Brian Kenny is the host of MLB Network’s MLB Now, a nightly show which looks at baseball from a decidedly analytical angle. Prior to joining MLB Network he hosted Baseball Tonight on ESPN. He has also recently written a book, “Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution” which blends baseball history with the information used to shape its future.
Despite a touch of bronchitis and braving a nor’easter to get to the office, Brian was nice enough to join me for a chat last week. He was engaging, articulate, incredibly thoughtful, yet also made the experience feel like more of a conversation with a fellow baseball lover than an interview of a high profile media figure.
Here is the first half of the interview, which focused on baseball in general. Part two focuses more on the Angels.
You earned a lot of fans around here by being on the right side of the Trout vs. Miggy debate back in 2012. Is it kind of odd that now everybody realizes you were right or are you still out there fighting that good fight?
“I hadn’t really thought about that. But, look, it was so clear to me, both years, I was incredulous I was fighting the fight in the first place.
And I wrote about that specific thing in my book, you know I just did the MVP battle. So I did have some time to explore it and I think it was just that clash of eras and culture. And I knew that once people look at it in a level headed way there’s no doubt who won that.
So it’s an interesting point that you make that now I don’t think there’s many people arguing that Cabrera was better. You can fall back on the old ‘valuable’ nonsense and team thing and that sort of thing, but it didn’t take long for the general culture to realize what really happened there.”
And I remember watching you on MLB Network saying something to the effect of “I don’t need sabermetrics to say the guy who can run, catch, field and hit is better than the guy who can just hit. I was surprised it turned into a SABR deal to begin with.
“Yeah, WAR was a part of it but I remember doing my essay saying ‘I’m not going to mention Wins Above Replacement. I’m not even going to go there because we’ll dig deeper into the components of it and it’ll be obvious.’
But, you know, people don’t want to hear what they don’t want to hear. That goes in all walks of life. So baseball, this is really a microcosm of the larger human population.”
Now when you watch a baseball broadcast you see things like OPS on the stat line as a player is hitting almost as often as you see the traditional stat line. Did you see that coming when you started your show?
“Yes. I mean I’m incredulous it took so long. I remember years and years ago when I was on Baseball Tonight on ESPN and I used to be watching the broadcasts and I said ‘Why can’t you just give on base and slugging? Why can’t we get there?’
And then 10 years later they would show the on base with the batting average, and it was on base with the batting average and the OPS and it’s like ‘Can you just give me the on base and slugging, please? Stop making it so difficult.’
Things have accelerated so greatly within the sport I think those following the sport have no choice but to smarten up. I think that has largely happened.”
You mentioned the book, tell us a little about that.
“It came out last year and I think it is still instructive. I tried to write it from a point of view of why we thought the things that we did. What I learned was, studying these things, especially when you look at things whether it is pitcher wins or batting average or Triple Crown, was that those things worked back then.
It wasn’t that the baseball pioneers were stupid and didn’t know what they were looking at. No, those things made perfect sense for the 19th century game.
What happened was those things were put in place and just as the game started to change all of the pioneers were dying off. So everyone was kind of calcified in that way of thinking whereas the original founding fathers like Henry Chadwick and the rest, had they been able to live another 30 years, they would have switched to on base and slugging. They would have seen that errors were not as necessary and that batting average did not tell you anywhere near what you needed to hear.
But they didn’t and what was amazing to me was that the culture just shut down in terms of its thinking and followed these 19th century ways of accounting for another 90 years. And it took an awful lot to shake that loose.
So I get into the history of it and I think there’s a lot of things that go into why we think the way we do in addition to a lot of other just interesting baseball stories. Its not a sabermetric book its a book about baseball and history and that sometimes our eyes tell us the story and sometimes our eyes lie to us.
There’s kind of thing where people say ‘you’re only into the numbers, not the magic of the game’ but you can still sit back and just enjoy a game just as much now as before you got into all the numbers, right?
“Oh absolutely. And I try to say that on the show. You know we get pretty deep into it on MLB Now in talking about shaping the game and how the game does need to be managed, the dynamics and the trends at play within the game whether its pace of play or anything along the rules. And the study of the game and getting into the nitty gritty of roster construction and resource allocation and sometimes we get caught up in that.
And I just stop and say ‘Hey, by the way if you’re not into that and you just want to get a brat and a beer and just watch the game then just do it. There’s nothing wrong with that either.’
I think most fans, once they start talking about ‘Hey, why don’t we have a good third baseman?’ or ‘Why don’t we trade for this guy?’ Well, now you kind of do want to know the value of the player and there are ways of measuring that and there are new sophisticated methods that are evolving constantly that will give you the answers to these things.
Just like we did when we were kids, you know. We were saying ‘Who’s the best pitcher in the league is it Orel Hershiser or Frank Viola?’ Its the same way only now we have better ways to find out those answers.
Since you brought it up, who would you say is the best pitcher in the league?
“I thought it was just about a dead heat between Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer. Meaning, I’m looking at, I’m not saying they’re the best, I’m saying if I could pick one pitcher to have for this upcoming season I would pick one of those guys. And either one is fine, I think they’re , I think its basically a dead heat.
The reason its not Clayton Kershaw, because he’s the best run preventer in baseball, but he just hasn’t been reliable enough. And so if I was going into this year, I wouldn’t be able to bank on 200 innings from Kershaw.
Quantity matters so I would go with Scherzer or Kluber.”
Having covered baseball for major networks that are based on the East Coast, I’m sure you’ve heard those of us on the West Coast talk about ‘our guys aren’t covered enough, there’s an East Coast bias.’ Do you think we have at least a little bit of a legit gripe?
“Oh yeah, I think so. Its still a lot of the power base of the media, the power base of the fans, are still on the East Coast. And you just don’t have the same visibility out on the West Coast to a lot of the media.
I don’t think measuring players is affected any, like when we do Top 10 Right Now. Its not like we don’t see, for example, what Nolan Arenado is capable of, but I think it might be a little harder to emerge as a star, it might be a little slower, if you are doing it from the West Coast.”
Part two will roll out early next week. Please leave any comments or questions below.