ESPN’s Keith Law Interview

Sabernomics readers ought to be familiar with Keith Law, a former member of the Toronto Blue Jays front office who is now the lead baseball analyst for ESPN’s Scouts Inc. Last year, I had the good fortune to meet Keith while scouting Josh Smoker in my neck of the woods. I had a few questions for Keith that I thought might be of interest to others, so I asked him if he would be willing to do and interview, and he obliged.

Here are Keith’s thoughts on working in baseball, ESPN, scouting, sabermetrics, the Braves, and the great tiramisu debacle of 2003.

Every few weeks I get a request from a young baseball fan who wants to work in baseball. What is your best advice for landing a job in baseball?

I’m asked that at least once a week in some form or another. There’s no easy answer; if you haven’t played the game and developed contacts within the industry, it’s hard to break in. It helps to have something baseball-related on your resume to set yourself apart from the thousands of other candidates, something like an internship with a minor league team or work with your college’s baseball team/athletics department. Then just start plugging away, contacting front office people, going to the winter meetings, sending out resumes and cover letters.

What was it like to work in a MLB front office? What did you do? What were your hours?

Toronto’s front office was odd, as was my role, since I worked from home and went to Toronto for a lot of home games until the travel got to be too much. I was primarily the statistical analyst, but was fortunate enough to work with Tony Lacava, who took me under his wing and taught me a lot of what I know now about traditional player evaluation, so I started going out to see amateur players on Cape Cod to try to improve my skills there. I ended up able to at least contribute to scouting discussions on players in our draft room and to submit follow lists to area scouts to let them know which players in their areas looked good/not good on the Cape. I ended up doing a little work in some other areas like arbitration cases, negotiating contracts for zero-to-three players, etc.

How stat-savvy are MLB teams? Is there a stats-versus-scouts war in baseball? I get the impression that this is overblown.

Totally overblown. Doesn’t exist. And I’m seeing more people trying to acquire skills in both areas.

What is wrong with sabermetrics?

I think that the arrogance in the field has gotten worse with time, not better. I thought that as sabermetrics moved into the mainstream, its practitioners would soften – and trust me, I’m not painting all sabermetricians and sabermetric writers with one broad brush – but we haven’t seen that. Statistical analysis is critical to the successful operation of any ballclub. It is far from a complete solution. And we all know that you can argue with statistics by cherry-picking which stats to use, which is part of why I try to use stats only as secondary evidence when I’m writing, using first-hand observation before I rely on data.

What is the biggest misconception that outsiders have of what goes on in MLB front offices?

Without a doubt it’s the assumption that a baseball operations department’s primary function is to assemble the roster. Sign some free agents, make some trades, do the draft, boom, you’re done. There’s a hell of a lot more to those jobs, including a lot of less glamorous work that requires organization and skill and diligence. Nothing makes me lose respect for a writer or reader who says that he could do a better job than GM so-and-so – it’s not an easy job, and as I said in an interview on the Lion in Oil blog, most outsiders would be crying for their mommas after a day or two of doing it.

How do you scout a player when you look at his stats? How do you scout a player beyond the stats?

I can’t even explain how I look at stats now, because I’m just looking for patterns in the data – almost a certain shape to a stat line that reminds me of other stat lines from past players. I don’t have time to do any sort of database work like I used to do with Toronto, which is probably for the best because writing about stats isn’t my job.

Beyond the stats, I’m looking at tools and at projection. What can the player do right now? What will he be able to do as his body develops? What are his fixable flaws? What are his unfixable flaws? And I always try to emphasize the tools that matter (hit & power) over those that matter less (run & throw).

What is your job like for ESPN?

It’s great, but it’s demanding. My mandate is to cover, from a scouting perspective, the top amateur players for the upcoming draft, the top prospects in the minors, and just about all the players in the majors. I go to see games and players so that I can write about them at a later date – in draft previews, in prospect rankings, in trade reactions, in playoff advance reports. So given the broad mandate, I get to set my own schedule as long as I’m seeing who I need to see. I really value that flexibility.

I try to write twice a week, but I’m somewhat at the mercy of the news cycle and the baseball editorial calendar, which is set over a week in advance. So I like having the weekly chats to keep in touch with readers and continue to develop that relationship.

I also do at least one TV hit a week, sometimes as many as five or six, and a lot of appearances on our national radio network or local affiliates. The TV stuff can be done from a little studio about 15 minutes from my house, and the radio stuff I do from the house or hotel room or wherever I am. I try to go to Bristol once or twice a month, at which point they’ll put me through the “car wash”

Which organizations have the best and worst farm systems in baseball?

I haven’t looked hard enough at that to answer it, but I’m pretty sure I’ll rank them all again in January. I can say that Tampa Bay and Texas are the clear 1-2 to me right now.

Now let’s talk about the Braves.

What is your overall impression of the Braves farm system? What do they do right/wrong?

The one task they do best, better than any other club, is mine their local area. It helps that Georgia high school baseball is some of the best in the country – maybe second only to California, but certainly in the top five states with Texas, Florida, and Arizona – but it’s also about the Braves having and using the connections to find the players and convince them to sign rather than going to college.

The Braves could improve their player development in terms of how they get some of their tools players, especially hitters, to develop. Jeff Francoeur is a good example. I’d like to see stronger evidence that the Braves can take the tools players they’re so good at finding and drafting and convert them into star-caliber big leaguers. For the last few years, they seem to have fallen a little short in that regard.

Your opinion on Jordan Schafer seems to have changed. You once compared him to Grady Sizemore, but after seeing him in the Arizona Fall League you were a bit more pessimistic. Why did you change your mind and what do you think his development prospects are?

I saw him in the Arizona Fall League and was disappointed at how short he fell of the hype. The ball comes off his bat well, but the part of his swing leading from his set point to contact isn’t consistent, and it gets long because he loads so deep. I like that he uses the opposite field and I think there’s 25-homer power in the bat, but Sizemore is one of those guys who’s just an obvious star, who stands out immediately when you see him take BP or shag flies. Schafer isn’t like that. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good prospect – he is. But he’s not Sizemore and he’s not one of the ten or fifteen best prospects in baseball.

Who are the Braves prospects to watch?

They’re all in Texas! Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Jason Heyward is the best prospect in that system for my money, at least for the long term, and he could easily turn out to be the best or second-best player in the 2007 draft class. I liked Brandon Hicks as a little sleeper in this draft – good defensive shortstop with an outside chance to hit a little. Cole Rohrbaugh is interesting, fastball sits plus, has a wicked curveball but it’s a spike, which is very hard to command. Gorkys Hernandez may never have much plate discipline but he’s a plus defensive outfielder who should make a lot of contact. And I like Daniel Elorriaga-Matra as a good defensive catcher with plus makeup who should at least turn into a big league backup.

Do you expect the Braves to change any of their operations with Frank Wren taking over John Schuerholz’s GM duties?

Everything I’ve been told sounds like the answer is no. Status quo.

Jeff Francoeur, what is the deal with this guy? What is he going to become?

I know everyone’s all excited because he upped his walk rate, but seriously, 37 unintentional walks in almost 700 plate appearances is unacceptable for a corner bat. He does have legit 30-homer power, and like a lot of players of this type he’ll have a .300/.335/.550 year somewhere along the line, but the volatility in his average and the ceiling on his OBP will always keep him from becoming a star.

What do you think about when you are not thinking about baseball?

Food, cooking and eating, is my other great passion. I love to cook elaborate meals, and I’ve got an inner pastry chef who likes to come out when there’s company, although after the great tiramisu debacle of 2003 I might have to scale my ambitions down until I get a bigger kitchen. I love to read, especially literature and comic novels. I used to play the guitar pretty regularly, but don’t have as much time with the busier job and with parental responsibilities. I love learning and speaking foreign languages, and that’s probably the one thing I’d like to put time into but can’t right now; I’d say teaching myself Spanish, from Sesame Street level (¿Entrada? ¡Salida!) to the point where I passed a first-level fluency exam, is the achievement of which I’m most proud, because I had to come up with a method and then stick to the plan even when I felt like I wasn’t making progress. I was always the kind of person who gives up when he wasn’t good at something right away, and it was gratifying to know that I didn’t have to be like that after all.

Thanks to Keith for taking the time to share his thoughts. For more of Keith’s opinions, check out his ESPN blog, his website, and his non-ESPN blog: The Dish.

One Response “ESPN’s Keith Law Interview”

  1. Marc Schneider says:

    Great interview, JC. A bit disappointing to hear about Schaefer but Keith’s views on Francoeur seem to be right on point as well as his opinions about Braves player development, which seems to be lacking a bit.