KRB's Talk with Dave Haller
Last night, KRB spoke with BaseballProspectus.com writer Dave Haller about the Battle of Champions, the Royals, and his time working for the leader in baseball analysis:
KRB: You joined the Baseball Prospectus (BP) team as an intern in December of 2004. Here we are a year later, and you’ve made a meteoric rise from being a research assistant to writing feature-length articles, and even gaining the title of “staff writer.” How has your time at BP affected your life from a baseball standpoint?
DH: I find myself wondering about what things we know, what we don’t, and what we may never know about baseball, but more than anything, the big part of the experience has been getting to hear ideas from the great baseball minds at BP. After working with those people and seeing the inspirations and opinions behind their own articles that deal with so many teams, it’s also become easier to focus on more teams in baseball besides my Cleveland Indians.
KRB: You visited the Beacon Orthopedic Clinic with Will Carroll last spring and wrote a fantastic article about the things you saw there. Tell me about that experience.
DH: Beacon really is a state-of-the-art facility in every way, and I got to meet Tim Kremchek, who is one of the more prominent physicians at all levels of baseball. It really was a privilege and an honor just to listen to the dialogue between two medical minds like Dr. Kremchek and Will.
I never pitched, so I didn’t understand the devastation on very young arms. Tommy John surgery (which Kremchek regularly performs) is a medical miracle and routinely saves careers for the right reasons, but although working young pitchers hard isn’t nearly as accepted as it used to be, there are still signs of abuses of the system. As an example, when dads and coaches say, “I’m gonna have my kid get a Tommy John operation so he’ll throw 10 mph faster,” that’s a problem because it doesn’t work like that. It’s also important for the kid to know the difference between soreness and pain.
KRB: Let’s turn to the Battle of Champions. It’s one of the most interesting ideas I’ve ever seen Prospectus come up with. You guys started talking about it in October after Bobby Valentine remarked that his club could beat the White Sox in a best-of series. How did it start, and what was the goal of the project? Did you reach it?
DH: After Bobby made his comment, somebody at BP – I can’t remember who – came up with the idea. We worked on it bit-by-bit, developing the players using Clay Davenport’s translations and so forth. It was a very long process to put together.
More or less, the goal was just to put two evenly-matched, pitching-oriented teams together in a series, sim it, and see what would happen. I have a hard time drawing any real-world conclusions from the results, but it was definitely worthwhile.
KRB: You did the simming and the write-ups, so did you notice any trends during the process?
DH: The batting average on balls in play seemed high, but Chiba’s stadium plays favorably for doubles and triples. I didn’t really have time to go back and heavily review the stats, so no, I didn’t see any real specific, interesting trends that would mean anything. More than anything I think it just reinforces the fact that anything at all can happen in a short series, whether it’s in real life or simulation.
KRB: Valentine basically started this whole thing. What does he think of it?
DH: [Laughing] Will Carroll actually approached Bobby about it at the Winter Meetings and offered him a chance to actually manage his team in the simulation. He politely declined, but if he ever changes his mind, we’ll run the series again!
KRB: Moving to the Royals. Putting aside the player personnel mistakes the team made three and four years ago that are still hurting the organization today, what, in your opinion, is the number one thing standing between Kansas City and a winning ballclub?
DH: I think the huge problem Kansas City has is that the big names won’t sign there, and, with the exception of Mike Sweeney who’s very overpaid, the team’s best home-grown talent (Carlos Beltran) won’t stick around. I’ve never been to Kansas City or to [Kauffman Stadium], but I’m sure the issue isn’t the people or the city, it’s the losing. Breaking out of a losing cycle is a big challenge, because if good players won’t sign with your club, it becomes even more difficult to get better and turn it back into a desirable place to play.
KRB: The Royals have a solid offensive core on the way up that should be an 800-plus run unit for at least three or four years, but my concern is where the starting pitching will come from.
DH: Well, there’s no question that KC’s track record of developing starting pitching is bad enough to raise a few warning signs. I’m trying to think of any pitchers who’ve lived up to their potential, and I’m only coming up with Zack Greinke, and that’s if he’d pitched as well in 2005 as he did in 2004.
Scott Elarton’s contract is a little bit of a risk, but I think acquiring [veteran] starting pitchers makes some sense if it allows the young ones to develop in the minor leagues, therefore not crushing them in the majors. I mean, there definitely aren’t many 21- or 22-year-old pitchers out there who’re legitimately ready to face major league bats.
KRB: Mark Grudzielanek and Doug Mientkiewicz were both acquired mostly for their defensive abilities. Was that a worthwhile investment for this club?
DH: I don’t think either was a good investment for the Royals, Mientkewicz especially. It’d be one thing if he was actually still a good defensive first baseman, but the evidence of that just isn’t there. In my mind, Matt Stairs is a better player, and Alex Gordon and Billy Butler aren’t too far off, and one of them could end up playing first. Additionally, does the thought of Doug Mientkiewcz playing first base excite anybody? Will it generate interest in the team? I guess what I’m asking is why spend money just to have a somewhat-recognizable name on your club.
KRB: One thing that has Royals fans talking is the potential logjam at third base. Mark Teahen has the starting job nailed down, but Gordon’s on his way up, and his natural position is third base. What do you do? Who moves?
DH: Defensive ability is definitely in the equation, but if you have a potential superstar like Gordon, you put him at the position where he’ll be the most valuable to your team. Imagine three to four years down the road, and the Royals converted Gordon into a first baseman. What if something bad happens to Teahen long-term? Can you ask Gordon to go back to the position he hasn’t played in years? Teahen would have to show big improvement offensively for him to stick at third. But these situations have ways of working themselves out.
KRB: While we’re talking about Teahen, let’s discuss defensive metrics for a minute, because I think Mark’s a prime example of why we still have work to do with those figures. Most of his defensive stats were awful last year, but after watching him make a ton of diving plays and barehand scoops-and-throws flawlessly for most of the season, it’s apparent to me that he has really good skills over there.
DH: We do have a long way to go there. I have no evidence of this, but I really believe that the sharper teams in baseball have information about defense that outsiders like us couldn’t get to if we tried. If I could, I’d improve that area by finding a way to track where the ball is going and the positioning of the defenders [on each play].
KRB: Finally, which of the Royals’ young players would you lock up to long-term deals?
DH: First, you have to have a lot of players who’re worth locking up, and I don’t think they’re at that point yet. Additionally, the guys the Royals are looking to as key contributors have disappointed so far, so I’m not sure the players would want to sign while their value is probably the lowest it’ll ever be. But if we’re looking at it as-is, I’d sign Greinke and David DeJesus, hesitate on Teahen and John Buck, and be very careful committing to players at similar positions.
Many thanks to BP's Nate Silver for making this interview possible.