up. I think that same reviewer suggested climate change is on my agenda and a political matter. Well, if you read the book I don’t advocate for anything, I just say climate change is happening and sea levels are rising. These are objective facts, as most people understand. I just sort of shook my head when I read that. And I have to say that is a minority opinion, that the book is somehow political or overly political. I think it’s a minority opinion, and it’s frustrating when someone has that reaction but there are people who will read politics — which I think is a stupid word, it’s policy not politics — people who will read policy or agendas into everything. Some people are just programmed that way, I’m not one of them and I certainly didn’t write the book in that way.

CD: Before I let you go I wanted to ask an Indians-specific question, even though the book isn’t about the Indians necessarily. Toward the end you mention closers and closer use has more to do with manager trust than how those roles have been used the last couple decades. Terry Francona kind of blew that up, went back to the fireman system in the 2016 playoffs. Obviously some of that was sheer necessity based on injuries and whatnot, but what would your assessment of him and his bullpen use be? Is he actually different, is the way he used Andrew Miller actually revolutionary, or is he just like other managers and it was all a matter of what he trusted in a situation?

RN: I wouldn’t say that what he did was revolutionary because it’s been done before, just not lately. One of the things I touch on in the book, two or three times at least, is that nearly everything we see in baseball that we think is new is actually old. The specific technology we see now is new, technology by definition tends to be new in its specifics, but sign stealing is not new at all. Using a reliever for two or three innings is not new at all. When I was a kid they did it all the time: Goose Gossage, Dan Quisenberry, before that Mike Marshall was of course famous for coming into games whenever he was needed — could be the third inning could be the ninth. So I do think that Francona was, with Miller at least, doing something no one else was doing at that time. I also think, and I believe I remember reading some quotes where he said he couldn’t do it for a whole season because he’d wear his pitcher out. I think he’d also wear himself out. There are three reasons why managers have settled into conventional bullpen usage. One is that many still believe sincerely that some pitchers are better in the ninth than others. Not because of their physical talents but because of their emotional abilities. Many, maybe nearly every manager will say things like that. I don’t really buy into it, but they believe it. Another reason, and this is less defensible, I think, is that they do manage to the statistic. How many times have we seen a manager bring in a closer simply because he’s going to get a save if he converts it or not bring a guy in because he wouldn’t get a save in that situation? That still happens all the time. It’s hard to say why you would do that except that it leaves a manager probably open to less criticism if things don’t work out and it makes the pitcher happy. There’s something to be said for keeping your pitchers happy. You’d ideally want a whole bullpen where nobody cared about statistics, but that’s not the world we live in. The closer, usually the guy making the most money and the one with the most vocal agent, wants to get the save, and managers manage to that desire. It’s not objectively optimal, but they do it. The third reason, and this might be the most defensible reason, it’s simply easier for a manager if he goes into every game with a fairly rigid plan. It gives him less things to think about because he has a lot of things to worry about over nine innings. If he’s already mapped out the bullpen usage going into the game it’s one less thing to worry about. I think that what you’d like to have is a manager who could handle that as well, who could add effective bullpen management to his workload game-in and game-out without the other things suffering. But I don’t know that there are 30 guys out there, at least not that have jobs right now, who could do everything well. Maybe it’s best for some to not have to think about the bullpen a lot. Those are three reasons off the top of my head why managers still manage to the save statistic and why you have one guy to get the save. But I also think that we’re moving away from it, I think teams are looking for managers who are intellectually flexible enough to do things differently. Not to say the save is ever going away or that closers are ever going away. None of that’s going to happen in the near future, but I do think that we’re moving away from it.

CD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RN: An author has basically no claim on how the book is read or received. All I can do is write the damn thing and hope people enjoy it. Having said that, that’s the caveat, I will say I hope that readers do take away that it’s something I don’t read very often. Most of what’s in the book you can find somewhere else. Not in one place maybe, but you can find it other places. Most of the book is not particularly original, very little writing is original. Frankly, most of what I see on the web now is at least tangentially related to what I was writing 10-15 years ago, which isn’t an indictment of modern baseball writing, it’s just how writing works. The one thing I hope people take away that maybe they won’t see anyplace else is the idea that we’re better off in the writing profession if we stop picking sides. If we stop choosing to support the billionaire owners or the millionaire players. Most writers these days, especially younger writers, tend to come down on the side of the players, the ones in the majors. I think there are more worthy people to support. I think we do the sport and fans a greater service if we come down on the side of, yes, the fans, and also the young players, especially the minor leaguers, who wind up with such a tiny piece of the revenue pie that everyone’s always talk about. I’d love people to read the book and start thinking about shifting priorities. If we have to support somebody, let’s look away from the millionaires and billionaires and toward somebody else, which is the great majority of the people who care about these things.

Rob Neyer can be found on Twitter at @robneyer and his book, Power Ball, is available now on Amazon and Indie Bound.