Making Hay With Jay
Jay Jaffe is the creator of The Futility Infielder. His Around The Bases articles have been enlightening and entertaining readers for nearly three years.
Jay was born in Seattle, raised in Salt Lake City, and is a current resident of New York City. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Brown University in 1992. Jay is a freelance graphic designer and writer, who was commissioned to write a couple of articles for Baseball Prospectus in January.
I had the opportunity to chat with Jay during the past week as part of my offseason series of interviews with baseball's best online writers. Although Jay claims that he hasn't been above replacement level since Little League, I am quite sure that he is referring to his playing skills rather than his analytical talents. Pull up a chair and enjoy.
RWBB: The Futility Infielder. Fill us in on the origin of the name of your blog?
Jay: The short answer is that, in the summer of 2000, the Yanks were having all kinds of problems in their infield due to Chuck Knoblauch's throwing problems. They acquired Jose Vizcaino to stablize the position, Wilson Delgado, and even stuck Clay Bellinger in there at times. Finally, in August, they reacquired Luis Sojo from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Somewhere, either in my email correspondence or over a beer, I remarked that they were now a complete ballclub since they were deep in futility infielders. Lo and behold, both Vizcaino and Sojo had game-winning hits in the 2000 World Series, Sojo's being the series clincher.
The long answer is that I've always been equally fascinated by the scrappy infielders who could barely hit their weight as I was with superstars or even good ballplayers. That probably stems from being a baseball card collector as a youth and having the cards of these shortstops who lasted 10-15 years in the big leagues while hitting one home run a year. Fred Stanley, Darrell Chaney, Jim Mason, Kurt Bevacqua, an endless parade. I can still remember when the term Mendoza Line, after Mario Mendoza, came into play.
RWBB: You're showing your age, Jay. It sounds like you're a "washed up" futility infielder to me.
Jay: Now, I wasn't exactly a slugger during my own Little League career, which was mostly squandered on the soccer fields of Salt Lake City rather than the diamonds. I was small and not particularly strong, though I had a good batting eye. I played all over the field--everywhere except first base, catcher, and pitcher. A real futilityman. No wonder I gravitated towards those guys; they're the only type of player I could have aspired to be.
Fast forwarding to recent history, over a period of a couple years, I'd spent much time emailing friends with all kinds of baseball stuff while frequenting the Baseball Primer Clutch Hits discussion boards. Finally, my friends encouraged me to leave them the hell alone and start a blog. Since I wanted to dabble in designing a web site, it became a bit more fully fledged than the average blog. And thinking back to the previous season, the first name that popped into my head was The Futility Infielder. After registering the domain name in April 2001, I did a search and discovered that Ron Gardenhire, then a coach and now the manager of the Twins, had used the term to describe his own playing career.
RWBB: Are you an overachieving type like most futility infielders?
Jay: Futility infielders tend to be jacks of all trades, and I suppose that describes me. I'm a professional graphic designer, and the writing has been a sideline for the past several years--though lately it's filled up a lot of my time when I've had less work. As a writer, I'm fairly versatile, equally at home doing statistical analysis, news analysis, opinion, first-person narratives, whatever suits my mood. My versatility is something of a substitute for not being great at any one of those, but I like to think I'm pretty solid in many of them.
I guess the other thing about futility infielders is they get to spend a lot of time observing things and thinking about the "why". I suppose that describes me a bit, too.
RWBB: Maybe you could follow in the footsteps of so many other futility infielders, making a second career as a bench coach or possibly as a manager?
Jay: Hahaha! I think the ship has sailed on my career in a uniform, though once in awhile I joke about being available if the Yankees need another reliever. My bum shoulder has pretty much crushed even that pipe dream. Probably the best chance I have of working for a team is in a front office, but there are about 10,000 guys ahead of me in analytical skills.
RWBB: ...and only 30 teams.
Jay: If I were realistic about pursuing a front-office job, I wouldn't limit myself to major-league teams. I'd start in the minors if I could and work my way up. I love minor-league ball. I grew up in Salt Lake City and saw a lot of Triple-A games--farm teams of the Angels and Mariners--and then Single-A--a team called the Salt Lake Trappers, co-owned by actor Bill Murray, that set a professional record for the longest winning streak. Murray used to show up and coach third base for a few innings. I also saw a lot of Walla Walla Padres games with my grandfather, and some of the guys I saw made the majors: Tony Gwynn, John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Kevin Towers (Padre GM), Bob Geren (A's coach who will probably manage in the bigs some day), Jimmy Jones, and Mark Langston and Phil Bradley of the Mariners chain. If I ever win the lottery, among the things I'd do would be to buy a minor-league ballclub and learn about running it.
RWBB: You're one of the old-timers in the business of baseball blogging. What are the biggest changes that you have seen over the past few years?
Jay: Hard to believe I'm an old-timer just three years into this. There have been people talking about baseball on the Internet, primarily in discussion sites going back to rec.sport.baseball, long before I arrived on the scene. But it's true that, even in the time I've been doing this, the landscape has changed dramatically. So many blogs spring up every day, I can barely keep track of them or find the time to visit even the ones I like. The sheer flood is something I'm not used to; back when I got going, there were really only about a half dozen to a dozen I took seriously on any level. Now there's lots of 'em. I try to stay on top of as many as possible because I know that's where my audience is coming from. More blogs mean more people to link to, but also more people linking to me. A rising tide lifts all boats.
The most interesting change since I started has been the implementation of reliable commenting systems. The appearance of Movable Type, which has commenting built in, has shifted a lot of blogs away from Blogger/Blogspot, and the whole comment system makes sure this remains a two-way medium. Not that I get a hell of a lot of comments on a given day unless I really piss somebody off, but people have the option to say their piece, and I like that.
RWBB: Why has the baseball blogosphere become such a popular medium?
Jay: People love to talk about baseball, even... hell, especially if there's snow on the ground. You can reminisce, you can analyze, you can argue, you can BS, and it all beats working, or arguing politics, or staring out the window wondering when winter will end. The sabermetric revolution has done wonders in expanding the dissemination of baseball knowledge. Perhaps Bill James's biggest accomplishment was to expose the fact that an outsider with the right tools can get a better view of the forest than an insider among the trees.
Jay: Now that you've got the Internet giving a guy in New York the ability to instantly find any articles in even the tiniest California paper about a trade rumor or a roster move, there's an overwhelming amount of information out there, and the blogs are a way of filtering that information so that you can find the most interesting and relevant stories from around the country. I think if you're a fan of a particular team, a blogger is going to do a better job of staying abreast of the several sources of info out there than the beat reporter, who's got a serious investment in his own old-school, inside-the-locker-room authority.
RWBB: Are we in competition with one another or are we complementary?
Jay: There's a definite niche to be filled by the bloggers because the mainstreamers are so loathe to step back and analyze using anything that's beyond conventional wisdom. The newspaper and TV guys are the ones still advocating leading off with the speedy player who steals a lot of bases and then batting the guy who can bunt second. The bloggers have been doing their homework and know that you need to worry more about on-base percentage at the top of the lineup than you do about having guys who can play littleball. They also know it doesn't really matter how many errors an infielder makes compared to the number of balls he gets to.
It goes further than that. The newspaper guys also seem to think that whatever Derek Jeter has to say about a tough loss or what Jason Giambi has to say about a long home run is more relevant than analyzing why Joe Torre or the opposing manager made some move in the ballgame that did or didn't pay off. I'm not saying that we should sit around second-guessing managers all the time, but we should be challenging ourselves by asking important questions. Collectively, you'll get a pretty good discourse from the bloggers where you won't in the papers.
I know plenty of people who don't go to the "pros" for their news anymore. They don't really bother reading some of the shrill big-name hacks who populate our nation's sports sections, disseminating old-school wisdom about RBI men, pitchers who know how to win, and the way the Yankees buy their championships. The bottom line is that there's a certain segment of the population that's spoken, and they want their baseball coverage in a different kind of way than they're receiving from the mainstream.
RWBB: What possesses us to spend so much time and energy reading and writing about a game?
Jay: I think it's a way to break across boundaries that otherwise might separate us, whether that be ideologically or temporally. We may not agree on the actions of our politicans or even which team has the better ballpark, but we agree that there are ways to talk about baseball that won't result in lowest common denominator verbal warfare. Whether that means saying, "great game last night" to the delivery guy in the elevator wearing a Mets cap or a Yankee fan swapping email with a Red Sox fan about the Schilling trade, there are ways to connect with people around us.
And in some ways when we write, we're leaving behind a record of who we are, and what our passions are. I wish that my grandfather had kept a journal or scorecards of what he saw because he watched Ruth and Gehrig at Yankee Stadium, Babe Herman getting hit on the head with a fly ball, Mel Ott at the Polo Grounds, John McGraw, all kinds of stuff. I would love to have grandchildren who stumble across what I've written and have that give them a glimpse into who I was at a certain time and what I saw.
RWBB: Do you anticipate any changes ahead in the baseball blogging world?
Jay: Yes. I think you're going to see more aggregation of blogs, like what's happening with so many of my buddies at all-baseball.com, where several sites come under one roof. About which, congratulations on your new digs, by the way.
RWBB: Thanks, Jay. I'm excited about the change and what we can do together.
Jay: I once thought about asking some of my favorite blogspot-type bloggers if they wanted space on my server to spruce things up for themselves, but I'm not sure I have the appetite to be a webmaster beyond my own not-so-simple needs.
I think more cases of aggregation will arise, perhaps by somebody with a desire to do more than just house the sites, maybe exert some editorial muscle and fuse several blogs into one bigger site.
I think the bigger change you're going to see is sports news outlets dabbling in blogging, not always well. Maybe that means they syndicate somebody's blog and run it through their site during the season (Bambino's Curse did that last year with Fox) or maybe a reporter starts a blog of his own--hell, from the looks of things, Peter Gammons just skips the middleman and writes whatever he wants without an editor asking any questions or even fixing the spelling and grammar. Actually I think he's got a monkey at the other end of a telephone who transcribes him and posts straight to ESPN...but I'm getting away from myself.
RWBB: I just ask the questions, Peter. Jay's the one who answers them.
Jay: There are ways that the dabbling might work well, and ways that might become an unmitigated disaster, especially if controversial opinions are aired or if some reporter does something unjournalistic or otherwise foolish.
RWWB: Speaking of controversy, you're no stranger to it...
RWWB: ...having recently criticized the Sons of Sam Horn moderators over the way they handled the quoting of Curt Schilling's posts there. How do you feel about that whole brouhaha?
Jay: What is this, Meet the Press? My intelligence said that the Sons of Sam Horn had Weapons of Mass Destruction Related Program Activities going on...no, wait. That wasn't me.
Getting involved in the Schilling matter, some would say, showed that my intelligence was questionable! Without rehashing all of this in painstaking detail, my first response was to come to the defense of a respected peer who'd been unfairly slammed by a moderator in public. I tried to amplify what I felt was a pretty outrageous activity, but, in doing so, I went looking for trouble and said some inflammatory things. The debate degenerated into a verbal rock fight until the moderator stepped forward and apologized, at which point I did my best to begin mending fences and restoring civility. I think for the most part that's been done to everybody's satisfaction. I'm not sure how many friends I still have in Red Sox Nation, but then I'm rooting against them anyway.
I don't think Schilling's statements were aimed at the bloggers or the Primates. Instead, I believe (and so do most others who've weighed in) that they were aimed at the real media which has access to him seven months a year. I do think that if a blogger or a Primate decides to use part of what he says, they should take great pains to do so in a manner which complies with our common understanding of "Fair Use", including a link to the actual quote to show the context of what he said. I know that this position may still be open to criticism. I'm not looking for a fight anymore so I'm not really that interested in touching what Schilling says there although I like checking in from time to time to read his comments. I saw the other day that Gordon Edes of the Boston Globe used a chunk of what Schilling said about the A-Rod trade in one of his columns, and I'll be interested to see how that plays out.
RWBB: Tell us about The Big Book of Bitter Defeats that you created.
Jay: One of the things I really enjoy about writing is the chance to preserve a bit of the vocabulary that my friends and I use, and perhaps add something to the lexicon. The site name is one example that I came up with, and the Big Book is another. Like much of my humor, it's based on a Simpsons reference, in this case the Big Book of British Smiles which Lisa sees at the dentist's office. The phrase popped into my head one day, probably using sports as a metaphor for some other kind of disappointment--romance perhaps or maybe an election.
I imagine some weighty tome, bigger than the MacMillan Baseball Enyclopedia, that each fan has in their mind which carries an excruciatingly detailed record of all of those heartbreaking losses, the ones for which they will always carry a grudge. You know, whatever you do, you are never going to forget how painful this loss was.
RWBB: Your Big Book of Bad Ideas is a companion piece, correct?
Jay: Yes, though I imagine the Big Book of Bad Ideas to be something a manager has at his side during a ballgame. "Page 437: In an elimination game, it is often best to dance with the gal what brung you. Leave a tiring starting pitcher in the game until the score is tied, otherwise you run the risk of letting your bullpen blow the lead." Though there are definitely some non-game ideas which would fit in there: GMs signing pitchers to long-term contracts, bloggers starting fights with armies of fans, politicians screaming into microphones during election season, politicians dating interns...My friends and I have another phrase that I'll invoke here: "It's going to end in tears." If it comes from the BBBI, it's going to end in tears.
RWBB: You and Alex Belth traveled to New Orleans for the Winter Meetings. What impressed you the most?
Jay: That we were able to do it so easily and that it was so much fun! We were invited down as Friends of Baseball Prospectus, a chance to meet some guys who respected our work and wanted us all to get some face time with each other and to show us a bit of how the system worked. On that level, it was great fun.
On the larger level, it's amazing just observing the scene of several hundred people milling about in a hotel lobby, tapping each other for information or just talking baseball lightheartedly, all while ogling other men. You'd think Omar Minaya was wearing a thong bikini for all the attention he got. I can't say that there's all that much to see visually; it's not like you're going to see two GMs reach down into their briefcases and swap contracts right there. But you feel close to the action because you get to watch Peter Gammons working the room on one side, Scott Boras striking up a conversation on the other, Dusty Baker shaking hands with Lou Piniella, all while Jack McKeon is smoking his cigar outside.
RWBB: What surprised you the most?
Jay: The Tejada deal, I guess, was the real blockbuster, and nobody saw it coming. The buzz that signing created was tremendous. The way you could tap the grapevine to get a sense of how other deals were unfolding, such as the Mike Cameron one--at 1 p.m. when we show up in the lobby, the word is that he may be considering San Diego, at 4 when we're going for a late lunch, the word is he's headed to Oakland, and by 7 p.m. when we're drinking the ill-advised second hurricane, he's a New York Met. The other really good one on that note was the Brian Cashman situation. On Friday, Steinbrenner wouldn't let the Yankee contingent go down to New Orleans and had apparently taken control of the personnel reins. On Saturday, the New York papers run articles about a disgruntled "friend" of Cashman's leaking word that the Yankee GM's got just one more year on his contract and then he's out of there. By Sunday night, Steinbrenner's picked up his option for another year!
On a personal level, I was surprised and touched that my work is thought of highly enough by the BP guys that they asked me to join them for this. We had a lot of fun down in New Orleans, and I think I've got a few more really good friends within this racket now.
RWBB: Now that Rupert Murdoch no longer owns the Dodgers, are you tempted to switch your allegiance from the Yankees back to your original love?
Jay: I don't really think that allegiance ever went away; I've always said that if the two teams met in the World Series, there's no question I'd be breaking out Dodger blue.
I follow the Yanks because they're right in front of my nose, I can go to the ballgames any time I want and because, in the course of my daily reading, I can digest the contents of about eight different sources and filter out the BS from the real stuff pretty quickly, and then make something out of that which people enjoy reading. They're a fun team to follow, and I appreciate the fact that I have lots of Yankee fans who look to me for a good, smart take on the team.
But deep down, I have to admit that I don't love the Yanks the way I do the Dodgers. I've written about the Dodgers several times over the course of my blogging. This winter, I've probably had as much to say about them, especially regarding their sale, as I have the Yanks. I think the biggest reason for my Dodger allegiance returning isn't necessarily the sale, it's that I found a blog--Jon Weisman's Dodger Thoughts--that does a great job covering them. He's really got a finger on the pulse of it, and his work helps to keep me abreast of what's going on in a way that I just can't get from ESPN or the wire reports. If blogging in general and Weisman in particular had been doing this in '97, I might not have strayed so far afield. With him around and being a great correspondent, I feel invested again.
RWBB: Jon has a special knack that makes us all sit up and take notice of the Dodgers, like them or not.
Jay: I think a good writer can do that about any team. I like to think that's why I've got Sox fans who read my blog or why I read Bambino's Curse or Cub Reporter or blogs about the Twins, the A's, the Mariners, or the Mets.
I guess deep down, I'm really a baseball fan more than I am a fan of a single team. Ever since the '79 Pirates came along, I've had no problem taking an interest in another team if mine wasn't in the championship hunt. I'm not redecorating my walls every year, mind you, and the answer to the "favorite teams" question doesn't change. But I'm perfectly happy to spend a couple of weeks or months taking an interest in another team for the purposes of watching baseball to the final out of the season. And I'm perfectly happy to incorporate reading blogs devoted to other teams into my weekly regimen of getting around the Internet.
RWBB: You are a student and proponent of Defense Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS). Do you believe pitchers have much, if any, control over balls in play?
Jay: Based on what I've read and studied, I'd say, "Some, but not nearly as much as the average fan thinks. And not enough that you should confuse those results with the ones over which the pitcher has more control."
RWBB: Why do you suppose a pitcher such as Glendon Rusch shows up so well in DIPS yet so poorly in his actual ERA?
Jay: Mike Emeigh of Baseball Primer actually answered this one pretty well. Basically, Rusch is a guy who gives up a disproportionate number of line drives, and line drives aren't converted to outs nearly as frequently as grounders or fly balls. Part of that is a scoring bias--whoever's recording the type of hit is more likely to score a hit as a line drive rather than a ground ball. But part of that is just a meatball factor; guys who don't have the stuff to keep hitters from hitting the ball hard get pounded. They usually don't stick around very long. Rusch, because of the lousy teams he's pitched for and the occasional glimpses of potential he's shown, is just somebody who has. But I would be wary of taking his DIPS results too literally because of the line-drive factor.
RWBB: Who shows up in DIPS as a pitcher whose upside hasn't been fully recognized yet?
Jay: Well, most of the guys with the lowest dERAs are guys who are generally recognized as good, if not great, pitchers. The top 10 in dERA based on 100 innings were Pedro Martinez, Mark Prior, Curt Schilling, Jason Schmidt, Kevin Brown, Guillermo Mota, Esteban Loaiza, Javier Vazquez, Josh Beckett, and Mike Mussina. Heralded youngsters like Brandon Webb and Johann Santana are in the top 20, as is Miguel Batista, who was a nice signing by Toronto, and Carlos Zambrano, who's a bit overshadowed by Prior and Kerry Wood and now Greg Maddux in Chicago but still very good. I'd say that Batista and Zambrano haven't really been recognized by most fans yet, and they just learned about Beckett in October.
RWBB: Name the pitchers whose DIPS numbers suggest trouble ahead.
Jay: Ryan Franklin should rent, not buy. Out of all the pitchers whose dERAs are higher than ERAs (which suggests trouble down the road), he's half a run ahead of everybody else. Guys like Darrell May (KC) and Kip Wells (Pittsburgh) don't inspire much confidence. A lot of of the guys in that class aren't ones you'd gravitate to anyway, they're guys putting up 4-something ERAs that should be 5-something.
RWBB: You were born in 1969, the year baseball celebrated its 100th anniversary. Name your all-time team since your birth.
Jay: Assuming I can count 1969, while I was in the womb...Most of this is informed by how these guys would fare using the system I devised for a pair of articles (Analyzing the Hitters and Pitchers) for Baseball Prospectus on the 2004 Hall of Fame ballot. As such, I'm a little reluctant to tap players who are still on the early side of their careers.
SP (RH): Roger Clemens -- I'll take his durability over Pedro's fragility.
SP (LH): Randy Johnson -- Once he found himself, an incredibly dominant pitcher.
RP: Rich Gossage -- From an emotional standpoint, I'm tempted to take Mariano Rivera, but he's got to have a few more great years before he can hang with the Goose.
C: Gary Carter -- Pudge and Piazza still have work to do to catch him.
1B: Eddie Murray -- If there was ever a guy who deserved the title "Steady Eddie".
2B: Roberto Alomar -- Even if he stopped playing two years ago. Which he kinda did.
SS: Cal Ripken, Jr. -- If he stays at short, sooner or later this will be A-Rod's slot.
3B: Mike Schmidt -- pre Bonds and A-Rod, the most complete ballplayer I've ever seen.
LF: Barry Bonds -- Hate the player, love his game.
CF: Rickey Henderson -- He only played 2 full years in CF, but I have to fit him on here.
RF: Dave Winfield -- I don't think he got his due.
DH: If I could slot any player who came up short at the other positions, it would be Tim Raines or George Brett. If I limited myself to guys who were regularly DHs, I'd say Edgar Martinez.
RWBB: Who would be your Futilityman?
Jay: I can't let this go without throwing some names out there, even if they don't really fit the definition of a futility infielder. I loved the way Davey Lopes (my favorite Dodger as a youth) held on by playing a bunch of positions and embracing the utility role. Pedro Guerrero could hit anywhere you put him. Tony Phillips is probably the best of the recent ones at moving around the diamond while staying productive.
RWBB: And how about a Manager to round out the All-Jaffe team?
Jay: Earl Weaver. OK, he took over halfway through '68. I'm still impressed by how much of today's game is informed by his thinking.
RWBB: Weaver was definitely ahead of his time. And, speaking of time, I think we have just run out. Thank you, Jay, for sharing your wisdom with us today.
Jay: Thanks, Rich, it's been a pleasure.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]