Keith Law is smart, and not just about baseball
A series of interesting conversations with interesting people.
Known for his baseball analyst chops at Baseball Prospectus, the front office of the Toronto Blue Jays, and now ESPN, Keith Law has answered the prayers of his fans by publishing his first book, Smart Baseball. We chatted with Keith about his new book, what he’s been reading lately, and his board game obsession.
You recently published your first book, Smart Baseball, which is the story behind the old stats that are ruining the game, what numbers actually work, and what the rise of Big Data means for baseball. After years of writing for websites what inspired a full-length book?
It came from readers asking me for a book like this one, something they could read to get up to speed on why traditional stats (like wins, saves, RBIs) are terrible for evaluating players and what new stats they should use instead. This book just didn’t exist in the marketplace, so I saw an opportunity to write it, which also helped me fulfill my lifelong goal of writing a book.
Your book is about sabermetrics, which is a new system for measuring both player and team potential that many of the front offices in the MLB are now embracing. How did sabermetrics develop and why is it so much better at measuring success?
The sabermetric revolution has been a long time in coming, since the first efforts to quantify value on the field date back to the 1950s, but it accelerated in the mid-2000s with the publication of Moneyball and the World Series wins by stat-savvy teams like the Red Sox and Cardinals. That alerted other teams that it was becoming an evolve-or-die situation: you adapt with the changing competitive landscape or you end up like the Diamondbacks, who just fired their last GM in the fall when it became clear they had fallen too far behind other teams in analytical capabilities.
Analytics are better than just using pure scouting because the numbers are objective and rational. I advocate a mixed approach in the book, with a chapter on traditional scouting methods, but the data teams get now provide so much more detailed and accurate information than they ever had before.
Your job takes you all over the country traveling from training camps and games, covering players and teams alike. What does a typical day-in-the life even look like for you?
As you guessed, there’s no typical day for me. If I’m home, I’m usually reading stuff online to start the day and then either I get on the phone to talk to scouts or I start writing, even if it’s just stuff for my personal blog, to get myself started.
If I’m on the road, the biggest issue is remembering what city I’m in when I wake up in the morning.
We know you are a foodie so we have to ask, what ballpark has the best food?
We’re finally getting more local food in ballparks. I think Citi Field (New York Mets) might have the best selection, with Shake Shack and Blue Smoke among the options. But Target Field (Minnesota Twins) has great local spots in the park, including Butcher & the Boar and Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen, and now SunTrust Park in Atlanta has a sausage stand from Hugh Acheson.
We also hear you’re a German board game enthusiast (i.e. Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, etc). Tell us, how did you first get introduced, and since you’re known in the baseball community for your rankings, can you give us your top 3 favorite games?
It was sort of an accident — I’d read about Catan and picked it up, my wife found Ticket to Ride in a local store, and we had gotten an obscure game, Babel, on a trip to Vienna many years ago, where we pretty much just picked a box that looked interesting. When I mentioned a few games in chats or on social media, I’d get a fervent response from other players, so I started seeking out more games and taking recommendations, which led to me doing reviews on my blog, which led to Paste asking me to review games for their site, which even led me to go to GenCon, the enormous, annual board game convention in Indianapolis. It started as a fun hobby but became something much bigger over time.
You are a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, where you get to vote for Baseball Hall of Fame candidates and several annual awards including the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award. What’s it like to be part of the BWAA?
I’m in the group, but I rant often against some of what the group does in award voting, including the Hall of Fame, which gets its own section in Smart Baseball. I have also commented often on the lack of diversity within the BBWAA, especially our chronic lack of African-American members, although that’s an issue in the baseball industry as a whole, media and team sides alike.
Prior to ESPN you were the Special Assistant to the GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. How and why did you decide to make the jump from the front office to the writing desk?
My wife was expecting our daughter back in 2006 and I was unhappy with my role in Toronto, which had changed substantially since I’d first joined. I wanted something with more stability and more growth potential, and I really missed the freelance writing I’d done prior to joining Toronto. When ESPN told me they had an opening for someone to write about prospects from a scouting perspective, I thought it was a perfect fit, and have been fortunate in that I’ve been able to mold the job as I’ve gone along.
You hold a weekly “klawchat” on your blog where you take (mostly) baseball related questions from fans & enthusiasts alike. What is the craziest question you’ve been asked on a klawchat?
I will answer almost anything, really. I’ve talked a lot about having anxiety disorder, for which I take medication and do other things like meditate and exercise, so much of my personal life is open for readers. I keep stuff about my family somewhat private. That’s the area where people get too personal, asking questions about matters I’d only share with close friends.
What have you been finding interesting lately / what have you been saving and recommending about recently?
What are your go-to places — sites, apps, people, etc — for finding new stories to read and watch in Pocket?
Most of what I save I see go by on Twitter — I follow a diverse group of people, the majority of whom are outside the baseball world. Journalists, scientists, media outlets, advocacy groups. I talk often about how vaccines are safe, effective, and essential for public health, so I follow several people who delve into the world of denialism.
I also regularly read and listen to NPR, the Guardian, the NY Times, the Washington Post, and Scientific American, and I get links from regular readers of my Saturday links posts, which I’ve titled “stick to baseball” in honor of the ignoramuses who say that to me whenever I dare to discuss a subject outside that of my day job.
If you had the chance to escape and read all of your current Pocket saves where would you go to do it?
Italy. That’s where six of my great-grandparents were born. I’ve been twice and even dream often of being there.
Who would you want to see us interview next?
Check out what Keith is reading, writing and playing here.