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An Interview with Kevin Goldstein and a Review of the Baseball Prospectus 2012 Annual

I had the opportunity to speak with Kevin Goldstein at the beginning of the week. We talked at length about the Baseball Prospectus 2012 Annual, the Cardinals and, of course, the minor league system. Below the jump is our conversation.

You'll also find my review of the Annual (disclosure: I was provided a free copy for the purposes of this review) along with some of my more general thoughts on Baseball Prospectus. This review was not provided to Kevin Goldstein or Baseball Prospectus prior to its posting. Please insert any further legalese that you would like right here to indicate that I'm reviewing this of my own volition and Kevin Goldstein did not have a gun to my head or to the head of any of my favorite prospects.

While I hope you'll read and enjoy all of what you find below, the short version of my review is this: Though initially skeptical of the Annual, I find myself recommending it for it's easy, engaging writing about the other 29 MLB teams. Cardinals fans should not buy this to be better informed Cardinals fans. They should buy it to be better informed baseball fans.

The Baseball Prospectus 2012 is the 17th Annual for BP. What number is this for you personally, Kevin?

[laughs] I’m laughing because I don’t know. 6 years, I think that’s how long I’ve been doing it. Let’s go with 6 years.

Obviously it is a huge undertaking. BP is essentially writing a preview for 30 teams among other things. Can you tell us a little bit about the nuts and bolts of the construction of the book? How does the BP team go about dividing up the content assignments?

We write it in two months. Basically, we get going after the World series and we have to have it all done before the end of the year. It has to be to the publisher before Christmas. Everybody kind of loses their life for 6-8 weeks. We assign people to teams. Teams they are familiar with, teams they have contacts with. Everyone goes to their corner and writes. The editors go about editing. It’s an intense, heads-down kind of process. At the end, we bring it all together and create an book for everyone.

Were you on the editing side or writing side of things?

I’m a horrible editor. You don’t want me editing. I do the writing process. I think I’m better at that anyway. I do player comments. I think I did three teams this year.

So they don’t just have you writing about rookies or prospects?

No, no. I’ll have conversations with other writers for prospects. I don’t consider myself the ultimate arbiter of player comments though. If the writer calls a scout or the team and gets a different perspective that they like better they may run with that. I’d hope they’d run with that. I don’t know it all.

I’m a little disappointed to hear that you aren’t just laying the smackdown on everyone behind the scenes.

[chuckes] No, it’s not like that. It may seem like that on twitter sometimes but not for the book.

Well, I would hope that you get more cogent questions from fellow writers than what you see on Twitter.

There are some interesting questions on twitter but the writers for the annual have access to all of Baseball Prospectus’ scouting reports and we’ll collaborate on some of the players.

The content that Baseball Prospectus puts on the web has, for a long time, been on the leading edge of sabrmetrics. What makes the 2012 Annual accessible to the casual fan who isn’t as familiar with True Average or advanced defensive metrics?

I think it’s the writing. As great as all of the information in that book is, all the numbers, the reason the book is so successful is the writing. We work really hard to make sure it’s accessible, like you said, and informative and entertaining.

The team essays are one thing but for every player we have 100-150 words to write. We want to give information and try to be entertaining. Sometimes it succeeds at being clever and sometimes it doesn’t. If we focus just on the high end crazy stuff we limit our audience. We don’t want to stand on some kind of mountain top and preach down like we’re the smartest people out there. We want to say to people, "Come on board." This is interesting stuff. It will make you enjoy the game more. It will make you a better fan.

So before we talk about the Cardinals as a team for 2012, I’m hoping you’ll indulge me for a second and look backwards for a bit. The Cardinals won their second world series in 5 years. marching through the Phillies, Brewers and Texas Rangers. Was there anything about the 2011 postseason that stuck out to you?

Other than the fact that they exceed all expectations? Even by Cardinals fans? If you poll Cardinals fans, I don’t think many would have said that they were going to win the world series. What they did was just so surprising. Let’s face it: The Texas Rangers on paper were a far better baseball team. But this is the kind of thing that can happen in a short series. And it’s important. They exceeded expectations.

I agree. At Viva el Birdos, the authors, myself included, were taking some flack for being too pessimistic or too harsh about their chances. You want to present a realistic case and analysis of where your team stands but it comes across as pessimistic.

I mean, think about it. You lose your best pitcher at the start of the season. Who thought you’d survive that? And then I was cracking wise about Lance Berkman in the outfield, which looked like it was going to be a disaster.

That’s just baseball.

Right. That’s just how baseball is sometimes. But if you look at some of the formulas that project post season success, the Cardinals did pretty well in those formulas too. Teams with power bullpens that can hit homeruns often do well in the post-season. The Cardinals may have been a better playoff team rather than a team that was built for the regular season.

Shortly thereafter, Tony La Russa retired and then, the big bombshell for the offseason, Albert Pujols signed with the Angels. Were you surprised to see him go to the Angels?

Not very. Actually no. I really wasn’t surprised that he signed somewhere else. I think his reputation in baseball is as a bit of a mercenary.

St. Louis is a tremendous town. One of the best you’ll ever find. But people get attached to players more than they should maybe. Fans were more attached to Pujols than Pujols was to the fans and that may have led to some unrealistic expectations. The Cardinals wanted to keep him. They were clearly trying to sign him and wanted to go the extra mile. They were letting the market develop and then they were going to offer one dollar more. When it gets to that point, the team probably did the right thing. When someone drops a contract in your lap like that, Pujols did what was right for him.

Pujols is obviously the best right handed hitter of our generation. At some point though, a club has to say, "It’s too much money for us."

As we talked about earlier, the Annual includes, in part, a preview for all 30 teams including some player capsules. The Cardinals tried to replace the lost production at first with a veteran signing of Carlos Beltran and moving Lance Berkman to first. So are you reworking your Lance Berkman wisecracks for Carlos Beltran in right field now or is Beltran going to be effective for the Cardinals?

It’s funny because … well, look, coming into the year there’s more reason to be optimistic for Beltran. In 2010, Berkman looked done, cooked. I don’t think anyone will be surprised if Beltran will have a good year in St. Louis. But yes, he’s an aging player. He’s probably not going to play 160 games. It’s not a bad signing and he’s got a good chance to be productive. The market was limited for big bats and stars last year so the signing makes a lot of sense for the Cardinals.

They obviously had to make up for the loss of Pujols and you can’t do that by adding just one guy. Pujols was a 6-7 win player and that was an off year. In a good year he can be 8-10 wins. So they’ve got to pick up wins incrementally. Beltran gives them a couple of extra wins. Getting Lance Berkman to first base gets them some defensive gains. Getting Wainwright back is big. Losing Carpenter doesn’t help but still. A win here, a win there. You aren’t going to replace Albert Pujols in with one guy.

So you’ve kind of been riding this wave of prospect popularity. I mean, I think that in the last 5 years or so prospects have really become all the rage. Teams value them differently than perhaps they did in the past and fans follow the systems much more closely. Do you agree with that?

Absolutely. Just 10 years ago, when I started this stuff, the kinds of things I started was a prospect report. The reason I started that was because I had access to boxscores that no one else did. MiLB didn’t exist. You couldn’t get a prospects stats from the previous day’s game. That’s just 10 years ago.

Now it’s a huge part of the game today. The draft has gone from a conference call to a staged event -- well the first round has. If you ask fans who the top prospects are a decade ago and not many people could tell you. Now I think if you went down to Busch Stadium a lot of people will know who Shelby Miller is. I would bet that a lot would know Matt Adams and Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras too. I think the growth of coverage has led to this. Fantasty baseball with the deep keeper leagues has caused this growth, too. Overall, it’s great for me. People are clearly hungry for more of this kind of information.

To hear you say that 10 years ago there was no, kind of blows my mind. I just can’t quite imagine that.

When I started I was doing this thing called the prospect report. I was just taking the boxscore lines from some of the top prospects from that day’s game and putting it in an brief report. I was working with Baseball America at the time and I had access to some of this information and it simply wasn’t anywhere else out there.

I want to talk a little about one of the players you mentioned earlier, Matt Adams.


You had Adams as a four-star prospect when you ranked the Cardinals farm system back in February. Can you expand a little bit on your perception of Adams? He can be a somewhat controversial prospect at times.

I feel really good about him. I know I’m the high man on the totem pole with regards to Matt Adams. But when you talk to scouts this spring, I feel really good about where I had him.

I talk to scouts everyday, 365 days a year. I’ve had two scouts go out of their way to talk about Matt Adams. That’s really big. That’s huge. Without me asking about him to have two scouts bring up Matt Adams is big deal

He can really hit. If you go see Matt Adams, you’re going to see a mammoth creature, borderline fat. You’ll think he’s a slow slugging first baseman. He’s not one-dimensional though. He has a good contact rate. That tells you he can hit too. He barrels balls. He’s not just up there looking to yank everything; the homeruns come naturally. He’s a guy who I really believe in. I tend to hate first base prospects. To be a first base prospect you either look like someone who will be in middle of lineup or you aren’t a prospect. So I really like Matt Adams for what he is.

I know he’s not going to pick it with the leather but we’re not talking about Brett Wallace fall-down range, right?

It’s funny you brought him up because I had someone mention him the other day as well. I was quoting in an article where someone said that a player was a bad bodied player but "wasn’t Brett Wallace bad". [Adams] is a good athlete for his size. Which means he’s a bad athlete in general but relative to his size he’s a good athlete. He’s not going to be Adrian Gonzalez or Mark Teixeira but he’s not a complete trainwreck at first base.

Right, right. I remember the Brett Wallace at third experiment too and that was just all kinds of horrible. It wasn’t just one train wreck but multiples. But when fans see players at that position sometimes they buy into it.

Sure. Wallace was a third baseman in college but a third baseman in college isn’t a third baseman in the majors.

By the way, in hindsight, the Cardinals made out like bandits in the Matt Holliday trade, right? Half a season of Holliday for Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Peterson.

Yeah, that was a good trade for them. They got away with it. Wallace was the key to that. Even though he couldn’t play third base and struggles some at first everyone thought he was still going to hit. Now that he hasn’t hit yet it looks like the Cardinals really pulled that one off. And he’s on his 4th organization now, I think.

Moving down your Top 11 prospects from Adams, there’s a guy who is getting a lot of attention from St. Louis fans this spring and that’s Trevor Rosenthal. He’s been in the local press a lot and some of the veterans have been complimentary of his demeanor and work ethic. You had him as a three star prospect below Tyrell Jenkins and I was wondering if you’ve heard anything this spring that changes your opinion of him.

I’m kind of surprised at the question. I thought where I put him was actually pretty high. I saw him pitch. What stands out is how polished he is for the level he was at. You have to ask yourself though whether these guys are going to be a star or an impact pitcher not all of them are. Rosenthal looks like more of a middle rotation guy for me. I like him as much as anybody though. Especially when you consider his background and when he was drafted -- this guy was a steal from the draft. I’m a big fan. He’s a good prospect as a #3 or #4 starter.

I’m disappointed, Kevin. I want you to tell me that all of our prospects will be aces. They’re all aces.

Sorry, just can’t do that. A #4 starter is worth their weight in gold right now though.

I’ll have to tweet at you about why you hate Rosenthal to get the answer I want, I guess.

[chuckles] I get those questions sometimes. But Rosenthal has been a surprise. He was off the radar in the draft and you start getting scouting reports that look good and the numbers look good and then you see him for yourself and he looks good.

You saw him in Quad Cities, right?

Yes. He’s a legitimate prospect.

You had Boone Whiting at #19 on your list as what amounts to a finesse right hander. I’m a big fan of Whiting who I think is, arguably, the best control pitcher in the Cardinals minor league system right now. Is there a finesse pitcher that’s kind of your anecdotal "don’t forget this guy" example for why these types of players don’t succeed?

Left hander Andy Van Hekken is always someone that comes to mind. If you’re left handed, can throw strikes and spin a curveball, you can do crazy shit in the minors. At the lower levels, if you can hit your spots, you’re going to look really good. A lot of those players have never seen a quality breaking ball in the lower levels. They’ve never seen quality location.

Sure. And regardless of the long term success, seeing guys like Whiting do their thing at A-ball or Double A is still impressive.

Right but how’s he going to get big league hitters out? When he’s got them in the hole how does he finish them off. A small percentage of these guys can turn into #5 starters. They’re all fun to watch, look at Jamie Moyer. People are like, "Why don’t you compare him to Jaime Moyer?" Well, there’s a thousand kids you could compare to Jamie Moyer and there’s one Jamie Moyer.

I share your skepticism. I think the term that you’ve used in the past to describe yourself is a "velocity whore".

Look, the vast majority of the players that make it to the majors have good stuff. That’s the reason we don’t make those comparisons. You get to the big leagues with good stuff.

One more prospect from your top 20. Seth Blair was pretty much, well, terrible last year. The walks were out of control. In your opinion, is this a mechanical thing or a between the ears thing?

Well those can be the same thing. Often mechanical problems are between the ears. Did you see him last year in Quad Cities?

No, I didn’t make it up there before the team shut him down so he wouldn’t suck publicly anymore.

He was clearly fighting himself on the mound. Mechanical issues are often between the ears. Guys focus on fixing the problem so much as opposed to just throwing the baseball. You could almost see him thinking about his delivery on the mound. Step Back. Wait. Lift leg. Drive. He’s in some pretty tall weeds right now. It's tough to watch and whether they can get out of it is often one of the biggest tests for a prospect.

So I don’t often get to pick one of the internet’s pre-eminent prospect guru’s brains so I’ve got a pretty deep Cardinal prospect question. Breyvic Valera is a teenager out of Venezuela who has been playing 2B for the Cardinals short season teams. Is there reason to be excited about this kid?

Are you excited about him?

No, not necessarily. I’ve seen some people start to hype him a bit and I get the sense that we just don’t know much about him. I’m not particularly high on him. I think this is a new situation where these guys come out of Latin America and we immediately think they’re going to be a big deal, like Oscar Taveras for instance.

I think you hit the nail on the head. These Latin prospects appear and we don’t necessarily know anything about them. You can get into trouble with some of these kids because how much we don’t know and we just haven’t seen anything go wrong yet even though it will. So, no, he’s not worthy of tons of hype. He’s not in the same line as a guy like Kolten Wong. Every team has their hype guy though. Now I know who the Cardinals is.

Like I said, I blame Oscar Taveras.

If that’s the worst thing that Oscar ever does, then I think you’ll be able to forgive Taveras once he’s contributing with his bat.

One last chance to plug the book -- anything else that people should know about the annual that we haven’t talked about?

Other than they should buy it and read it? No.

[Laughs] Well thanks for your time, Kevin. I appreciate it.

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I don't think I could ever review the Baseball Prospectus 2012 Annual with it not being something of a review of Baseball Prospectus itself. On a very fundamental level, Baseball Prospectus initiated me into the sabrmetric world 6 or 7 years ago when I was still in college. The writing was compelling and they had a host of really great authors. I found Nate Silver to be insightful and incisive. Clay Davenport's translations were always a really interesting way to procrastinate on responsibilities. Many of the authors wrote with a combination of intellect and cleverness that I couldn't find in what we often call the "mainstream media".

If I came for the statistics -- WARP, PECOTA, MLEs -- I stayed for Kevin Goldstein. I can't claim to not love prospects. I've been writing about the Cardinals major league system for something like 5 years at Future Redbirds and Goldstein is one of a handful of national writers that are really fundamental to the general fan's understanding of prospects in their system.

In many ways, Goldstein has been one of my only links to Baseball Prospectus for a while now. Some key people departed the site (Davenport and Silver) to pursue other interests. Major League teams came calling for statistical help in the 2000s and they came to Baseball Prospectus. Guys like Keith Woolner and Dan Fox went from compelling writers to senior members of a MLB front office. Frankly, Baseball Prospectus was worse off for it, too.

Recently, I think that tide has started to turn again. While a website like Fangraphs has made advanced statistics available to anyone with a computer, Baseball Prospectus continues to try and make them understandable. The writing at Baseball Prospectus is arguably the best collection of that writing style on one site. (Fangraphs writes for the masses now and their articles basically amount to generic slop and misusing their own stats -- but that's another post.)

I don't always agree with the conclusions that arise out of Baseball Prospectus pieces (and I'll never leave wOBA for True Average or WAR for WARP) but I feel like they are again targeting the heart of the issues. And it's clear that they are assembling people who "get it". Colin Wyers, who I disagree with on advanced defensive metrics, clearly gets it. Mike Fast, now a member of Jeff Luhnow's Astros' staff, was a veritable genius with regards to pitch f/x. They were the type of writer who have a strong grasp of the concepts and the uncommon ability to distill it into a digestible article. That is what makes Baseball Prospectus good at what they do and that is, I think, the type of thing that Kevin Goldstein is referring to when he talks about making the material accessible to the general audience.

So I entered this process with a degree of skepticism. Which BP would I find in the annual? The one that when through a stale period for several years or the more recent incarnation of BP? The answer was a little of both. If you buy the Baseball Prospectus Annual to learn more about the Cardinals, I think you're buying it for the wrong reasons. I didn't find anything brand new or insightful though the Cardinals content was well written and a breezy read.

That isn't to say I'm not recommending the Annual. I am. I'm recommending the annual because it helped remind me that there are 29 other teams with interesting players and narratives. 29 other teams that I don't read about everyday. That I don't know as well as I know the team I follow so closely on this website. So, for me, there was one bland chapter and 29 interesting ones.

One negative aspect of the modern blog is that, in some ways, it has narrowed fans understanding of sports to an understanding of a specific sports team. Because there is such a ready and compelling place to read about the Cardinals every day, much of the time that I would have spent reading about other teams in general is now spent on VEB reading about the Cardinals. The Baseball Prospectus 2012 Annual was a reminder that the Tampa Bay Rays are a really good, really young team. It was a reminder that the Baltimore Orioles are a talent-poor mess right now.

Kevin was, essentially, right. The statistics are nice. They're presented in an extremely unobtrusive way that accentuates the writing and the essays rather than overshadows it. The Baseball Prospectus Annual is a good read not for the chapter on the Cardinals, not for the esoterica of numbers but for the witty, sometimes flippant, writing that visits 29 teams not named the St. Louis Cardinals.

I hope the Cardinals crush everyone of those 29 teams in 2012 when the opportunity presents itself. I'll be able to enjoy the victory more having learned about each of the 29 teams in greater detail while reviewing this Annual.

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An excerpt from the Tampa Bay Rays' section:

Matt Moore

All Moore did last year was win Minor League Pitcher of the Year and shut out the American League champions in his first ever playoff start. Moore dominated the minor leagues, going 12-3 with a 1.92 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A while posting a strikeout rate over 12 for the fifth consecutive season. He also reduced his walk rate for a third consecutive season. His career numbers at the minor league level look almost too incredible to be real: 700 strikeouts and just 338 hits in 497 1/3 innings. His hit batsmen total (26) is higher than his home runs allowed (25). The Rays called Moore up and in his only start, he struck out 11 Yankees in Yankee Stadium. Like [Jeremy] Hellickson before him, he has announced his presence with authority. Moore signed a team-friendly extension in the offseason; expect to see him in the major league rotation.

An excerpt from the St. Louis Cardinals section:

Manager: Mike Matheny

This space was to be a dispassionate, reasoned analysis of Game 5 of the 2011 World series, a managerial quagmire of such breadth and depth that it might never be fully explained or understood. That plan changed somewhat after the Cardinals rallied to win the final two games of the Series and the championship, La Russa's second title in St. Louis and the third of his career. And that plan changed again, more dramatically, when La Russa announced his retirement the day after the Cardinals celebrated their 11th title with a parade through downtown St. Louis.

La Russa's legacy is unquestioned, starting with his rank of third on the all-time list of managerial victories. Former Cards catcher Mike Matheny, who has never managed at any level, faces a daunting task in living up to his predecessor.

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The Baseball Prospectus 2012 Annual is available from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.