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Morning Digest: Why I Applaud Keith Law’s Evolution



By Mike Silva ~ September 16th, 2011. Filed under: Morning Digest.

The Moneyball film will open next Friday, but it already has caused a buzz in the baseball community. As I mentioned the other day, ESPN’s Keith Law wrote a review of the movie over at his personal website “The Dish.” It was a critical review where Law admonished the writers for the lack of a consistent storyline, underdeveloped characters, and inaccurate portrayal of the inner workings of baseball. Most who have watched the film would agree there was artistic license taken by the writers, but Law, unlike others who watched it, wasn’t even entertained. He also took particular offense to the depiction of scouts as “dim-witted.” This set off dialogue throughout the baseball community due to the nature of who Keith Law is and what he’s stands for.

In case you don’t know who Law is, he worked as a special assistant to J.P. Ricciardi in Toronto from 2001 to 2006. Before that he was a freelance writer for ESPN and Baseball Prospectus, He basically sold himself to Ricciardi one year at the winter meetings. You have to admire someone who has the guts and ability to win over one of the 30 elite members of baseball’s front office community.

Law’s comments about the film led to the author of the Moneyball book, Michael Lewis, responding in an interview at Moviefone:

 ”I don’t understand why he goes from being — when I interviewed Keith Law, and I did, at length — he was so nasty about scouts and scouting culture and the stupidity of baseball insiders. He was the reductio ad absurdum of the person who was the smarty pants who had been brought into the game and was smarter than everybody else. He alienated people. And now he’s casting himself as someone who sees the value of the old school. I can’t see where this is all heading and why. But I learned from experience that the best thing to do is ignore it, because it goes away.”

Law decided to defend himself yesterday over at the ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast. This transcript of Law’s comments is courtesy of Drunk Jays Fans. 

When Michael interviewed me for Moneyball– there was one long interview in particular in my office in Toronto; I can still picture where he sat, where I sat– this was 2002. I was 28 or 29, less than a year into my job with the Blue Jays, which was my first job in baseball at all.

Before that I had been a freelance writer, a little for ESPN and a lot for Baseball Prospectus. I was very much a stats guy– only a stats guy– I had no scouting experience.

I was hired by J.P. Ricciardi– who was the General Manager, who came out of Oakland, worked for Billy Beane– who had been a scout, but did not respect scouts or scouting. In fact, one of Ricciardi’s favorite things to do, especially the first six months or so I was there, was call me into his office– or sometimes just call me on the phone, if I was still in Massachusetts– he’d pull out this binder– this gives you a sense of how long ago this was– this binder that had all of our printed scouting reports that amateur and pro scouts had turned in on all of these players that they’d seen, and he would pick a player that he liked. “Hey, let’s go see what our genius scout said about Eric Hinske!” And I could still remember– I know who the scout was, the scout’s now a cross-checker with a National League club, and a friend of mine– “You know what!? This idiot, he thinks Eric Hinske’s an org. player!”– which means a guy with basically with no Major League value, a guy who’s good for a Double-A or Triple-A roster but that’s about it– which was a little light, but what is Eric Hinske? He’s an extra player in the big leagues. I don’t think that’s a disastrous report. But this was how Ricciardi viewed scouts, particularly the Blue Jays scouts he inherited. And he ended up firing, or not renewing, more than half of the scouting staff, as I can remember– many of whom have gone on to senior positions in other scouting departments.

So… I’m not trying to make an excuse here, but just to give you an idea of my mindset at the time. My whole baseball universe was my own work as an analyst, and the guy who brought me into baseball, who was my boss and somebody I admired at the time and was trying to learn from, telling me, “most scouts are useless,” even though he had been a scout himself. And at the time that I sat down with Lewis, I was giving him the party line– something I believed in, absolutely. That was nine years ago, give or take a few months, and I’ve only spoken to Michael once or twice since then– I did talk to him a year or two later; he was planning to do a follow-up book that I think fizzled because the players drafted in the so-called “Moneyball Draft” didn’t work out as well as hoped.

About two years, two-and-a-half years after that– so 2004, 2005– it became pretty clear to me that we were failing. And this was one of the major reasons I left Toronto. There were a couple– that’s a topic for another day– but, it wasn’t working. The stat-heavy approach was… we were basically two steps behind. What we were trying to do was what Oakland had been doing around 2000 or so, and the Red Sox and the Cardinals and the Padres and one or two other clubs– Cleveland– they were pretty clearly adopting some of these same methods. And we were left in the situation– kind of a similar situation to where we were before we even got there, which was that we weren’t innovating fast enough, and the market had become too competitive for the limited type of player we were going for.

It really became apparent to me in the draft room. I remember Tony LaCava– who is still there, who is Alex Anthopoulos’s right-hand man in Toronto– independently had realized the same thing, which was we were killing ourselves, especially in the draft, because we would only take college players with “acceptable” stats. And that’s such a narrow pool, especially when five or six teams are all going for the same type of player. You get to the third or fourth round and you’re done. There’s nobody on the board you think could even be an average regular in the big leagues. 

He and I both spent a lot of time between the ’04 and ’05 drafts, and again between ’05 and ’06, trying to convince Ricciardi, “We’ve got to change this; we’ve got to incorporate more scouting into our process; we have to be willing to look at high school players; we have to be willing to take some of these higher risk tool players who maybe don’t have the perfectly acceptable stat line but give us some upside, some chance to look for hidden value that other clubs aren’t identifying.” And one of the reasons I left in 2006 was the recognition that this approach– this so-called “new school” or “Moneyball” approach– was not going to work. Was never going to work. And they ended up scrapping it after I left.

But while I was there I worked with many scouts– like I said, some of whom have gone on to success with other clubs, many of whom are friends of mine now, and I have to say, many of whom tried to open my mind in 2002, 2003, when I was not open-minded, when I was 28, 29, and walked in the door and was told, “You’re here, you’re gonna replace ten scouts with the work you do.” And I believed it, which was a terrible mistake on my part.

I recognize that Chris Buckley, now the scouting director with the Reds, and Tim Wilken, who’s the scouting director with the Cubs– these guys were trying to help me. Trying to open my mind. Mike Cadahia– who is a cross-checker who was just let go from Seattle, but who is, I think, a very good scout and a very good person, and I hope to see him land somewhere soon– he was trying. These guys were trying to help me realize that there are more ways to do this. And the more inputs you have, the more information you have, the better the decisions you’re going to make.

Part of what I came to ESPN with in 2006 was this vision for a different kind of writing that incorporated everything. And so, when Michael Lewis claims that I was nasty about scouts and scouting culture, there’s a kernel of truth inside the caricature which he paints– which is kind of what he did to several people in the book– Paul DePodesta, I think; there’s a kernel of truth to the caricature of DePodesta in the book Moneyball. But to say that I’m “casting” myself “as someone who sees the value of the old school?” No, I see the value of the old school, and have for five or six years now. And I have tried– I won’t sit here and tell you I’m successful– but I’ve really tried to incorporate both of those things into my writing.

And, I have to say, a lot of the credit for that goes to LaCava, Buckley, Wilken, Cadahia and Billy Moore, and Jeff Taylor, and Mike Mangan– these are all people that I worked with in Toronto, and I’m apologizing for forgetting ten other people I should be crediting here. But they worked with me, they opened my mind, they showed me the beginnings of how to evaluate, but at a time when I wasn’t receptive to it. They tried to show me the importance of this old school, of scouting players from a traditional perspective. It just all caught up to me– two, three years after the fact– that they were trying to help me, and that I had kind of missed out– maybe set myself back in the process. And leaving for ESPN kind of gave me the opportunity to start over and make this major change to my philosophy of baseball, which is what I think you’ve seen over the last couple of years in my writing.

Law seems to be a polarizing figure. Those that subscribe to his writing seem to blindly support him in this situation. It was unprofessional for Lewis to attack Law before talking to him, especially since he was not attacking the concept of Moneyball, but the actual execution of the movie. With that said, the other side of the story I get from some industry people is a man who overstepped his boundaries in Toronto and created friction to move up the front office ranks. The baseball version of office politics, if you will. Those individuals dislike Law because of what he stands for: the newer generation pushing out the old guard. They also enjoyed Lewis taking shots at him because of Law’s perceived arrogance. Baseball is a fraternity and it’s not easy to win over the establishment. It sounds from Law’s comments that he didn’t do a good job of it when he started out.

I always say there are two sides to the story and somewhere in-between is the truth. I don’t know Law personally except for a couple of email exchanges over the years. What I do know is from his podcast comments is that it appears he’s tried to grow as a person and learn from his mistakes. He’s opened his mind, listened to opposing views, and worked on developing a more rounded approach to the game.  How many of us look at our personal business differently today than a decade ago? How many of us were cocky or overconfident at one point in our careers? Are you the same person today that you were 5 years ago? 10 years ago? 20 years ago?

I can identify with Law because I see some what he is going through in me. I have grown since I started covering baseball in March of 2007. Before that I was just another fan who watched the game as a fan and listened to talk radio. By no means do I have the front office experience or analytical background of Keith Law, but I think I know baseball pretty well and can hold my own with the big boys, sometimes.That’s not my point. The point is interacting with people from all different backgrounds, experiences, and writing styles has made me well-rounded. It’s made me a better writer, radio host, and analyst of the game. The best part is how the learning process is fluid. I hope to be better at this in 2012 than I am in 2011. I have made mistakes in the past, but does that mean I can’t learn and grow from it? Should I be punished forever due to something I said in 2009? Should Keith Law be punished because of what he thought at age 29 as a new baseball executive?

Law basically did his mea culpa with the scouting community on the ESPN podcast. Assuming it’s a sincere take – and I have no reason not to believe that is isn’t- he should be applauded. I don’t know the guy personally, but by reviewing his evolution it appears he is someone that many in this community- writers, scouts, executives, and coaches- could learn from; both traditional and advanced thinkers alike. I know I just did.

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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22 Responses to Morning Digest: Why I Applaud Keith Law’s Evolution

  1. Ralph C

    Law is actually from Long Island. He graduated from Smithtown East High School in St. James in 1990, two years before Frank Catalanatto. I’m always suprised that he is not more well known around here.

  2. Daler

    Y would he be well known here? He was a scout in a front office for a bad org

  3. Chuck Johnson

    Law sounds a lot like a five year old who got busted when his Mom came home from work and the cookie jar was empty.

    Blame it on the dog, blame it on Dora the Explorer, blame it on the kid next door, everyone but yourself.

    Your defense of what you said doesn’t change the fact you got caught in a lie.

    I’m quite certain Michael Lewis has the recording or transcripts of the earlier interviews.

    It’s one thing to change your mind or “grow from your mistakes”, it’s another entirely to deny saying something when the entire industry KNOWS you said it because you’re quoted in the book.

    My only regret is Lewis didn’t release the transcripts.

    That way, maybe the suits at ESPN would realize Law is more trouble than he’s worth and shipped him off to Siberia, like they did with Rob Neyer.

  4. Brien Jackson

    So wait, you’re siding with the guy (Lewis) who took artistic license to portray scouts as morons in the book (and the movie is apparently worse) over the guy defending scouts? Well alright then.

  5. Brien Jackson

    I think all you really need to do to know Law is right is look at how erroneously presented the character that’s supposed to be DePodesta is. And indeed, most of the reviewers don’t seem to agree with Law’s analysis, they just felt the movie was otherwise enjoyable while Law didn’t.

    Really though, Law is right about the fundamental lack of drama in the story, and the book suffers from the same problem. The idea that Beane’s job was on the line is ridiculous, so there’s not that. You don’t get a huge playoff win to build up to a la Major League (the book fills this by focusing the dramatic climax on the winning streak). What you’ve really got is a dramatic writer trying to tell the story of a new business strategy, which is why Lewis has to misrepresent the relationship between Beane and his scouts so obviously, and movie adaptations being what they are, why the movie has to play that up even more, apparently.

    Anyway I don’t know how anyone could take Lewis’ side here. Aside from the fact that he’s a very overrated writer (in my opinion, but I inherently don’t care for dramatic non-fiction), he responded to someone writing a negative review of a movie based on his book by giving the implication that he hasn’t paid attention to anything for roughly 6 years or so now. Whatever you think of KLaw, he’s clearly not the one in the wrong here.

  6. Chuck Johnson

    Brien, you either didn’t read Lewis’ comments over what Law said, or English isn’t your first language.

    Either way, allow me to enlighten you.

    This is Lewis’ quote;

    “I don’t understand why he goes from being — when I interviewed Keith Law, and I did, at length — he was so nasty about scouts and scouting culture and the stupidity of baseball insiders. He was the reductio ad absurdum of the person who was the smarty pants who had been brought into the game and was smarter than everybody else. He alienated people. And now he’s casting himself as someone who sees the value of the old school. I can’t see where this is all heading and why. But I learned from experience that the best thing to do is ignore it, because it goes away.”

    How is that defending scouts?

    I don’t think you understood or read my comment either.

    It’s not that Law apparently has changed his mind on how he views things, it’s that he blatantly denied everything he said to Lewis initially.

    You know why guys like Olney and Kirkjian talk to players and get face time on TV, and Law is relegated to his basement writing fluff pieces on his stupid blog?

    It’s because no one in baseball will talk with him, he’s as disliked and distrusted as anyone.

    When the Jays fired him he burned every bridge he had built, and no matter how hard he tries to make nice with everyone, including Michael Lewis, no one cares.

    He desperately wants to get back into baseball, and no one will give him the time of day.

    “Blackballed” is a strong word, but you get the point.

  7. Brien Jackson

    Who denies what? Law said Lewis was right about what Law said when Lewis interviewed him, Law’s point was that that was nearly a decade ago, and that he came to realize he was wrong and that scouting is important too. Which is an opinion held by basically everyone now. Law, Beane, DePodesta, literally everyone. And the book kinda-sorta makes it clear (you have to read through Lewis’ dramatic license a bit) that there was never any real tension on this point in Oakland. Beane and DePodesta didn’t fire all of their scouts and have a computer spit out their draft picks, and there’s plenty in the book that shows that at many junctures everyone was on the same page. What Billy and Paul were doing was trying to get them to look at things differently, to find different players, mostly just as a matter of what Oakland could afford. And in retrospect, there’s really no right or wrong there. Beane was right about Barry Zito, the scouts were right about Jeremy Brown. And everyone agreed on Nick Swisher.

    And if you bothered to read Law’s review of the film, that’s basically what he’s getting at. There’s just not enough drama in the story of Moneyball to make a movie, so the movie had to warp reality to make the plot interesting, including making the scouts seemed “dim-witted.” Considering that any other time you’re talking up how awesome scouting is, I’m actually a little surprised your putting so much of a priority on your dislike of Law that you’re actually defending Lewis here, who seems to be the only person in the room who still seems to believe that scouts are stupid and useless.

    I guess that says a lot about what animates your writing and opinions.

  8. Brien Jackson

    “You know why guys like Olney and Kirkjian talk to players and get face time on TV, and Law is relegated to his basement writing fluff pieces on his stupid blog?”

    Putting aside the fact that you are writing on a blog as well, and that your blog isn’t ESPN.com, the answer to that is obvious: Olney and Kurkjian are the ESPn equivalent of beat writers, and that’s not Law’s job. He covers the minor leagues and scouts the amateur ranks and writes pieces about that. Why would Law be doing what Olney is when that’s not what he’s getting paid to do?

  9. Chuck Johnson

    “He covers the minor leagues and scouts the amateur ranks and writes pieces about that.”

    So, he’s a beat writer?

    Jesus Christ….

  10. Brien Jackson

    Well if you take the term that generally, then yes I suppose he is. But if you do that, we’re all beat writers, so it doesn’t really change the fact that Law’s job is different than Olney’s and Kurkjian’s, and Law’s job doesn’t involve talking to a lot of people.

  11. Chuck Johnson

    Whatever you say, Brien, whatever you say.

  12. Brien Jackson

    Well if you want to side with the guy who thinks all scouts are retarded neanderthals, more power to you I guess.

  13. Chuck Johnson

    “Law’s job doesn’t involve talking to a lot of people”

    Yeah, kind of tough when no one will talk to you.

  14. Chuck Johnson

    Speaking of retarded…where do you get the impression I’m siding with Lewis?

    All I said was he was right in calling out Law for denying what he said in his pre-Moneyball interview.

    That’s it.

    They’re both talentless assholes.

  15. Brien Jackson

    Where did Law deny what he said to Lewis?

  16. Chuck Johnson

    You have to read behind the lines on some things Brien, as a writer you should be well aware of that.

    If you’re asking me for a direct link to a categorial denial by Law to what Lewis said, I can’t do that.

    But if you read Law’s review of Moneyball and then read Lewis’ rebuttal, it’s pretty clear, at least to me, that there is a discrepancy between Lewis’ recollection of the conversation to that of Law.

    Maybe I’m just over reading it, and it wouldn’t be the first time, but being aware of Law’s history of stabbing people in the back, well, one and one always equals two.

  17. Mike Silva

    I have spoken with Keith Law over email and, although he believed my review of his comments was mostly fair, he did want to point out that he was not doing a “mea culpa” to the scouting community as most of his friends are scouts and he told me he largely enjoys a good relationship with the community.

    As for the information that has been given to me about his role in front office politics, Law vehemently denies any of this happening. Again, I was not in that organization, nor can I dispute the information given to me since it was very descriptive and I trust the person. I do know that I have reached out to Frank to see if we could potentially reach out to one of the mentioned Toronto scouts. I would like to be fair to Law and get someone either on or off the record to validate that story.

    In the end, this wasn’t about being “pro-Law” or “anti-Law” it was about me applauding the guts he showed going to the ’01 Winter Meetings and pitching J.P, and his ability to at least come clean with his own personal mistakes. Whether its sincere or not is an entirely different debate that I don’t feel I am qualified to comment on because I simply don’t know.

  18. Chuck Johnson

    “As for the information that has been given to me about his role in front office politics, Law vehemently denies any of this happening”

    There’s a shock.

  19. spike

    but I think I know baseball pretty well and can hold my own with the big boys, sometimes.

    Damn dude, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back there.

  20. Mike Silva

    Spike

    If I am not confident in my abilities, then who will be? I am not being conceited, arrogant, or condescending. Believe me, anyone that knows me will tell you I am harder on myself than any outsider can be. All I know is there are a lot of people in this industry impressed with themselves, and quite frankly, are no different than yours truly, despite any faults I have. I am not afraid to say that publicly.

  21. Chuck Johnson

    ” All I know is there are a lot of people in this industry impressed with themselves, and quite frankly, are no different than yours truly, despite any faults I have”

    Keith Law being at the very top of that list, which is, quite frankly, the point of all this.

  22. spike

    I am not being conceited, arrogant, or condescending.

    Well I will concede that those weren’t the adjectives I was thinking of.

    ” All I know is there are a lot of people in this industry impressed with themselves, and quite frankly, are no different than yours truly, despite any faults I have”

    That sir, is far more of an indictment than accolade.

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