Baseball Men - The Critic

Baseball Men - The Critic

Our "Baseball Men" interview series continues with ‘Ken Tremendous', co-founder and writer for the ‘Fire Joe Morgan' website.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans'.



Find a baseball fan and you'll find a critic.

It's the nature of the game. We criticize the players for losing, the managers for selecting the players, the General Managers for hiring the manager, the owner for tolerating the GM, and the home town for supporting all of the above. Then we go after Major League Baseball for its high prices, bad marketing, and assorted other failures and foibles.

All that's as old as infield dirt, but a whole new era of fan criticism came of age when the internet came of age in the new millennium. Suddenly, with little more than a modem and a message, all the fans' snipes (and insights) and complaints (and praise) could find an online home. In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream, which allowed fans' blogs, in particular, to spread in unprecedented fashion - one estimate had baseball blogs currently outnumbering football- and basketball-based blogs by a factor of 10 to 1.

Everyone's a critic, apparently.

Of the many online commentators out there, 'Ken Tremendous' of the 'Fire Joe Morgan' site may be one of the most singular. Mr. 'Tremendous' and his fellow FJM writers can be unsparing in their vitriol, especially when it comes to media commentators' more clichéd or boneheaded comments, but they distinguish themselves most in their completely accessible, frequently hilarious breakdowns of baseball statistics. When he isn't lashing out at the latest ramblings from the like ESPN's Joe Morgan and Newsweek's Mike Czelic, ‘Ken' is conducting an applied, day-to-day tutorial on the meaning of stats like ‘VORP', ‘WARP', and ‘EqA'.

Recently, 'Ken' discussed the reasons for his fake moniker and his authentic love for the game.



When you started off on the site, were you familiar with blogs like ‘Seth Says', ‘Baseball Musings', ‘AaronGleeman.com' and the like?

I read and enjoyed them all, but the idea of blogging really wasn't on my mind at all. It started because me and my friends are Red Sox fans and, back in September and October of '03, we would constantly emailed each other back and forth. It was a very interesting season, obviously, which ended in that devastating ALCS and moved on to the off-season featuring the Schilling signing and possible A-Rod deal. Eventually, I secretly started collecting [all the messages] and had them bound into a kind of personalized, keepsake book for me and my friends.

At a certain point, [fellow site writer] Dak called me and said, ‘You know, with the amount of time we spend complaining to each other over the stupid things broadcasters say, we might as well post it all on an internet blog that we could all check whenever we want'. He said, ‘We could be a strike force for fans searching and finding the crazy things people say about baseball'. I said, ‘Great,' and we started it up.

Were you friends beforehand?

Yeah, we've all known each other for years. Part of the fun of the site, for us, is that it started as something we did just for ourselves - we were trying to post things that would make each other laugh. That's why a lot of the commentary is so wildly over-the-top and histrionic. I mean, ideally, we are also making cogent points about goofy sportswriters and misguided writing.

Were you surprised that other people started reading the site?

Absolutely. We were delighted that people found their way to us, despite the fact we made zero effort to publicize it. We don't have a huge readership, but the people who do read the site seem to read it consistently, which is very gratifying.

Who were influences in your writing?

I guess it's a cliché by now, but ‘Moneyball' was really important to my current thinking.

Friends of mine were into the book way before I was, but reading it provided me with a new vocabulary and framework. I didn't think there was a whole lot more I could learn about baseball, but afterwards, I started investigating and realized - hey, I've been watching this game all my life, but I've been thinking about it incorrectly all these years. I knew a little bit about statistical analysis before, but it was really when I read ‘Moneyball' that it really occurred to me, ‘Yeah, of course. There are ways to measure all sorts of things in different ways'.

How do you mean?

For instance, I started taking slugging far, far more seriously. Suppose a guy absolutely crushes a ball - rips it 32 feet up on the Green Monster - but it bounces off the wall and right back to the left fielder. Suppose there's another other guy who lays down a swinging bunt that dribbles four feet in front of the plate. He's fast, though, and he beats out the throw to first. Both those guys end up with a single, and they might even end up with the same batting average and/or on-base percentage at the end of the season, but the new wave of statistical analysis is starting to bring to the fore is the notion that, over the course of 600 or more at-bats and 162 games, the line-drive guy will probably be far more valuable than the swinging bunt guy. It's something I think I might have always known, instinctively, just by watching games, but never had the ability and vocabulary to explain why it was so obviously true.

Voros McCracken's fielding-independent pitching statistics were, for me, a revelation, too. The notion that a pitcher has essentially no control over the ball in cases where there isn't a strikeout or a base on balls - that's when I tried to look beyond ERA to measure pitchers.

One thing led to the other. The fact that closers only pitch something like 65, 70 innings per season made me look beyond ERA, too. I remember that Ugueth Urbina had something like 24 saves one year [2001], and everybody said he had a terrible year because he had something like a 3.60 ERA. No, he didn't. He had a couple of very bad outings where he got absolutely shelled, but I knew there were these other numbers, and they said that 85-90% of the time, he came through, and it was because he struck out a lot of guys and didn't walk many.

Those kinds of things were like breaking a code, finding out a kind of secret to what the game was about. ‘Moneyball' was pivotal in getting me thinking about them. After that, I plunged into Bill James again, then Rob Neyer, Dayn Perry, and others, then went on to sites like ‘Baseball Prospectus' and ‘Baseball Think Factory' and ‘Baseball-Reference.com'.

You know, the book was this huge bestseller but, to this day, people will casually refer to these ‘Moneyball'-sort of teams, and they simply don't understand what they're talking about. The book is really about finding inefficiencies to find undervalued things in a market. It's about a refusal to take the word of these grizzled old scouts and their ‘gut instincts' in multi-million dollar decisions, and instead find a better, more objective way, with numbers as useful tools toward that end.

I think I see that in your site's approach.

It seems to me that baseball's extraordinarily focused on its past, far more so than any other sports. It's atavistic in the way that it's constantly trotting out All-Star games with old guys like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. That's great - those guys are living legends - but it's not great to the extent that some very old ideas were absolutely sacrosanct until about 15, 20 years ago.

To me, what's great about baseball is that, as old as it is, there always seems to be a different way, or a better way, to win. It's fun to find explore that.

What was it a big challenge to write almost every day?

Most of us are professional writers in the entertainment industry, and we've all been writing for a long time in various media, from magazines to TV shows and that sort of thing. So we felt confident in writing about baseball as well, especially since we're such big fans.

I put together my own numbers on you guys, specifically in how much you wrote last year-

Uh oh. It was a lot, wasn't it?

You could say that. It was more than 300,000 words, in all - the equivalent of three or four full-length books.

Wow. Once we're moving, we tend to stay moving.

I guess there's never a shortage of people writing badly about sports, baseball in particular, and, very often, we stumble about treasure troves because those who write badly about baseball are consistent - they're always writing badly about baseball. We'd find another guy, go into his archives, and there are another seven targets just waiting there. (chuckles) That's how you get 300,000 words or whatever in a season. Plus, baseball's inherently interesting because there's something new every day.

That's the reason we stay anonymous, by the way - if our bosses knew how much we were web-surfing and blogging, we'd probably get fired.

In addition to your prolific track record, the thing that makes your criticism special is the fact that you definitely seem to be working from a certain set of ideas. A lot of the time, you're basically talking about the need to put statistics to performance or explaining how stats work and don't work.

Basically, that's it. We range around, but that kind of thing is at the core.

One of my favorite pieces, for instance, there was a time when [Twins manager] Ron Gardenhire said a new acquisition [infielder Luis Castillo] would help the team win another 15 games next year. I thought to myself, ‘You have to know there's a statistic called WARP - ‘wins above replacement player' - and you have to know it can help you project how many games a new player will you win'. I mean, it was a ridiculous statement. In all of Major League history, maybe - maybe - Barry Bonds and Ruth and Gehrig could give you an additional 15 wins per year.

I thought to myself, ‘How can a Major League manager not know this? These guys are playing fast and loose with a game that's entrusted to them as America's National Pastime'. It's a little insulting.

Well, the devil's advocate will tell you that most managers don't have anything to do with personnel decisions, so that comment is kind of irrelevant. Probably, Gardenhire was just blurting something out to bolster the confidence of a new guy.

I'd love to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'd acknowledge that Ron Gardenhire probably isn't thinking, ‘Great, we're 15 games better than last year'! He's not a critic or a journalist, so it's a little bit disingenuous of me to attack him like that. On the other hand, it is just funny to me that without knowing it, apparently, he used a statistic completely incorrectly.

Here's a better example - the World Champion Chicago White Sox. Ozzie Guillen had Juan Uribe in the lineup at number two throughout the year and, as [fellow site writer] Junior pointed out, every single regular player in the lineup had a better on-base percentage last year. The idea that could happen to this day, on a World Championship-caliber lineup, no less . . . I don't care how much your players like you - you're hurting your team by doing that. Juan Uribe is a very good defensive shortstop who should hit ninth, if he plays at all. A .301 OBP kills too many rallies, end of discussion.

One of the reasons we wrote as much as we did was because of the White Sox - more stupid things have been said about them than any team in history. It got to the point where the media's darling was getting some kind of credit for Scott Podsednik's home runs or Jose Contreras' sinkers, as if Guillen was the real story there, in the way he was supposedly so incredibly loose and zany. It's nuts, because the media basically ignored his insane game-management decisions in favor if this ‘He's crazy and fun!' story line.

For the longest time, I wondered why the media was so in love with Ozzie Guillen, too, until you explained that he helps reporters write stories. He seems to be popular, not despite the disrespectful or wrong things he does, but because of it.

And he does a lot of bold things, which is another thing the media really loves. There's no story in doing smart, sensible things and playing matchups, but there is a story in allowing your starters to throw four straight complete games in the ALCS, for instance. Guillen's sort of a gunslinger but, yeah, the team actually succeeded in spite of his lineups.

Is there anything or anyone you won't go after?

Well, someone like [actor-turned-columnist] Jay Mohr, I don't really feel good about going after him. He has gotten spots on Sports Illustrated, but his stuff is basically fish-in-a-barrel.

You really seem to have a plain disgust for the lazy thinking behind clichés like ‘teams of destiny', ‘gritty little guys'-

(chuckles) Gritty little guys! Where are all the gritty big guys?

‘True Yankees'-

That's a great one. That's one of Jay Mohr's favorites, actually.

And ‘guys who know how to win'.

(chuckles) ‘They know how to win'. Oh man. That's a good one. Apparently, there are some Major Leaguers who don't know how to win.

I love it when those kinds of clichéd, empty notions take hold, so that commentators feel the need to repeat how scrappy David Eckstein might be instead of what he actually does on the field. Or how Bernie Williams' ‘a true Yankee', whatever that means. I have a feeling that Bernie Williams would have been ‘a true Astro' if he played in Houston his whole career. And I keep on hearing that Darin Erstad is some kind of tough guy, because he was a punter at Nebraska - what does it matter, since the numbers say he doesn't produce? I suspect that a .371 slugging percentage [in 2005] is more important than his ‘football mentality'.

You might have come across another of the true gems, the time when Tim McCarver said that Derek Jeter is a good hitter because he has ‘calm eyes'. Ever since, we've sometimes made subtle little references to ‘calm eyes' (chuckles).

Derek Jeter is a good baseball player because he's patient and disciplined, works the count, with decent power, a ton of natural ability, and a fabulous work ethic. Yes, he has good interpersonal skills and a good personality, but say ‘he has good interpersonal skills and a strong personality' or something to that effect. Don't say he's a good hitter because he has ‘calm eyes'. To me, it's just crazy to let that kind of remark pass, as if it's so obviously true that it doesn't even merit a response.

OK, but maybe others know something about the game you don't. Maybe you're a stats nerd who just doesn't appreciate the inherent poetry of the game.

(chuckles) Well, maybe. You know, here's the thing – we don't deny the existence of intangible qualities in baseball players. We of course understand that some guys are better teammates than others, and some guys perform better under pressure, for whatever reason, and so on. It's just that we object to those qualities being equated with actual performance when discussing a ballplayer's value. It's like saying that you should buy an expensive, beautiful chair because it will ‘lend a certain something' to your living room decor, even if the chair has like one leg and is constantly tipping over.

Baseball's the greatest game of all - complete with the greatest sportswriting - and one hundred plus years of history. John Updike wrote about it, Roger Angell has spent a career writing about it, and on and on. There is a mystical quality to the game, but the problem comes when people who are not John Updike and Roger Angell try to get lyrical. If you're not a poet, don't try to write poetry. I mean, a Tim McCarver, obviously, is a very, very intelligent guy who, at the end of the day, probably doesn't buy his own line. My beef with him is that, very often, he's trying to deliver some kind of elevated, poetic lines, fails, and ends up saying some pretty meaningless things.

Going back to your main point, though, you're right - there's a nutty idea out there that an interest in statistical analysis is separate from a pure love of the game. Some people think knowing ‘Equivalent Average' means you can't love the taste of a hot dog at Dodger Stadium. That drives me crazy. You mean I'm spending hours thinking about player evaluations and tactics and team-building because . . . I hate baseball? (chuckles) That's not what I see - everyone who works on the site has been to hundreds of ballgames. I don't take second place to anyone as a passionate fan of all aspects of baseball.

It seems to me, if you really love baseball, you want to learn about it and how move in it. You should want to experience it in new and exciting ways. By no means do you have to have to agree with me, but you can always develop and learn more facts.

Is it more important for you to be analytical or to be entertaining?

I guess I'd say, in the end, being analytical and entertaining is more or less the same thing. When I read about Ron Gardenhire and the 15 games, for instance, I get kind of curious. I can point out how incredibly wrong he is, and that's fun, but it's only the beginning. You know, how many games is the new guy worth? What are the variables involved?

I think a lot of readers just enjoy sharing our plight, who get as frustrated as we are with Mike Cezelic [of Newsweek] (chuckles). Most of [the readers] are great. I've always maintained that a lot of early readers, especially, originally found the site because they'd type ‘Joe Morgan should be fired' into a Google search.

And you guys aren't just about attacks. You always offer good reasoning.

Thanks. We're amateur critics and we do what critics do - we disagree - but we also try to engage in a dialogue. When someone says something dumb, we try to explain what they're doing to offend our sensibilities and why we believe differently. Most of our readers seem to agree with us, when that's not the case, we genuinely try to see where they're coming from.

The idea is to attack ideas, not people. If you notice, our favorite targets are writers whose ideas are off, but beyond that, they have these crazed, bombastic kind of egos that try to dismiss other viewpoints. (chuckles) Then again, the site is called ‘Fire Joe Morgan' -

I was just about to get to that.

But I should be clear that we don't hate Joe Morgan personally, or because he played for the Reds or whatever. From what I understand, Joe Morgan is a very nice person. He's a family guy with grandkids. Obviously, he's a Hall of Famer.

What we hate is the fact that the things he says are wrong and he doesn't seem at all interested in correcting them. I mean, take ‘Moneyball' - one of the reasons the site isn't called ‘Fire Tim McCarver' or something is because Morgan was so idiotic about the book. Morgan essentially says, ‘I don't need to read the book, I've played the game, I've been around the game for 40 years, I love the game, I know the game'.

Well, that's true, isn't it?

Yeah, it is. The irony is, it's the new wave of statistical analysis that's pretty much determined that Joe was the first or second greatest player in his position! There's no question he was a legend as a player. More than that, he's an Emmy-winning broadcaster. And not just any Emmy-winning broadcaster - the lead voice for the national broadcasts of the flagship sports network!

He is the man, but doesn't that make it even worse when he says he doesn't have anything to learn?

Playing the game doesn't give you license, as a broadcaster, to dismiss wholesale a methodology with which you aren't even a tiny bit familiar. That would be like me saying I've been a writer for ten years, so I can't possibly learn anything from a new novel. The thought that anyone knows everything - that they can't possibly get better in their job - is nuts. I'm sorry - it's nuts. If Joe Morgan takes our advice, maybe he'd finally read the book, maybe he would learn, and maybe he'd even pass it on to millions of viewers.

I can tell you that the process of writing the site has helped me deepen and broaden my knowledge of baseball, to the point where I'm routinely finding out amazing things. I found out that guys like Brian Giles might have deserved an MVP a few years ago. I found out that Rafael Furcal was worth more three more wins to [the Braves] than Johnny Damon was to [the Red Sox]. Amazing stuff.

The irony is that, in the process of urging Joe Morgan to learn more, we've learned more. I didn't think it was possible for us to be more into baseball, but we are, so we know you can have a lot of fun in the process.

That makes sense, but you might be taking it all too seriously. Apparently, Joe Morgan is still employed because he's a familiar face, speaks softly, and has a good time in calling a game with Jon Miller.

Absolutely. If that's the way you want to enjoy baseball, I think that's absolutely legitimate. There's a lot of joy in just taking in a game without paying a lot of attention to anything.

The problem is that Joe Morgan is an important man, a guy in a position to influence the thinking of a lot of people, especially kids. I mean, I don't have a problem with Jon Miller's delivery, but even if I did, it wouldn't be any big deal, because Miller's just doing a play-by-play call. Morgan, on the other hand, consistently, time after time, goes into irrational comments about how baseball works and he's not just misguided, he's flat-out wrong. People take insane lines about ‘manufacturing runs' as gospel, because he is who he is, and that's not good.

I want the guy who's calling the Sunday night game for ESPN to be better than that. He's an ambassador to the fans, whether die-hards or casual fans, and he should do a good job.

Do you think Joe Morgan will be fired?

Well, I very much doubt that ESPN or any other multi-billion dollar corporation particularly cares what we think. The title is kind of a goof that way - it's deliberately over-the-top and strident.

Right now, I know, Joe Morgan does little or no research - he just rambles and delivers stuff off the top off his head. We'd consider it a massive success if he'd just alter his behavior, if he would just get an intern or something to do some rudimentary research and add some rationality into the mix.

You know, I'm not sure, but it might have happened already. There was this one time where we hit Joe particularly hard on his live ESPN chats for, like, four straight weeks and suddenly, in the next one . . . he wasn't crazy. It was really strange and I had this left-field thought. ‘Is it in the world of possibility - is there a 4% chance - that someone at ESPN got wind of us, pulled Joe aside, and said ‘people are criticizing you for this sort of writing. Can you tone it down a little?'

I doubt that actually happened, but it's fun to think about.

Why haven't you gone after ‘New York's premier sportswriter', Mike Lupica?

I lived in New York for a while, and I used to buy his tabloid just to read his column and get angry. It was like doing drugs - I knew it was bad for me, but I was helpless to stop (chuckles). I'd mutter to myself on the way to the subway, ‘I've got to stop reading Lupica', and it's stayed with me out here [in Los Angeles]. Maybe we should get back on that, though.

You don't accept advertising and you don't get a salary from the site -

Right.

So why go through all the work involved?

Because we love baseball - talking about it, reading about it, writing about it. This is our hobby - we think of it in the way that other people think about toy trains or coin collecting and that kind of thing. With that in mind, I wouldn't necessarily have predicted we'd write 300,000 or more words between us during the past season, but I wouldn't have been all that surprised, either.

Frankly, the amount of time we spend on the site, we were already spending talking to each other, reading, watching ball games, going to ball games. There's just a bit more time to lay it out and write a little more formally, but I can't tell you the amount of time I spend visiting baseball sites every day, for no other reason than to goof off.

Do you want to be a professional baseball critic one day?

Happily, that's not a necessity - we're all employed and make a relatively good living. This isn't a need to get entangled into any larger agenda and we don't have to change anything, whether the readership rises to a million or declines down to the six of us.

Frankly, we like that. I think it's good that it's a hobby, that it's for fun, that it's solely aimed to amuse ourselves. And, hopefully, others. I even like the site's plain, bare-basics look, though we might update it at some point. I'm not sure it's even, necessarily, a goal that we turn this into something one day. We do it purely for the sport.



The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men' interview series can be found here.

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