ESPN’s sabermetrics guru discusses antidepressants, the importance of logic and his great new book about the future of the national pastime
Almost since its inception back in the 1850s, baseball hasn’t just been America’s national pastime—it’s also been a convenient cultural metaphor. Movies like Field of Dreams have used our collective love of the game as a commentary on family, integrity and the national character. It’s a sport that lends itself to such poetic musings and nostalgic stirrings — which is probably why the baseball is sometimes considered stodgy and passé compared to newer, faster-paced sports that are decidedly more visceral.
And yet, there’s been a revolution in the game this century that’s put it on the cutting edge of statistical analysis and helped jettison some of the old ways of thinking about the sport. Most people are familiar with Moneyball, the 2003 Michael Lewis book that showed how the small-market Oakland A’s learned to compete with the big boys by relying on advanced metrics to target traditionally undervalued players. But another great popularizer of the analytics revolution has been Keith Law, the kind of guy who, a couple generations ago, would’ve never been involved in baseball in the first place.
A sociology and economics major from Harvard who received his MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, Law, 44, never played pro ball and is, by his own admission, not very good at sports. But he’s a lifetime baseball fan who became one of the early adopters of advanced analytics as a writer at the sabermetrics bible Baseball Prospectus before landing a front-office job with the Toronto Blue Jays. Since 2006, he has written for ESPN, where he scouts promising prospects and preaches the gospel of new-ish stats such as OPS and WAR as a better way of analyzing player value. And that’s when he isn’t sparring with Twitter followers who refuse to accept the validity of climate change — or his former ESPN colleague Curt Schilling, a hardcore conservative whom Law lambasted on Twitter in 2014 for his creationist beliefs, resulting in Law’s being temporarily suspended from the platform by his employer.
These days, Law is mostly focused on his first book — the terrific Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball. It’s a book that argues, cleanly and crisply, why this stats revolution is happening in baseball and why fans should embrace rather than vilify it.
But when MEL chatted with him last Thursday, we didn’t just want to discuss the book. The truth is, Law’s logic-driven approach to building a better baseball team perfectly positions him at the epicenter of several contemporary issues, many of which he writes about eloquently at ESPN and on his personal blog.
In our conversation, he happily tackled a wide range of topics: how he learned to stop worrying and love antidepressants; why he doesn’t feel comfortable being labeled a liberal (though he thinks anti-vaxxers are fools); and what (if anything) baseball needs to do to regain its cultural relevance. Law even spent a little time pondering whether a 150-year-old sport could ever truly become “woke.”
You’ve been promoting Smart Baseball for a couple months. What’s the ratio of people actively engaging in the book’s arguments versus those who are just getting angry that you said mean things about Jim Rice or Bruce Sutter?
Most of what I get back is positive. But I’ve seen a couple reviews on Amazon where people are mad because I’m picking on a part of their childhood — I’m picking on a player they love or I’m picking apart a stat that they always thought meant something. Negative reviews are part of the territory, so the only thing that bothers me is when people don’t engage with the arguments. I’m trying to make a case here, and if they don’t want to [engage], there’s no back-and-forth. You’ve simply shut the door and said, “There’s nothing more for us to talk about.” If you’re going to get mad at me because I said Sutter doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, I got nothing for you. At least give me a factual argument, and then we’re getting somewhere.
Did you grow up playing sports?
I was a huge sports fan because my parents were. There were just sports on all the time. We would get Newsday, and we would start with the sports section. My mom was a diehard baseball fan. They were both Bronx born and raised. They moved to Long Island when they got married. We were a Yankee household — but not anti-Mets. And that’s a big thing because [those teams’ fans] hate each other. We were never like that: We rooted for the Jets and the Giants in football. They’re local teams — you’re just going to root for them.
But because I’m on the short side, I was never much for sports. I tried. I played a little soccer when I was single-digits, because I could run at least. But I was clearly not cut out for sports, and I was a year younger than my classmates because I skipped a grade when I was very little, so that’s an even bigger disadvantage. You’re already small and now you’re a year younger — I was pretty screwed at that point.
I stayed a sports fan, however. I was kind of that guy anyway: Math was my best subject; I spoke the language of numbers, and baseball is the perfect sport for that because it’s got more history and it’s so individual. When I was in my 20s, I discovered this online metrics community that didn’t exist in other sports, so it was a perfect marriage. I was like, “Hey, this sport was always my favorite anyway” when I was still trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life.
Being a math guy and not a jock, did you feel like you had to prove yourself when you got to the Blue Jays?
Probably. I was 28 or so when I started there and definitely would say I could’ve handled myself very differently walking into a foreign environment. I would guess that I probably compensated with a little overconfidence. I thought, I’m going to be able to answer a lot of questions. It’s the wrong approach. One, it’s not true. Two, I was entering an environment where people aren’t necessarily hostile, but very different culturally. Before then, I’d spent my whole life in academic circles and worked for a consulting firm, where everyone came from an Ivy League-type background. After business school, I went to work for a couple of startups with very, very educated people who’ve come out of academia. With baseball, you might get very intelligent people, but not a lot of people who’ve come from academic backgrounds. That was a huge culture shift for me.
I imagine you also had to deal with the “macho” factor — that “real man” culture — which might have been intimidating.
Totally, and a lot of it was in my own head. You walk into a ballpark or into the Winter Meetings, and realize, “Nobody here looks like me. There’s just a handful of us with Ivy League backgrounds.” I’m like 5-foot-6, 155 pounds, so I’d be sitting with a bunch of ex-players who were taller, bigger, more athletic. It was hard to not be aware of that. You’re sitting surrounded by perfectly nice people but who don’t look like you. Masculine is “big.” Masculine is “muscular.” I am not those things. I could not be those things no matter what I did. It’s just not in the genes.
You like to debate people on Twitter who disagree with you about baseball, evolution or the need for vaccinations. Were you a debate-club kid?
I hated conflict as a kid. Public speaking never bothered me, but the back-and-forth thing? Even if a teacher would try to engage me, I’d take it very personally: “Why are you attacking me like that?” It was a long time — well into adulthood — until I got comfortable with being able to have a debate that didn’t feel like a real argument.
As for Twitter, the problem with social media is that there’s no tone, so you never know if someone is just being an ass or they are legitimately [wanting to debate]. And it’s often over the most innocuous stuff, and I want to say, “You would never say that in person. If you saw me at a game, and you totally disagreed with what I said about DJ LeMahieu not belonging on the All-Star Game, you would approach the thing entirely differently.” It’s something I don’t enjoy about social media, and it always makes me pull back and say, “I’m just not playing today.”
What’s your rule of thumb in terms of dealing with combative people online?
On Twitter, the moment I feel uncomfortable or start to think that it’s hostile, I just mute or block and move on. People get mad: “Why do you block so many people?” One, for my sanity. But also, if you’re up to no good, I don’t have to interact with you — and you’re probably going to be just fine if you’re not interacting with me either. I’d rather focus my energies on people who have real questions or who want to engage and have a real discussion. I’ll argue with a few of the other people just for fun — if I can make a joke out of it and get everyone else on board, that’s great — but I should probably just talk to the nice people, not the other people.
A few years ago, you wrote a piece about your lifelong struggles with anxiety and how a 2012 panic attack inspired you to go into therapy and try medication. Did that experience influence how you deal with social media?
No question. The therapist I worked with, I was talking to her about how uncomfortable some of those online interactions would make me. People online would say these horrible things about my ancestry or whatever. And she said, “Just block them. Why are you [engaging with them]?” In the real world, people think [engaging with trolls] is stupid. But online, you get caught up [believing] that it’s socially unacceptable to block, mute or ignore people like that.
I also started recognizing that getting too involved in negative online interactions was feeding something anxiety-related within me. The more I handled anxiety through therapy, medication and other treatment, the worse it felt to get involved. It was easier for me to just extricate myself from the conversation entirely. I just said, “I don’t like how this is going” and walked away — as opposed to, “No, I have to get the last word here. I have to have a snappy response to that.” Getting help for that changed my whole personality enough to say, “I don’t care.” I recognized I was just getting that dopamine hit from getting involved in those debates and then walking away feeling much worse.
How scary was going on medication?
I mean, this is brain medication — it really is. “You’re going to mess with the way I think? The way I act? The type of person I am?” It does change things, no question, and it’s not all positive. Taking Escitalopram, it wiped out my anxiety, but it also sort of cut off a lot of the highs and lows of other emotions, too. And you wonder, “Am I missing out on parts of life?”
Now I’ve been on medication for five years, and it’s not terrifying. But it changes things. It’s much easier to weigh the pros and cons once you’ve actually gone through it and you realize that the cons aren’t as terrible as they sound. I’m not on Escitalopram any more — I may go back to it at some point — but I recognized that the pros were pretty good. I felt better; I got more done; and a lot of other things I didn’t think were necessarily related to anxiety cleared up, too. That’s why I’ve become a little bit of a proselytizer. If you’re having trouble, at least try it. You can always stop taking the medication. It’s not a lifelong commitment. But you might feel better, and it might change things enough that you say, “I’m comfortable, I’m willing to pay the cost because the benefits are there.”
In the book, you talk about the future of advanced metrics, including wearable technology to monitor player performance. In the past, you’ve been very vocal against teams signing players who have, for instance, been accused of domestic violence. Will there ever be a time when analytics could determine a player’s mental makeup? Maybe even project who might be more likely to be involved in such crimes?
Many teams administer what they call a “psych test,” which is really just a questionnaire to players they might potentially draft. I don’t know the validity of those tests. I’ve talked to scouts who say internally, “Yeah, we do a psych test; we think it’s useless.” It’s certainly not accepted the way analytics are accepted.
When I was in the draft room [in Toronto], I remember there was a guy who had made it pretty clear that he wasn’t going to stop smoking [pot] even if he got into pro ball. But it was like, “Yeah, but he can really hit.” [Smoking pot] doesn’t make you a bad person, but it may get you suspended, in which case you are useless to me as a player. It’s an imperfect analogy but still, at the end of the day, you’re not going to be helping us. And sure enough, the guy played one summer and just quit. He was like, “Nah, I want to go surf and smoke weed.” Thank God we didn’t take him.
And I do remember the conversation when Elijah Dukes was in the draft. We weren’t taking him anyway, but the discussion was: “He’s really talented, but he’s also a mess.” This guy was known to have serious mental health issues, anger problems — I don’t know if he had an arrest, but at the very least, he seemed to have a big anger problem. Everything was always discussed, though, very qualitatively and almost always in the context of who the player is.
To me, this is separate. You’re telling me this guy is a domestic abuser? I don’t care what kind of player he is — he can go play somewhere else. If I was a GM, he’s just not going to play for us — that’s not who we are. And teams take different approaches. Obviously, the Cubs and the Yankees have both employed Aroldis Chapman, and they’re fine with it. But I’ve had other executives who have said, “If that’s our player, he’s just not going to play for us.”
This brings up the question: Can baseball be “woke”? Should a sport get to a place where “wokeness” is a factor?
I come down on both sides of it. On the one hand, a player that’s committed a criminal act — or is at least alleged — doesn’t have a right to play Major League Baseball. And if Major League Baseball was a single entity, they could just say, “You’re not going to play for us,” and they’ll just kick you out.
But the flip side is, you’ve actually got 30 independent front offices. Tampa Bay for a long time was a running joke: “The guy has a felony conviction? Oh, the Rays will take him.” That was almost their market inefficiency: “We’ll take the criminals.” Okay, that’s one way to run your organization — I wouldn’t, personally. They ended up with Josh Lueke, who had been convicted for raping a woman who was incapacitated. And they took a ton of criticism for it, but as far as I could tell, they didn’t care. They just employed him until he wasn’t good any more.
And there’s a lot of commentary from people who research domestic violence who say that denying the abuser’s ability, or right to work, doesn’t help the victims in any meaningful way — and could make things worse for him. I’m saying that I wouldn’t employ this guy on my team, which is more of an individual moral choice. But does baseball have a broader obligation to say, “We’re going to suspend you. We’re going to take a stand and penalize you for these things, but we’re not going to ban you for life” — because it turns out, speaking from a societal level, that’s the wrong thing to do?
Because Smart Baseball is a number-crunching, logic-driven book, it doesn’t really have room to talk about these moral issues. But in your other writing, you’ve always been very invested in the human component of the game — specifically, speaking out against the scourge of domestic violence and DUIs. You mix the analytical with the personal.
And they don’t naturally go together. With analytics, you do need to be a little colder, a little more callous: “This guy was great for us two years ago, but he stinks now, so we need to employ someone else in that role.” Analytics is very unfeeling like that. There’s probably a real benefit to making these baseball decisions, which are typically business decisions, without too much emotion involved.
Then on the other side, players have allegedly committed these infractions — it’s entirely moral. An analytics guy would say, “Who cares? Can he help us? Is he undervalued because of that? Well, all the more reason to go get him.” To me, it’s saying, “No, I’m going to draw the line here and say I don’t want that player playing or working in my organization [because of] the message it sends to other players or to the women that work in the organization.” Those two [philosophies] don’t go together very naturally, and I think it’s probably surprised some of my readers to see that I’m kind of on two different sides.
When you battled Curt Schilling on Twitter, it created an impression online that you must obviously be a liberal because you took apart his anti-evolution stance. You’re also a believer in climate change, which in the modern world has somehow become a liberal position. Where do you actually align politically?
I’ve always felt like I’m kind of all over the place. I struggle with the terms [liberal and conservative] because a liberal today doesn’t even mean what it meant five years ago, let alone 20 years ago. And typically, if someone is calling me a liberal, they’re talking mostly about social positions. I believe that gay marriage should be legal everywhere. I believe in equal rights for everybody. If you’re saying that’s liberal, then conservative means that only straight white men should have rights? Maybe some people believe that, but I don’t think that’s what historical conservatism has meant.
When they say, “You’re a liberal,” we’re not talking about economic policy or tax policy or free trade. Free trade was typically, until the current administration, seen as something more Republican than Democratic. I would say, based on my economics background, I would probably be more of a free-trade supporter. But I’m not sure where that even falls at this point on the left-right continuum.
The one thing I will say to people is that I’m clearly no fan of the present administration. But I don’t think that necessarily makes me a liberal either. I think it probably makes me middle-of-the-road at this point. [Laughs] And it puts me in good company. I don’t want to say “majority,” because I don’t really know, but there are plenty of people from a pretty wide swath of the spectrum who aren’t happy with the way things are going in Washington. That doesn’t make me any more or less “left” than I was a couple of years ago.
The arguments you make in Smart Baseball — valuing logic over emotion and gut feelings — seem to be the same fight we’re having in politics, where you often see those on the right trying to dismiss thinkers and experts. These simple truths should have been settled already, and yet we’re still bickering about them.
Any time I run into these anti-science people, or anti-vaxxers, it’s like … what? Denying the use of analytics in baseball isn’t the same as denying evolution, but it comes from a similar place. Part of it is anti-intellectualism, and part of it is the mentality that says, “I don’t want to believe that the thing I used to believe is just not true.” I think that upsets people at their core, and it often goes to identity. It’s a little uncomfortable to argue against it, but I know that arguing for facts — for critical thinking — is always for the good, even if I’m ultimately breaking down someone a little bit in a way that might make them uncomfortable. But as long as you think you’re on the right side of things — and obviously not being an ass about it — then you’re okay to do that.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the modern state of baseball. Specifically, I wonder if you think that the sport can do anything to combat its diversity problem.
I talk to people at the league office a little bit about this — just friend-to-friend mostly — and they’re aware of the diversity problem. We just don’t have enough African-American kids playing the sport. And I think it’s much less racial than it is economic: It’s just a super-expensive sport for kids to play, and they need access to facilities. Baseball is really trying. I just don’t know that anybody has an idea of what the solution is. But I’m at least satisfied that they’re aware this is an issue and that they’re putting people and resources toward addressing it.
MLB gets involved in other issues, too. When Missouri was thinking about passing one of those anti-trans bathroom bills, MLB was like, “We’ve got two teams in your state, and we’re not behind this.” That’s the kind of thing I think baseball needs to be doing, and they should probably be more willing to be more public about that. They’re probably concerned about alienating one portion of the audience over another. But I think there’s a social responsibility for these entities to say, “We’re bringing a lot of tax revenue to your jurisdictions — we want to make sure that our events are inclusive and that everyone is comfortable coming to them.”
This also goes back to your question — should baseball try to be “woke”? Should they try to appeal to a younger audience? I don’t think anyone cares about the intentional-walk thing. But taking stands on things, that’s the stuff that baseball can do to maintain some cultural relevance. It’s a nostalgic game — that’s always going to be an aspect of baseball. I’m fine with that. But there are other things that I want them to do to stay current, like taking that stand in Missouri the way they did. That will really make a difference in the public’s opinion of the sport.
But there’s still this impression that baseball caters to an aging, white fan base. Even within the game, you have this culture clash between white players’ “Play the game the right way” mentality and the more exuberant style exhibited by Latino players. Those factors contribute to baseball seeming out of touch.
Those outside always say, “Why isn’t baseball doing X, Y or Z?” And what I’ve learned over the years is that [MLB executives] do a lot of that stuff. If a player makes a comment that might be construed as racially insensitive, they’re going to reach out and do something. It’s all very behind-the-scenes, which is probably how they should be handling it.
We want public justice right away, but that’s not necessarily beneficial for the sport — sometimes, handling it quietly is better, and the player doesn’t say it again. Maybe he makes a little apology and then it just goes away. That might be better for the sport in the long run. It doesn’t satisfy those of us who have the torches lit, and maybe we’re wrong to do that and to scream for blood. I try to do that less now. I’ll call it out if someone makes a comment that’s racially insensitive or insensitive to gay people. But at the same time, we don’t necessarily need to go burn the guy’s house down.
Do you consider yourself a baseball intellectual? I imagine that characterization might be a bit of a double-edged sword.
I’m not very romantic about [baseball]. I might have been when I was younger. I’m not terribly romantic about a lot of things. The things I’m romantic about, or nostalgic over, are things from my childhood. Why do I still love Oreos? They’re really not that good — I can make homemade Oreos that are much better — but there’s something about sitting there with a sleeve of Oreos.
It’s not like, 30 years from now, I’m going to think back on watching Mike Trout in this romantic sense. I’m going to think about him in a much more analytical sense or the remarkable achievements of his career. I’m fine with that.
I always tell people: Baseball is the job, not the hobby. I would never go to a baseball game just for kicks. But if I’m at a game and I see something amazing — if there is a no-hitter happening, or if a pitcher hits a 100 [mph], or you see a comeback at the bottom of the ninth — I still feel that.
I remember seeing Byron Buxton in high school. I’ve caught some god-awful high school baseball over the years. But in Buxton’s case, he was in this tiny town called Baxley, Georgia, a town of fewer than 4,000 people. There were a couple hundred people there to watch this game. In the bottom of the seventh, Buxton leads off and basically created the tying run all on his own, primarily with his legs. He singled, stole a base, and the atmosphere was electric. His team ended up winning the game a couple of batters later. I remember walking out of there thinking, “That was the most fun high school game I’ve ever attended.” Those are the things I will still talk about years from now with a fond memory.
In the book, you acknowledge that baseball is no longer the national pastime. I know that’s true, but as someone who loves the game, it still made me sad to read that. Does it make you sad?
I would say so. I’d probably be making more money if it were a more popular sport. [Laughs] I’d sell a billion copies of the book. But I rue the fact that I can go into crowds, rooms of people, and people our age and younger generally don’t care about baseball. I feel like that wasn’t so true maybe 30 or 40 years ago. I’m not one of those people that expects nothing is ever going to change but, yeah, I wish it was more [popular].
And I don’t think baseball has done anything wrong, either. It’s popular to blame baseball for being too slow, too stodgy. No, people’s interests change. There are new types of entertainment that didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago. My wife and I were talking recently about how it just kills us that people don’t leave the house as much as they used to. We’re out in the suburbs, and we feel like people aren’t as social as they were when we were growing up in the suburbs. People just do different stuff now.
For me, what makes it tougher to stomach is that football is the sport that’s supplanted baseball. The older I get, the harder it is for me to enjoy football, knowing what we know about concussions — not to mention the mindless, gladiatorial bloodlust that’s inherent to the game.
People enjoy a violent hit. People like that about hockey too, which I never did. I was more of a hockey fan as a kid than a football fan — with football, I could never get around the violence aspect. The athleticism of it still blows me away. But it’s the sheer violence and the laudatory commentary on hits: “That was a great hit!” It’s like, “He just severed the guy at the waist — why are we praising this?” I was never that kind of kid when I was playing sports with friends. I was never one who got into fights with other kids — that’s just not me. I’m certainly not saying it’s wrong for other people to like that stuff, but I can’t.
Like any public figure, you’ve had your controversial moments, like when ESPN suspended your Twitter account after the Schilling dustup — or in 2009, when you were one of the few voters to leave Chris Carpenter off your Cy Young ballot. How do you handle being dragged?
I don’t like it. It physically doesn’t feel good. I don’t ever like being the center of attention like that. I just want people to read my stuff, buy my book, be polite about everything and not talk too loud. [Laughs] But what I do typically is just walk away, just disappear for a bit. I go ride the bike around the neighborhood, go to the gym. I have a few board games in the house — I’ll just play a game with my wife and daughter.
This idea that I would say something just to get attention and more clicks, and that it’s a hot take… If you knew me at all, you’d know that I hate that. I don’t want to be that kind of center of attention. I understand that there are people who say incendiary stuff because they want to get retweets or seven-figure contracts from TV networks. I’m fine where I am. I like my little house. We’re good. I’d rather sleep at night.