May 13, 2019

Q&A with Rob Neyer, author of POWER BALL: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game

Last year I received an advance copy of POWER BALL: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game and had a chance to speak with its author, Rob Neyer, someone I’ve been reading online for as long as I’ve known how to read.

In Power Ball, Neyer focuses on how the game has changed so much over the last 20 years, and he uses one September 2017 Astros-A's game (18 half-inning chapters) to weave this story into an enjoyable read for baseball fans.

While I am terribly late sharing this interview, I still think it’s worth sharing, as we get into some of the most contentious topics in the game today. The interview even foreshadows some rule changes that Major League Baseball announced in spring training for the 2020 season. 

Why should other fans buy your book?
This is an overview of all the ways that baseball has changed in the last 20 to 30 years. And when things happen gradually, as many of these have, it's easy to miss thing. You just sort of wake up and you look at the game, what's going on out there? Well, it's sort of gives an overview of what has gone on out there and how we got here. 

I just looked at them with the day who, just this week, noticed that players are wearing those protective guards on their helmets. They're called C-flaps. They really started becoming popular in 2017, but a lot of people just didn’t notice. And that’s two pages. So there are 20 or 30 things like that in the book, along with everything else.

When did you decide that “postmodern baseball” deserved its own book?
I have to admit that it was not my idea. I have been an admirer for many years of books like this, or at least books that are structured similarly. I've been a big fan of Joe's book, a day in the bleachers. For a long time, I was a huge fan of Dan Okrent’s book Nine Innings when it came out in 1985 and read it more than once.

But the idea of writing that sort of book had not occurred to me. An editor came to me basically a year ago and said, Bob, I, I would love for someone to write a modern day Nine Innings. I thought about it made a list of the things that I wanted to write about, and we just went from there.

How many games did you go to before you said, this is the game I’m going to use as my storytelling vessel?
None! That's what I thought was going to happen, but we actually decided to do the book so late in the season, the 2017 season, that I didn't have my first conversation with my editor until probably the middle of September. By the time we decided to do the book about a week later, we've got maybe 10 days left in the season. So my initial thought was, well, I need to head up to Seattle tomorrow, and watch a week’s worth of games, talk to as many people as possible, who played in the game, coached in the game, and then see what happened. 

Well, my editor didn't think that was a great idea. And I think he was right. He thought that instead of doing that, and having a very small number of games to choose from or waiting till the next season, which would have delayed the publication of the book by basically a year, he thought, let's instead just find a game that's already been played, and then go from there, and then watch it and listen to it as many times as you need to. And that's what I did. He sent me a few games that I thought were pretty good prospects and I chose one of those. And then I just sat down with the and watched the game a bunch of times. One of the great things about is that you can you have four audio feeds, you have the home and road TV, and the home and road radio. So I listened to all of those multiple times.

So you didn’t actually go. That’s pretty funny.
Yep. I would have loved to have been in the ballpark for it, but I don’t think you lose anything from not being there. It would have been fun sitting amongst a bunch of fans, and sort of adding their reactions as things came up, just here and there sprinkled in, but otherwise, I don't think it would have changed that much at all. 

And you were able to, of course, you know, speak to the players and get their reactions from that game a little bit later on. So it wasn't as fresh, but they could recall it for the most part?
Well, that’s right. To some degree that that isn't necessarily a bad thing that it was later because they had more perspective. 

We ask a player how did that feel? Or how were you approaching that at-bat? In the moment, oftentimes, they don't have a lot to say, but six months later, which is basically when I spoke to these guys in spring training, and then in the first week of the next season, they seemed pretty thoughtful and reflective and they remembered everything pretty well. They remember the game, they remembered the batters they faced, the pitchers they faced, but I actually think time gives you a little bit more to work with.

If you were Rob Manfred, would you change the rules? And do you think he’ll end up actually doing anything?
I don't think I would. I don't think it would be sacrilegious to change the rules. And frankly, if I thought it would lead to a markedly better brand of baseball, I would change it. I just don't think it would really do anything. It's a tiny band-aid on a gaping wound. So why bother? Let's stop the bleeding. Let's not put this little band-aid on it that's going to leak through.

If you actually look at the numbers and people have the reason for all the strikeouts and home runs, and the reason for the drastic decline in balls in play, t has nothing to do with shifting. Now do I think it's going to happen? I think it might because it's the one thing that doesn't really have a constituency. Nobody's going to scream bloody murder if you ban the shift. The pitchers won't mind at all, the hitters will be in favor of it. So it's like a lot of things that baseball does. It's small, but at least they can do it. Whereas the big things, the things that would make a difference, have been at least at this point almost impossible to do.

If you're a pitcher and you see these guys with all these great strikeout games, then maybe you're more inclined to want to be a pitcher. And if you're a big home run hitter, you want to see a guy with a lot of home runs. As a young kid, are you really looking for those guys who hit a bunch of doubles in the gaps? Or are they looking for a guy who can strike out a lot of guys and hit a lot of homers?

Well, I think that they're looking for pitchers with projectable arm strength. There was this school of thought for many years that pitchers really couldn't do much to improve their arm strength. They might mature naturally, into greater arm strength. You would always hear about pitchers being projectable. The idea that this skinny 17-year-old who throws 87 will fill out and throw 92. And of course, that has happened and does happen. But what everybody now realized is that the pitcher can take an active role in that process of developing much greater arm strength through various training methods. So that's absolutely happening. It's one of the big reasons why pitchers throw much harder now than they did just 10 years ago.

For hitters, I think it’s a little hazier. You can certainly develop more power by getting bigger and stronger. And also by changing your lunch angle, although there are limits to that, obviously.
But in my opinion, most of the developments that we've seen it on the bulk of technology and the training side have benefited pitchers more than hitters.

You referred to the rise of homers and strikeouts as a gaping wound. I'm just curious, why do you think that is?
Well, that's an overstatement probably.

My opinion is ultimately you're going to lose fans more than you gain if the game becomes almost purely about power hitting and power pitching. You lose triples and you lose stolen bases. And you lose any good chance to see a great play by the shortstop, etc, etc. If you lose all these things that make baseball baseball because the game is dominated more and more by home runs and strikeouts. And frankly, we just we haven't seen the limits are yet, right? Every year seems to bring more strikeouts and more home runs and fewer triples and fewer steals and the game is simply becoming less various. And in my mind, that makes it less interesting. 

Now some people would agree. Some people say the more home runs and strikeouts the better, those people are out there no question. But you can wonder how many of them there are. And what baseball fan base looks like. I tend to think to with a certain bit of detachment and think about what it looks like in five years or 10 or 20. And I wonder how many fans you have if it’s become if it’s simply a strikeout-home run contest. And maybe the answer is more. I honestly don't know. My feeling is that it's not – that what made baseball great or popular in the first place would be the great variety in the game. So you know to call it a gaping wound, considering baseball's revenues and how they go up every year, that's probably not a reasonable description. I got caught up in talking about a band-aid.

I just think it's a very, very interesting point. Because it's it's often talked about in the mainstream media, and they say it's a terrible thing. But I don't think anyone really knows it is a terrible thing for the game. And I just think it's a healthy discussion.
Nobody does know if it’s terrible. To argue that it’s terrible, aside from personal preference, but in terms of baseball’s future viability, nobody does know. You can’t know. You can’t predict what it’s going to look like in 10 years. 

So I think at some point, you have to fall back on what people seem to want to watch. It's just hard to know. We don't have one league playing with guys throwing 90 miles an hour and a low home run rate than the other doing what they're doing. All we know is what we have.

For Manfred to potentially combat this if viewership numbers potentially decline, what can he do? Is he going to lower the mound? What can he do to actually get the balls back in play – extend the fences?
Fences are tough. It’s a big lift to tear out a bunch of seats and move the fences back six or eight feet or whatever would be. And I would frankly, love to see that because we would be a lot more base hits, and doubles and triples, I think it'd be fun. But it's also probably the most difficult of all the possible solutions. Now, the one plus the big plus is that you don't need the players' approval to change the ballparks. They have no say over that, they could complain. But, legally speaking, they have no recourse. There isn't a safety issue and there wouldn't be so. 

So that's politically speaking, that's the easiest thing to change. And I would be in favor of that. Sure. I don't think it's likely though, because of the expense.

The other things are so hard because, you know, you get into labor, labor relations. But yes, of course, lower the mound by two inches, that would help. Maybe raise the strike zone by a couple of inches, or compress it. I talked about in the book a little bit. Frankly, I'm not enough of an expert on the strike zone to know, but the changing the strike zone historically has happened many times. And you can accomplish some goals. 

And yes, of course, deaden the ball. If you're going to deaden the ball, you have to take something from the pitcher, which is why I would lower the mound. But there's nothing sacrosanct about the baseball, it's been changed many, many times over the years. And in fact, it's been changed in the last five years. We know that. So many studies have been done, many of which I cite in the book, showing that the baseball is different. Whether it was done intentionally or not is hard to say. My guess is that it wasn't intentional, but it doesn't really matter. The fact is that the baseball is different. So why not make it different again on purpose and make it a little bit harder, not a lot, but a little bit harder to hit the ball 400 feet.

The idea of the bullpen game also rose drastically this year, and I think that’s also causing a lot of concern around baseball parts about what the future of the starting pitcher is and things like that. And it probably isn't a coincidence with all the strikeouts as well. Do you expect to see even more of the bullpen game in 2019? And is it even good for the game?
I believe we’re going to see a great deal more. We saw good teams winning with that strategy, the Rays more than anybody else, but a lot of other teams dabbled and were successful.

There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to see more of it next year, the question is how much more. 25% more? 100% more? 300% more? I don't know. I mean, the infield shifting exploded once people saw that it worked. It really only takes one team to do something and to win and for other teams to follow, especially when it makes so much sense. Very few teams have four or five really good starting pitchers. Just a few do, and even those teams do bullpenning because their guys get hur or need a rest. So yes, I would be very surprised if we didn't see a lot more of it next season. 

Now is it is good for the game? I'm conflicted. I love seeing different things. I love the innovation.
That said, Of course, it leads to more strikeouts, then fewer batted balls in play which is not in my opinion good for the game. It leads to better pitching and, and more hard throwing pictures out there. As a fan, I’d love to see one team do it because it's interesting. But I don't want to see everybody doing it. Because that leads to less interesting baseball across the board. 

You asked me before about what could be done. I do think there should be a limit on pitching changes. And I do think there should be a limit on how many pitches you can carry on your roster. I think 11 or maybe 12 should be the absolute limit. The roster rules have been liberalized, so it's very easy to move guys up and down between the minors and the majors, between the disabled list and the active roster. If you want to carry 12 pitchers, fine, but you can’t bring a guy up for one day and then send them back down, which happens all the time. So they're in a sense, they're not 12 men pitching staffs they’re 15, 16, 17-men pitching staffs really, effectively. And that's what allows both pending that's what allows bullpenning, the steady parade of relievers and all the pitching changes and also to some degree leads to more strikeouts.

Policing that would be a nightmare, right? You’ve got Shohei Ohtani – is he a pitcher or is he a hitter? Maybe a pitcher is ineffective or maybe a pitcher gets injured. It’s pretty hard to police the number of pitchers on a roster and the number of pitchers used in a game, right?
It wouldn’t be difficult to police a limit on pitchers. Everybody on the roster gets a designation, and he’s a pitcher or he’s not. Yes of course there are a few guys who do both, but those cases are so rare. I would simply say that until someone pitched in X number of games when the score was within four runs or something he's not a pitcher. That’s not difficult.

The disabled list is tough because it's not difficult to find a doctor who will say yes, this guy is hurt. People will tell you reasonably that nobody's ever 100 percent healthy. So the DL rules are tough to police, but the roster rules are not. 

I think I cite one pitcher in the book. He was promoted to the majors something like six times or seven times and spent literally seven days on the 25-man roster. That's ridiculous.
In fact, that used to be against the rules, but it’s now allowed through various mechanisms. But there's no good reason for it other than it makes managers lives easier. It doesn't keep guys healthy, not much healthier, it doesn't make for a better sport, it's just been allowed to happen, because the union wanted it. And the teams wanted it. But it’s not good for the game. It's one of the best examples for how the game has been allowed to be run for the pleasure and the convenience of the players and the coaches, and not the fans, which is the whole reason for professional sports. Professional sports don't exist for the pleasure of the players, but that's how it's run these days.

I think we can agree that there are a lot of very reliable metrics for measuring the value of a pitcher and the value of a hitter, how good they are, how bad they are. But I am still not fully convinced about defensive metrics. Is there with StatCast now, maybe the ones that are available to us are not as good, but the ones that are available to the teams are sufficient? I'm just curious if you think there are defensive metrics out there that are actually reliable enough to quantify a player's value.
I am convinced that what the teams have now tells them almost everything they want to know or almost everything worth knowing. I believe that if you take 100 guys and you run them through the numbers that the team has, I would be surprised that they missed in a meaningful way on more than one or two of those guys. And maybe it's zero, I really don't know, because I don't see the numbers. But I think they know what they need to know, about defense at this point, certainly much more than they did 10 years ago. 

I think on the public side, we're pretty close. And not because of the StatCast numbers, although those are helpful, but because of all the other data that's out there. 

I'm a voter on the Fielding Bible every year at Sports Info Solutions. And so I dig into this every fall, I dig into the different metrics that are publicly available, as I fill out my ballot. And there's still a great deal of disagreement, at least on certain players. I only bring this up because I don't mean to pick on Baseball Prospectus. I mentioned this in a tweet a few weeks ago. Baseball Prospectus has Andrelton Simmons as being a roughly average, maybe a little below average shortstop in 2018. The other metrics that I looked at had him being outstanding as they do every year. Well, I wouldn't say with great confidence that Baseball Prospectus is metrics is reading Simmons poorly. I suspect that's the case, but I don't know that. It might be that everybody else is wrong. My point is that until all public metrics agree on every player, then we have to assume some level of error, right?

I would with a fair degree of trust that a consensus of public metrics are giving us a pretty, pretty good picture. And most of them think Simmons is a great shortstop, and so I think he is. Am I 100% sure? No. 95% sure? No. 85 or 90%? Yes. But if you're running a team, you want to be more sure than that. And I think they are. So we're pretty close on the public side. We're not where the teams are.

Do you think the data that the teams have will ever be made public?
I don’t know. I think there are various parties that have an interest in not making everything public. I think more and more will be made public. With StatCast, they put a little more out each year, and it might be that smart people are able to scrape the best stuff or the most useful stuff already. I think it’s going to come.

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