Darwin Barney was yelling at me. All eyes in the clubhouse were now fixed on me, wondering who let the nerd in. Just a few weeks before, I’d been in a similar situation and had felt terrible and small. This time, though, I was prepared.
“Hey man, I was just telling you you had trade value,” I said back to him with an exaggerated shrug, loud enough so he could hear. He was laughing. This was fine.
Minutes earlier, I had been waiting for Anthony Rizzo to talk. With veteran players, the fact that nobody recognized me was sometimes a bonus. A.J. Burnett gave me a great interview last year, supposedly because he thought I was a national guy, said one of the regular Pirates beat writers. But Anthony Rizzo didn’t recognize me and I’d bothered him before I saw his earphones in. Whoops. He wasn’t going to take them off for me, so there I was thumbing through FanGraphs.com on my phone, looking for someone interesting, someone with an interesting stat under the name, at least until Jeff Samardzija was ready to talk again.
Darwin Barney was bouncing around the clubhouse in front of me, but I wasn’t sure I had an angle. It was close to the trade deadline, and like many other Cubs, he was speculating on possible trades. Involving himself. But he couldn’t see any trade value in his skill set.
“Hey,” I offered, “by some defensive metrics you’re the best defensive second baseman in the league.” Barney smiled at me, maybe incredulously. The Cubs beat writer next to me was sharp: “Best in ‘the league’ the league or in the National League?,” he asked. I had to admit Dustin Pedroia had a better UZR. I tried not to say the word UZR, because I’d learned, the hard way. After a quick conversation about which contending teams might want a defensive second baseman (“Marco Scutaro is a very fine player,” Barney said with a glint in his eye), Barney was bounding across the room to his locker and my fate was sealed.
The episode was light-hearted, and the result was a few laughs and maybe a confused stare or two. Hopefully that was because I’d learned some important truths about language in the clubhouse over the preceding months.
Last year I was accepted as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). Though I’d been in the clubhouse for a couple of interviews with R.A. Dickey and on the field for blogger media days in New York, it was the first time I spent regular time in a professional locker room. Things that you “know” in your head just have to be learned with on-the-job training. Things like: when to go into the clubhouse, when you can be on the field, when to bother a player, which players you can talk to, and when you can take a picture.
Most of those things can be chalked up to just learning how the clubhouse works, just some on-the job training comparable to learning the ropes of any new position. But for me, in particular — wanting to ask players questions about stats and the available sabermetric research — learning the language of baseball was the most important part of the process.
I knew it wasn’t going to be easy from the start. At my first BBWAA event, upon my introduction, a question shot out of the lunch crowd — “FanGraphs, aren’t you the guys that ranked the Giants last the year they won the World Series?” That was Hank Schulman’s welcome call. He followed it up by coming over to tell me later that he was engaged in a “war on stats.”
But my relationship with Schulman itself provided me a road map to the year that was to come. Instead of shaking my head and wishing him good luck on his crusade, I pried. Nothing is that simple. And after a great conversation completed mostly using the simple language of baseball as it is played on the field and executed in the dugout and the clubhouse, we even came to some agreement: Statistics might be a better tool for the front offices. On-field management might sometimes be better served looking at things other than the numbers when making decisions. I now count him as one of my friends in the media room, and he was the first person I turned to when I wanted to learn more about being a beat writer.
All it took was a little calm conversation, minus the words “rate,” “ratio” and “correlation.” But I didn’t learn the lesson completely there.
Early in the season, there were a few fits and starts. One of my earliest interviews was with Ryan Vogelsong at Giants media day. I wanted to ask him about his FIP, and, well, I thought I should try explain to him what FIP was:
“Given your strikeouts, walks, and ground balls, your FIP, which is usually more steady than ERA, has been higher than your ERA — you’ve been sort of over-performing these stats that people have come up with. I think this is really interesting because given your history, and given all that you’ve had to overcome, you’ve been under-rated in the past, too. Is there anything you can say about the way you pitch that might look like more than the sum of the parts? Is there something you play ‘up?’ How would you define yourself as a pitcher?”
Good lord. I’m lucky he let me get all that out. He might not have in the clubhouse. But media day is a little different — the players are stationed and ready to talk — and I was lucky enough to have Vogelsong alone. The fact that his eyes were glazing over flew over my head, really. Since he gave me a good answer (he bears down with runners on base and prefers a walk to a home run in those situations), I felt vindicated. When I talked to George Kontos next about platoon splits on sliders, I thought the job might even be easy.
Slowly, I started accumulating interviews that didn’t make it into an article, though. Sean Marshall didn’t have much to say about first-pitch strike rates, and Todd Frazier didn’t know how he’d struck out less often than his swinging strike rate predicted. Jedd Gyorko didn’t have anything particular to say about park effects and home runs per fly ball. Some of this was about the personalities of each player, but some of this was also about the questions I was asking.
All of this is prelude to the time I really stepped in it.
And, despite all that has come before… it started because I was poorly prepared. Standing in the Royals’ clubhouse, I realized I wasn’t sure I knew what Eric Hosmer looked like. Whether it was because he was normally wearing headgear or that I hadn’t seen the Royals live yet that year, I was unsure. I turned to Google image search, my trusty sidekick in moments like these. What followed immediately must be user error, however.
I walked up to Eric Hosmer on the bike and said “You know, I’m Greek too! My father’s side.”
Woof. Hosmer didn’t get it at first, but when he did, whoo boy. He laughed, so I laughed, but then he brought in Jeff Francoeur to join in the laughing, but, hell, I’ve laughed at myself most of my life, so I continued smiling even as more people joined in with the laughing at me, and the pointing and the barbs. He doesn’t really look like Mike Moustakas! It was kind of funny! Sort of.
Really, I had some experience with this sort of muck-up. I’d walked up to Cory Luebke‘s locker early in the season, failing to notice Dale Thayer‘s beard on the man I approached with questions about Tommy John rehab. I’d asked Yuniesky Betancourt if he was Alfredo Figaro. In both previous cases, I’d powered through and at least managed a conversation with the player, just in case something turned up. (It didn’t.)
So in this case, I took the same tack. I apologized and asked the first baseman if he had some time to answer questions anyway. Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered. It was clear I was getting shove-off answers. I had wanted to talk about his ground-ball rate but “you just want to go up there and play the situation.” Does he think about changing his swing to get more loft? “Everyone has gotten to this level” using their natural swing. Speed? “You just want to go out and play the game.” It would take some digging to salvage something from this one, I realized. I thanked him for his time.
I hadn’t prepared for Billy Butler, but he was available-looking. So I called up his FanGraphs page and looked for some nuggets. I noticed that his walk rate was higher than his strikeout rate for the first time in his career. And I knew that he’d always been a ground-ball guy. I headed over.
As the first words came out of my mouth, I realized the error of my ways. This man was nicknamed Country Breakfast. I had just asked him if he’d noticed that this year he’d been showing “his best walk rate.” He looked at me incredulously. “Is that a question?” I noticed a cavalcade of laughs joining in behind me as I laughed. Uh-oh. “Have I noticed that I’ve walked a lot?” he was almost yelling. “Yes,” he answered with an eye roll. More laughs. The recorder has me there, distinctly, at the moment of discovery that I had an audience: “Oh man.”
I tried to bring it back to baseball language. “Was it a point of emphasis in the spring, you’ve always walked a lot, but a career high seems notable.” Butler was settling in for a regular interview at this point, still with a bit of smile on his face as he put his shoes on: “I don’t think anyone goes up there thinking they’re going to walk,” he said. Informed that this might be the first year he would walk more than he struck out, he said, almost with air quotes in the air… “cool.” More laughs, and I realized it was Eric Hosmer with… oh yup, Mike Moustakas.
What I’d been looking for was some insight into the ideal ground-ball rate for a hitter. The Royals were hitting the most ground balls in the league, and I thought it might be affecting their power. Since I knew Eric Hosmer was the one behind me laughing at me, I thought I’d be the adult. I asked Butler about ground balls, but I motioned at Hosmer (I see you there): “I was asking Eric about this, but are ground balls and fly balls something you think about when you get up to the plate?”
“I think about putting the barrel on the ball.”
The peanut gallery exploded. “He gets paid to put the barrel on the ball, you guys get paid to think about fly balls and ground balls,” offers Hosmer clearly on the tape. Which wouldn’t be so bad, he’s right. But as I finished up the interview — Butler was great, he admitted that he looked for the low ball, since the pitcher was trying to throw it there anyway, something I found very interesting in terms of game theory — there was a hum behind me that threatened to take away my concentration.
I didn’t know who exactly was talking, but the tone of the stream and the intent was clear: “we get paid to put barrels on balls man, what the f— is this guy talking about, walk rates, ground-ball rates, barrels dude, barrels, what’s up with this hair, must be because he’s Greek, yeah or blind, these are some stupid questions, man, I’ve never heard anything like this, dude needs to shut up, bothering us about ground-ball rates man, barrels, dude, barrels, nut sacks more like.” The interview with Butler had been getting better, but there was one last emphatic statement from the trio behind me before they exited: “This guy’s the f—ing worst.”
There’s a pause on the tape, where Butler stops talking and there’s no follow-up from me. It’s painful to listen to, now, even 10 months after it happened. Butler noticed, and to his credit, asked: “You all right?”
I rallied. I tried to indicate that it wasn’t all him with some looks at the guys walking out. I finished up with some good material for a piece on ground balls. I thanked Butler for his time, and we ended on good terms. I got some great stuff from Alex Gordon minutes after.
But there was that moment, when three baseball players announced that I was the worst at my job they’d ever seen, and walked out of the clubhouse shaking their heads in tandem in agreement at how terrible I was, there was that moment burned into my memory. In that moment I relived all the moments in which I had felt small and unwelcome, all rolled into a ball and highly concentrated. It might be a credit to my parents that all I did was blink a couple times and stammer to Billy Butler that I was “just a little rattled.”
What was to blame for that moment? Maybe bad preparation. Maybe a bad Google image search. Maybe my haircut. Maybe the strange setup of clubhouse interviews that sometimes requires opening lines that sound like they belong on the singles scene. Maybe two young players encountering their first bit of trouble in the major leagues.
On some level, though, it was my choice of words that day. Since that day, I don’t think the word “rate” or “ratio” has come out of my mouth in the clubhouse. Why use them, when you’ve got words like “swing plane” or “loft?” Words that their hitting and pitching coaches have used, words they’re used to.
My very first interview happened to be with an elite player who was happy to talk about his batting average on balls in play, but that didn’t mean everyone else was comfortable talking about those sorts of things. And really, being able to put complex topics into easily understandable language is important — think for Joey Votto, express yourself for Eric Hosmer, maybe.
Or: learn the language. It’s the same as learning the rules, really.