Baseball BeatJanuary 10, 2004
Not Your Average Joe
By Rich Lederer

BP's Sheehan Talks Baseball, Prospectus, and More Baseball

Joe Sheehan is a co-founder and author of Baseball Prospectus. Joe writes his Prospectus Today column, which is available to BP Premium subscribers, from the standpoint of the informed outsider. His analysis and opinions are highly entertaining and insightful.

Joe was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1994 with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism (print emphasis). Joe and his wife Sophia have been married since 1996, and they currently reside in the greater Los Angeles area. Outside of baseball, Joe's interests include cooking, reading non-fiction, golf, and poker although "not in that order".

I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe as part of my offseason series of discussions with baseball's best online writers and analysts. Grab a cup of coffee, settle in, and be sure to take copious notes.

RWBB: When did you begin to follow baseball?

Joe: My earliest baseball memories are of a nighttime Mets game when I was four or five and of playing Wiffle ball on the sidewalk around that time. The first specific memories I have are of the Bucky Dent game, when I was seven.

RWBB: You must not be a Red Sox fan or you would have given ol' Bucky a certain middle name.

Joe: I'm a huge Yankees fan, have been since I was a little kid. My birthday present for a number of years was tickets to a doubleheader, back when they scheduled them. When I got older, I'd go to 20-25 games a summer. To me, no place in baseball will ever be like Yankee Stadium.

RWBB: Who was your favorite player growing up?

Joe: Chris Chambliss was my first. I cried when he was traded after the 1979 season, and I still remember Jerry Girard on WPIX making the announcement.

Starting in 1983, it was Don Mattingly. I imitated his batting style, cheered him like a maniac at the Stadium, and probably saw 80% of his at-bats from '84 through '89.

RWBB: You only followed Donnie Baseball in his good years, ehh?

Joe: Don't make me come over there, Rich. No, it's just that I went to college in '89, so I didn't see as many Yankee games living in L.A. It really hurt to watch the back take him down. 1990 was the worst, but he was such a different hitter after that, lacking the explosion out of the crouch that gave him his power.

Mattingly has talked about how he felt like he found his power late in 1995. The Tino Martinez acquisition forced him out of New York, but I've often wondered whether he might have had a resurgence had he continued playing.

RWBB: Who is your favorite player now?

Joe: I guess if I have to think about it, I really don't have one, huh? It was Greg Maddux for a while. I used to build my schedule to catch his starts. Now...I love watching Mark Prior (Fight On!)...Eric Gagne is a lot of fun.

RWBB: How would you compare Prior to another Trojan great, Tom Seaver?

Joe: I wouldn't. I think there are similarities in that both have excellent, but differing mechanics, and the USC connection works, but I really would be reluctant to compare the guy with 320 major-league innings to the guy with about that many wins.

RWBB: You were one of the five names on the cover of the first Baseball Prospectus book.

Joe: I've been involved with Baseball Prospectus since before it had a name. Gary Huckabay and Clay Davenport had a plan to publish Clay's Translations and Gary's projections along with player comments in a book. They had been doing so on USENET, in the newsgroup, for years.

Rany Jazayerli offered them his Organizational Pitching Reports for use in the as-yet-unnamed book. When Rany--who was a friend of mine though a Strat league--told me this, I offered my services as an editor on the project. Gary, who only really knew me through the newsgroup, invited me on board. I might even forgive him one day.

This all happened in the fourth quarter of 1995. We published BP 1996 just in time for Opening Day.

RWBB: Tell us about BP's original mission.

Joe: To write the book we all wanted to read.

RWBB: How has BP evolved over the years?

Joe: Well, the advent and popularity of the World Wide Web, which really wasn't a factor when we were doing the first book, changed things. We've evolved from a "book with a Web site" to a content provider across all media. Obviously we've grown from a staffing standpoint, from the original five to...oh, geez, we probably have 50 or more people doing some type of work for the company now.

Perhaps the most noticeable change, on a daily basis, is our relationship to the industry. We've worked hard to gain the respect of people within baseball, and we now have relationships with every front office, as well as most major media outlets. Our work has had an impact on the game, and I don't think we could have hoped for more in the winter of '95-'96.

RWBB: How successful has Baseball Prospectus Premium been thus far?

Joe: Very. When we went through the process last winter of setting it up, and making estimates of subscribers and what-not, we had a target number in mind. We passed that number by the middle of spring training, and have left it far, far, behind.

I can't say enough about how gratifying that was for us. Beyond the business success, to know that we'd actually underestimated how much people enjoy the work we do and the number who would pay for it was a great feeling.

RWBB: What new areas can you envision for BP in the future?

Joe: We're going to keep improving the Web site, and as technology and bandwidth allow, we want to develop new features that will enhance the user experience. The success of Baseball Prospectus Radio extends our reach and has created interest in developing a television property, something we're exploring. Syndicated content in print publications, such as last fall's run in the New York Sun, is also coming.

We want to reach baseball fans. Not just statheads, not just number crunchers, but the millions of people who love this game.

RWBB: There's been a lot said recently about the mainstream media vs. the Internet media. Where does BP fit in?

Joe: That's a false dichotomy. It's not about the medium or the characterization of it, but the content, disseminated in all forms to as many people as possible. We had to get our hands around that a few years back, when we realized that the Web site and radio gigs and were bringing more people in than the book was.

I know what you're asking, Rich, and I don't entirely know the answer myself. We're clearly not as mainstream as ESPN or The New York Times, but we're also not just some guys with a Web site. I can make a fairly strong argument that we're the first new-media company to have a claim to a spot next to those established entities, at least in the sports world.

RWBB: With respect to the BP book, you recently decided to change publishers.

Joe: Brassey's was a strong partner for a number of years, and we wish them well. To reach a larger audience, however, we wanted a larger publisher with more experience selling mainstream and sports books. We had interest from many, which was gratifying.

We're excited about the new relationship with Workman; they put out well-designed, eye-catching products, and they've shown a real enthusiasm for Baseball Prospectus 2004.

RWBB: What's in store for this year's edition?

Joe: Let's see...Nate Silver takes a look at PECOTA's performance in 2003, Clay Davenport revisits his Japanese League translations, Keith Woolner on catcher defense, and Doug Pappas on marginal wins per dollar going back 25 years.

That is, of course, in addition to the 30 team essays, the stats, the projections, and the commentary on 1500-odd players.

RWBB: Are you afraid of losing your good, young writers and analysts to MLB a la Keith Law?

Joe: Heck, no. If we were to become some kind of farm system for young baseball executives, that would be all kinds of good. The game would get better, we'd strengthen our ties to front offices, and obviously we would be able to attract new talent. The Baseball Prospectus name can only be enhanced by something like that.

Keep in mind that Keith's career path is a non-standard one. There are few people with his qualifications, which is why he's now part of a young front office just beginning to do great things. But it's not hard to see how people like Clay Davenport, Keith Woolner, and Gary Huckabay could help a team, especially one that needs to maximize its investments in player personnel.

RWBB: What do you see yourself doing in 3-5 years? Writing for BP or working for a major league team?

Joe: Depends on when you ask me. I really do have a cool job, although like any writer, the process can be frustrating. I want to avoid repeating myself, while continuing to do solid analysis and be entertaining.

Sometimes, I do think it would be fun to be putting this stuff into practice, rather than simply writing about it from the outside. I think applying the principles of the informed outsider to team-building, and making those mesh with the best insider approaches--and improving both sides along the way--would lead to better baseball.

So to answer the question, I'd like to be doing either.

RWBB: If you were a GM, would you place more emphasis on "tools" or "metrics"?

Joe: Yes.

You need to know about both. Performance is merely the results gained by applied tools (or skills, if you prefer). Performance is what has value, however; no one wins by having better tools. What I would have to work on is finding people who can evaluate tools outside of the existing biases in the scouting community. Don't tell me about "the good face," or the projectable body or that the guy doesn't look good with his shirt off. Tell me--quantify for me--what his physical abilities are, and how those apply to baseball.

Evaluating scouts--evaluating the entire process of scouting--is long overdue. I don't think anyone, myself included, knows exactly where to start or what that process will look like, but I can tell you that it's one of those "next" areas that progressive organizations will be addressing in the future.

RWBB: Which team has helped itself the most this off-season?

Joe: You have to split this into "AL East" and "Other" categories, don't you? The Yankees upgraded two rotation slots with #1 starters and added Gary Sheffield. Of course, they didn't address their defense. The Orioles made huge gains over their 2003 holes at shortstop and catcher by adding Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez. The Red Sox fell short on Alex Rodriguez, but added 300 innings of right-handed goodness in Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke.

The Mets picked up a ton of talent up the middle in Kazuo Matsui and Mike Cameron. They could allow 60 fewer runs on defensive improvement alone.

So I'd rank them Orioles, Mets, Yankees, Red Sox, and note that the first two teams appear to be Vladimir Guerrero's biggest suitors.

RWBB: Given the Yankees and Red Sox "can you top this" drama this winter and the Brewers cutting payroll by 25%, do you think the CBA is working to restore competitive balance?

Joe: I think that's a loaded question. Competitive balance wasn't actually a problem under the old CBA; the perception of an imbalance, driven by a number of factors but foremost MLB's interest in the illusion, was. The relationships between payroll and success, or market size and revenue, or revenue and payroll, are much more complex than most fans or media understand.

If anything, the new CBA may be creating a problem, in that there is a set of rules in place that does appear to constrain the activities of 29 teams...but that one team doesn't really give a damn about. It's hard to see the Yankees not being affected by paying $60 million or more in success tax each year, but they're certainly not acting as if that's a deterrent.

RWBB: If the A-Rod-Manny trade doesn't go through, do you think the Red Sox clubhouse can recover from it?

Joe: Absolutely. We make too much of interpersonal issues, and whether one person or another has had his feelings hurt. The Sox will be just fine, because the people involved will behave better than the media covering them, much to that media's chagrin.

RWBB: Who is your best bet among players with fewer than 100 plate appearances last year to have a big season in 2004?

Joe: Jeremy Reed could fill the White Sox' CF hole and be Rookie of the Year. David DeJesus might be blocked in K.C., but he's a very good player who's ready. I have to mention Rickie Weeks as well.

RWBB: Does PECOTA tell you anything about Reed, DeJesus, or Weeks?

Joe: Sure. (Smiles.) But you'll have to check the book or BP Premium to find out exactly what.

RWBB: That's fair enough. Who is most likely in your judgment to be a bust in 2004?

Joe: I don't like any of the Angels' signings much, especially Kelvim Escobar. I worry about the number of pitches Carlos Zambrano threw and think he may decline or be hurt in '04.

RWBB: That would be a major blow to the Cubs.

Joe: They have starting pitching to burn, especially if Angel Guzman makes a quick recovery. I'm more concerned with their offense, which is heavily right-handed and slow. Of course, if two of the big three go down...

RWBB: ...then Dusty Baker will be in big trouble. Along this line of thought, which manager is most likely to be fired first?

Joe: Joe Torre, because Bad George is very much back.

RWBB: Is Brian Cashman just a figurehead or does he have much say in personnel matters?

Joe: "Figurehead" is a strong word. Ah, maybe it's not. Let's just say he'd like to be elsewhere.

RWBB: Where do you think the Expos will end up and when?

Joe: D.C., in either '05 or '06. The rest of the owners are getting sick of paying for the team, and the conflicts that creates are becoming untenable.

RWBB: You coined the term, "There Is No Such Thing As a Pitching Prospect". You don't think it is possible to identify the Mark Priors and Josh Becketts of the world?

Joe: I've become associated with that term, but the credit for it goes to Gary Huckabay.

I place Mark Prior, and what I call "fully-formed" college pitchers, in a category apart from pitching prospects. Mike Mussina, Barry Zito...guys like that aren't ever really "pitching prospects," although they may make 15-20 starts in the minors. I think drafting those guys is usually a good investment; it's like signing a free agent, really.

As great as Beckett was in October, isn't his career path an argument in favor of TNSTAAPP? He's made 44 starts in two seasons, and if the Marlins don't win the wild card, he's just another pitcher with potential and problems.

I'm not taking away from what he did in the postseason but am pointing out that the perception of his status is largely driven by that month. He'd been hampered by nagging injuries, mostly blisters, up to that point.

TNSTAAPP, as I wrote earlier this year, is a shorthand way of making the argument that we underestimate the path to becoming a major-league pitcher. Young men--teenagers, 20- and 21-year-olds--get hurt along the way, and hyping some kid who beats up the Carolina League is a completely unrealistic viewpoint when we know how different baseball is at that level. The necessary skills, the competition, and the conditions just don't compare.

Will the TNSTAAPP viewpoint miss some guys? Absolutely, but it will be right more often because it won't place outsized expectations on minor-league pitchers, and it will correctly assess the risks involved in their careers.

RWBB: What are the most important metrics you use in evaluating whether a minor leaguer can be successful in the bigs?

Joe: The most important ones vary depending on who we're talking about, but the first thing you need to know is age relative to level. Everything spins off of that.

Raw power, as measured by isolated slugging; plate discipline, as measured by K/BB ratio and the rates of both strikeouts and walks; positional value, both what he plays and the likelihood that he'll keep playing it. That last one requires input from people within the game, as well as whatever data on defense, such as Clay Davenport's, you can get.

For pitchers, I look at strikeout, walk, and home-run rates, as well as workload (usually IP/start, for short). How he's getting those numbers is important, too; command guys like the Pirates' Sean Burnett can often do well up to Triple-A, with great rates, but they don't miss enough bats to end up with comparable success.

RWBB: Which metrics do you think are still underappreciated or undervalued?

Joe: We probably need to find better ways to work "outs" into discussions of hitters. At-bats and plate appearances are poor substitutes. If we actually were able to show how many fewer outs that, say, Manny Ramirez made as opposed to Garret Anderson, it would highlight the difference between the two.

RWBB: Which ones do you feel are overappreciated or overvalued?

Joe: We'll probably never be done with RBI, which are a proxy for both "production" and "character." Pitcher wins are still seen as a strong measure of success, and there are few statistics more context- and teammate-dependent.

RWBB: Do you think there are any meaningful statistical areas that still need to be better developed?

Joe: Defense, defense, and defense. There's work being done by so many people now, but I don't think we're there with a silver bullet yet. We might never be, but it's better to see people working on that than on the 413th offensive metric.

RWBB: You're of the belief that the game today is much different than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

Joe: The game is always changing. We're in an era that is very hard on pitchers, with smaller strike zones, smaller ballparks, stronger players--especially at traditional non-hitting positions--and a trend towards working counts. Outs are more valuable than ever, so there's less bunting and stealing. I'm not of the opinion that one style of baseball is preferable to all others; I like that the game ebbs and flows, and I believe that it will change again.

RWBB: You've also talked about the difference in setting up a team for the regular season vs. the postseason.

Joe: Nah, lots of people have done that. I go back to what Bill James wrote: "In the postseason, depth don't count." You win in the postseason with your top 15 guys, and I'm as guilty as anyone of getting too worked up about what a manager does with his last roster spots. So you ride your best pitchers, and you go with guys on three days rest, and you let your top reliever go three innings. None of this is rocket science.

RWBB: Speaking of the postseason, which teams do you predict will make it to the World Series this year? And which team do you think will win it all?

Joe: I'll take the Yankees in the AL. The NL...there are some significant unknowns right now, and no great squads. If (Roger) Clemens were to pitch for the Astros, I might go with them; if the Mets sign Vlad, honestly, they start to look good. The Phillies seem to be a popular pick, but I expect Larry Bowa to screw it up.

Geez, I really don't know. I guess I'll go with the Giants. Yanks in 5.

RWBB: Well, Joe, I think we will leave it at that. Thank you for your time and valuable observations.