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Books | Sports

April 2, 2007

Missing the Expos

Jonah Keri is a stock-market writer by day and a sportswriter by night. Now that the Expos are no more, his favorite club is his fantasy team. And he has a soft spot for Barry Bonds.

Michael Gluckstadt

As an out-of-the-closet Barry Bonds supporter, Jonah Keri is a rarity among sportswriters. He is also unique in his dual role as a stock-market writer and the editor of the Baseball Prospectus book, Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. The book uses principles of statistics applied to baseball, called sabermetrics, to answer pressing questions about all aspects of the game, such as "Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?" and, "Is David Ortiz a Clutch Hitter?" These questions are springboards for a thorough analysis of the game—like devising a way to calculate a player's worth and examining whether clutch hitting actually exists.

Jonah Keri
"I was such an Expos fanatic. Since they've moved away, I'm still a big baseball fan, but it's just not as visceral. I tend to be a little more detached. Now my favorite team is my fantasy team."

Jonah Keri

Keri also writes for Investor's Business Daily, the New York Times, and a range of other publications. In this interview, which has been edited for clarity, Keri talks about losing his beloved Expos, the necessary evil of baseball predictions, and why Barry Bonds is just that good. (Keri wrote recently on that allegations that Bonds doped his way to success is a reflection of the media "trying in vain to be the sport's moral authority." You can hear Keri and other baseball-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, April 4, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: How far are you right now from the nearest baseball stadium?

Jonah Keri: Right now I am at home in Durham, New Hampshire, which is about an hour and 15 minutes away from Fenway, but originally I'm from Montreal. I was one of the world's biggest Expos fans: me and 10 friends and about five other guys who showed up to the stadium. When the Expos moved, it was a very, very sad day. In fact, one of the things I plan to read for Varsity Letters is an article I wrote when they officially played their last game. It was about as heartfelt as I've ever been in print. I tend to joke around when I write, but I was really broken up about this. The funny thing about how my fandom came about is that I was an Expos fan first and a baseball fan second. I grew up going to games when I was really young. I was really precocious, getting into stats when I was eight or nine years old, reading Bill James, and all that was because of the Expos. I was just such an Expos fanatic, and baseball grew out of that. Now, since they've moved away, I'm still a big baseball fan, but it's just not the same, not as visceral. I tend to be a little more detached. Now my favorite team is my fantasy team.

GM: And would that be a sabermetric fantasy league?

JK: I'm actually in a few leagues right now. I'm in two Strat-o-Matic leagues, which is an old-school baseball league. I also do a couple roto leagues. I'm in an experts' league called "LABR," which, if you read Sam Walker's book Fantasyland [Editor's note: Here's Gelf's interview with Walker], it's one of those things where people get together from all the roto sites and draft for bragging rights. I'm in one league that is a little bit sabermetric. It's four by four, so the categories are on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks, and at bats for hitters; and ERA, WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched), strikeouts, and outs for pitchers.
I have no doubt that there is a league out there using VORP and EqA. When I was writing for Baseball Prospectus, we would get tales of stuff like that, and if you look at their fantasy product it has around 50 categories, from VORP to runs produced, which is runs and RBI minus home runs. People like to use all these derivatives. It's a lot of fun. Anything that gets people involved in the game is cool by me.

GM: Do you see a connection between the increased interest in stats and fantasy sports?

JK: Oh yeah, they're intertwined. Nate Silver wrote an article recently about the origins of "statheadism" and fantasy sports. Ron Shandler is the pioneer of linking the two. For 21 years, he has been doing fantasy analysis with statistical principles, using the early stuff from Bill James. From there, first there were bulletin boards, then Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Think Factory, and the Hardball Times, and all kinds of things like that. There is definitely something to it; people want to outsmart the competition. They want to put their baseball knowledge to use, and if they are not going to do it on the field they may as well do it in a fantasy league, whether it is traditional or applies the principles of "statheadism."

"Predictions are a sort of necessary evil in the baseball writing industry, but for pure statheads they are frowned upon."
GM: Is sportswriting a full time gig for you?

JK: It is not. My day job is working as a stock market writer and editor for Investor's Business Daily, and I've been doing that for about seven and a half years. I joined Baseball Prospectus in 2002 and my sportswriting career evolved from there. I left BP last year and now I have about five sportswriting gigs on the side. It's really a full plate. I write for ESPN, and I occasionally freelance for the New York Times. I do regular college basketball coverage for the New York Sun, and I'll be writing a weekly baseball column this year for I've done some other freelance stuff for Playboy.
One thing I'm very excited for is writing the screenplay for an IMAX baseball movie. I've never down screenwriting before and that should be a lot of fun. I went to their offices and saw a 3D NASCAR movie alone in their giant 80-foot IMAX theater. The baseball movie is going to be in a similar format; you can just imagine a ball or a broken bat flying past your head. I'll just set up the scene and the visuals will speak for themselves. I'm just as excited to see it as I am to write it.

GM: Do you have an easier time predicting and analyzing the stock market or baseball?

JK: The thing about Investor's Business Daily that's interesting is that it dovetails nicely with the way I think and write about baseball. I'm kind of analytical in both ways. With the stock market we're taught not to make predictions. We analyze what happened and what's happening, both past and current, and present an intelligent analysis for people to react to. Baseball is the same way. If you try to make predictions, your level of certainty just goes way down. Nobody knows what is going to happen. Maybe you can swing the odds in your favor 60-40 with statistical analysis, but there is just too much uncertainty. Predictions are a sort of necessary evil in the baseball writing industry, but for pure statheads they are frowned upon. It goes away from pure analysis, going out on a limb and making educated guesses. With the market and with baseball I'll go out there a little bit, but not too much—certainly not with investing, where I'm dissuaded from doing that and have been taught to analyze instead of forecast. Honestly, I feel that I could do a better job with baseball writing if I just stayed away from predictions there, too, because you develop so much uncertainty with the potential to be wrong so often.

GM: So what do you make of something like PECOTA, which develops a system for forecasting player performance?

JK: Like I said, it is a necessary evil. People want predictions if they are in a fantasy league or if they are a big Brewers fan and they want to know how the Brewers will do this season. They understand that the certainty isn't going to be 100%, but they would like to see how high it could go. I just wrote an article for about the sweet spot for making predictions. If you talk to Nate Silver or Ron Shandler or any of the prediction gurus, the Holy Grail for predictions is basically 70% accuracy. And that's just for roto. When you go beyond that to predict games and who is going to win the World Series, it goes way down. Those are fun tools that are slightly more accurate than throwing a dart or using a three-year weighted average, but it's really just a slight tweak to a huge uncertainty.

"Derek Jeter is such a polarizing figure. He's a funny player, underrated offensively and vastly overrated defensively."
GM: And I imagine the stock market works in a similar way.

JK: Absolutely, it works the same way in the stock market. But it is one thing in baseball where if you are wrong with a prediction. Then, OK, the Brewers didn't win 84 games, or this player doesn't hit 25 home runs. But if you make predictions in the stock market and say, "The market is going to rally, throw all your money in there" and then it crashes, that is a very big problem. The responsibility level is much higher. You have to be careful with what you do. I always try to be meticulous in my writing, but certainly with my investment writing I have to watch every single word and nuance. If you give people the wrong impression about what is going on or even hint at a prediction, they are going to run with it because they are looking for any edge they can get. You really have to watch what you say.

GM: Which job do you find more rewarding?

JK: I like them both because they really force you to use your brain. My mind works a thousand miles a minute. I'm thinking about my five fantasy teams as I'm talking right now. I think the jobs present a different challenge. With baseball, especially, I can have more fun with it. Last week for Page 2, I wrote a funny little one-off in the voice of Pete Rose. I had him saying all these crazy things about his haircut and how he loves to gamble. In that way baseball writing is a lot more fun, but I really do enjoy the challenge of both of them. I don't think there are many people like me who work a full-time writing job during the week in one industry and then also do what is essentially another full-time job writing about an entirely different subject.

GM: Let's talk about the book you edited, Baseball Between the Numbers. It goes into impressive detail on a broad range of topics about the game. Was it hard to organize all those distinct ideas into a cohesive whole?

JK: Nate Silver deserves a lot of credit for that. His baby was setting up the table of contents. The goal for that was coming up with provocative questions—questions that would be interesting to statheads and regular fans alike. When we ask, "Is David Ortiz a Clutch Hitter?" or, "Why Doesn't Billy Beane's Shit Work in the Playoffs?" these are provocative questions that people have an immediate visceral reaction to. We wanted questions that would get people talking and interested whether or not they were analytically inclined. They would read the text and absorb it. It should be analytical enough to peak interest but not too involved as to alienate readers. We broke it down with 27 questions in nine sections to correspond to 27 outs in nine innings. There are sections on baserunning, economics, hitting, pitching, etc. The questions are really what draw people in. If you're flipping through it in Border's and see "Does Derek Jeter Deserve the Gold Glove?" you're going to want to read it. Everyone has an opinion. Especially about Jeter, who is such a polarizing figure. He is a funny player, underrated offensively and vastly overrated defensively. People get into arguments about him, but I guess it just depends if you're a Yankees fan or not.

GM: In the chapter on the 1997 Florida Marlins, who dismantled their championship team, you write that the moves they made make both economic and baseball sense. I'm sure a lot of people would disagree with you, especially in the Florida area. Do you have a cold way of looking at it, or are people just too sentimental about baseball?

JK: A little bit of both. Ultimately the goal is to win the championship. They say "the flags fly forever" and there is no bad way to win a World Series. If a team invests in the farm system for five years nurturing players until they succeed at the major-league level, that's great, and if you hire a bunch of mercenaries who win the World Series in one shot, that's great, too. I think the fact that after they won it all Wayne Huizenga sold all the players and cashed in is a little bit cold and difficult to swallow. But from a business view, it works. They won a championship after just five years, while teams like the Red Sox go over 80 years without one. The sales from a championship season carry over to the next year, even if some of the players have been pawned off. What are the goals in running a baseball team, for an owner? Firstly, you want to win, and second you want to make money. Some might say it's the other way around, but it is definitely those two goals. Wayne Huizenga did both. A few years later, they did it again. I feel for the fans, especially for that gruesome team in 1998, but the truth is, how many teams can say they've won a championship? The Expos never won one, and I sure wish they had, no matter how they came about it.

"There are a lot of ways to go about winning, and the reason why some teams just don't win for such a long time is a little bit of luck and a lot of bad management."
GM: If a team like the Red Sox had adopted Huizenga's model over their lengthy dry spell, could they have won it all? Or are you a man who believes in curses?

JK: Well, I definitely don't believe in curses, even though the Red Sox often shelled out much more money than other teams during their drought. It's just that they were very poorly managed for a very long time. The Marlins spent the money, but they also spent it well. They signed Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, and other stars who were in their prime. If you look at the Orioles and, until recently, the Mets, you can see that spending money is one thing and doing it right is another. The Red Sox were the same way: Dan Duquette made a few good moves, but he also made some other ones that really cost the team. If you look at another Baseball Prospectus book called Mind Game, it goes through many of the off-field mistakes made by Red Sox management over the years. Way before Duquette, there was the Yawkey family and all the mistakes they and their managers made. They were decidedly racist in the 1940s-'50s and were actually the last team in the majors to integrate. They spent the money but just didn't have smart people running the team. It was bad management, not a curse.

GM: There are other teams like the Red Sox who have gone through periods of absurd futility, way beyond the expected "Success Cycle" that teams go through. Is it all just bad management?

JK: Well first of all, I don't really believe the "Success Cycle" exists anymore. I wrote an article about it a few years back but have since given it up. Part of it is luck, too. You look at something like Steve Bartman catching that ball against the Marlins, and maybe you get a little superstitious, but the Cubs have been mismanaged, too. While they've been owned by the Tribune Company, they've been much more concerned with the bottom line than with winning games. And before that they were just the fuzzy Cubbies, and they knew that fans would still come to Wrigley even without the victories. Maybe the Marlins didn't follow the typical tenets of the "Success Cycle," but then again there are a lot of ways to win. You can build from within or spend a lot of money, or even mix and match.
Look at the Yankees. Everyone says that they were these great mercenaries, but who was the core of those teams? Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Bernie. All of these premium players were developed in-house. Then they add an O'Neill and a Clemens, form the right mix and get the World Series done. There are a lot of ways to go about winning, and the reason why some teams just don't win for such a long time is a little bit of luck and a lot of bad management. I think all these teams will come around. The Red Sox won, the White Sox won. Now we're just down to the Cubs and maybe the Indians, as well.

"A pitcher gets in the zone, starts hitting the corners, and the umpire will get into the zone with him."
GM: Do you see the Yankees going back to that mentality of developing their farm system while they add key players?

JK: There's no doubt that they are. You can see it in the fact that they traded Gary Sheffield for some good pitching prospects. They didn't have room for him; they don't even have room for Melky Cabrera in that lineup. They saw that Sheffield still has market value left, so they got what they could for him. They did the same thing for Jaret Wright and got some pretty good booty for him, and he wasn't even that good. I've talked to a couple people in their front office who know what's going on, and it seems that [owner George] Steinbrenner has just gotten a little more hands-off these last few years, ceding control to Brian Cashman and others. Cashman is a pretty smart guy; he can stock up young talent by trading surplus without worrying about becoming a 50-win team in the short run.

GM: The book covers almost every aspect of the game—players, management, front office, and more. One subject you never mention is umpiring. How do umpires impact the game? Is there any statistical analysis that has been done about how different umpires affect the game, and is QuesTec changing baseball?

JK: QuesTec has still not been embraced enough to make an impact. People are aware of it but it has not been the major breakthrough it was thought to be. You could make a case that eventually technology will let us replace umpires altogether, though I'm sure that it would be difficult to do so, with the unions and all. Umpires are part of the romance of the game, and so is human error. If nothing else, it definitely gets people talking. Think of the '85 World Series and Don Denkinger—people in Missouri are still talking about that. There are other things that happened way before I was born that people still get worked up about. Its part of the lore, and they certainly impact the game.
Look at different umpires' vastly different strike zones. It is supposed to be a very defined thing, over the plate, not too high, not too low. But somehow it's all over the place. Talk about the 1997 Marlins: Livan Hernandez had a strike zone that was the size of the Everglades. Eric Gregg was behind the plate, and maybe Livan was marrying his daughter or something because he gave him every call, even 10 inches off the plate. It's not just that they have different strike zones; umpires get swept up in the game. A pitcher gets in the zone, starts hitting the corners, and the umpire will get into the zone with him. Look at the Madduxes and Glavines of the league. I wish the umps would be a little more QuesTec-ish about it, but they are human too.

"There is something about Bonds that draws me to him. Maybe it's because he is so good. I think that arrogance in athletes is a good trait."
GM: Has it always been that way?

JK: Absolutely. Steven Goldman, who is also speaking at the Varsity Letters event and is a good friend of mine, is a great historian of the game and he would talk about some crazy stories. Fans used to jump out of the stands and fight with umpires. Casey Stengel used to bait them, stuff like that. It's a real hard job. Everyone in the stadium hates them and the best job they can do is if nobody notices. Most are pretty good about it, but there are a few who get swept into it and want to be the center of attention. There are jerks in every industry, whether they're in the cubicle next to you or standing behind the plate in front of 60,000 people.

GM: Speaking of jerks, what is your take on Barry Bonds? Is he a hero, villain, just a ballplayer?

JK: One thing about Barry Bonds is that a lot of the reason why people hate him is because of the media. He has not been kind to the media and they have ripped him to shreds. When people get positive vibes about a player, they don't even realize it, but it's usually because of the people who cover the sport. Look at Brett Favre in football. He's a great football player, no doubt. But he's also a good interview, very friendly to the Peter Kings of the world, and it shows up in the way he's depicted in the media. He gets fawning attention from radio, TV, internet, print, everything. Everybody loves Brett Favre.
Bonds is the opposite. He feels he doesn't really need the media, and so they rip him. Even before the evidence on the steroid situation started to pile up, people did not give the guy a fair shake because he was a jerk to the media. Combine that with the fact that the best player on any team, and the best player in the league for years, will have to deal with unfair expectations. Like A-Rod. If you're that good, people are going to want to knock you down. This is a society of underdogs. We love our David Ecksteins and Willie Bloomquists and all those hustling little white guys. I'd take one Barry Bonds over 50 David Ecksteins. You want to win games, and Bonds gets it done. Even though he's hobbled now, Bonds still put up 1.000 OPS last year. This guy is as good as it gets, and probably one of the top three hitters in baseball history.

GM: Are you rooting for him to break the record?

JK: Sure. I like Bonds. I would say that I am a semi-interested Bonds fan. On my mantel I have a Barry Bonds-signed model bat that was a gift from my dad. There is something about Bonds that draws me to him. Maybe it's because he is so good. I think that arrogance in athletes is a good trait. They have to believe that they are the best. Look at a guy like Rey Ordoñez: He had the utmost confidence in interviews. He couldn't hit to save his life but he always felt like he was going to succeed. To be a professional athlete you need to be single-minded, determined, and say "nobody can beat me." Bonds has that attitude, and unlike Ordoñez, he deserves to have it.

GM: Which teams do you like this year? And which players are you keeping an eye on?

JK: I actually haven't done a predictions column yet, but I can tell you my impressions. I think the Mets are going to be pretty good, certainly in the National League. Their pitching is about one good pitcher away, and I think Ollie Perez could come through for them this year. Their hitting is just loaded up and down the lineup. I think the Phillies are going to be right there, as well. Maybe both teams make the playoffs and one of them wins the pennant. In the AL, it's just so hard to tell. The AL Central is so fascinating to me. I think the Indians might be the best team in that division. The Tigers, Twins, and White Sox get all the attention, but the Indians have a great lineup. C.C. Sabathia doesn't get enough credit for it, but he is one of the top pitchers in baseball right now. They just had some bad luck with the bullpen last year. The Indians will be right in it, and the Red Sox and Yankees will be right in it. Not sure about the AL West. Put a gun to my head and I'd say Mets and Indians in the World Series.

GM: I'm not going to put any gun to your head. I know how you feel about predictions.

JK: Predictions! I make no predictions whatsoever. I like all 30 teams equally.

You can hear Keri and other baseball-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, April 4, in New York's Lower East Side.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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