An Interview with Keith Law

Tuesday, June 10 2003 @ 09:37 AM EDT

Contributed by: Jordan

Last Friday, Blue Jays Consultant (Baseball Operations) Keith Law graciously took two hours from his schedule to grant an exclusive interview to Batterís Box. The wide-ranging e-mail conversation, conducted by your Coach and GM, touched on everything from the 2003 draft to minor-league sleepers to the teamís amazing May run to the inner workings of the Jays front office. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation. Our thanks once again to Keith for making this possible.

BB: Letís start with some background. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

KL: I was born and raised on Long Island, and I turned 30 last week. My degree is in sociology and economics, although economics ended up being my real interest. I also spent a lot of time following baseball and generally goofing off.

BB: When did you first get bitten by the baseball bug? Did you play Little League, high school?

KL: I was a year young for my classes in school, and Iím short to begin with, so I never played any sports in high school. But Iíve liked baseball since I was old enough to watch the Yanks get swept out of the 1980 playoffs. I started writing for Baseball Prospectus in 1997, and as people read my stuff, more doors opened.

BB: Who are your seminal influences?

KL: The one writer who turned my thinking around was Eddie Epstein, who wrote the first STATS Minor League Scouting Notebook - now defunct. He summarized a lot of the principles we now take for granted, and once I had read that book - which was really more about the players than the theory - I started reading everything I could get my hands on.

BB: Most every sabrmetric fan thinks you have their dream job. What have you been up to?

KL: Iíve been fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of processes beyond statistical analysis, like arbitration and the draft. Iíve really been pleased with how receptive some of the coaches and scouts have been to what I can bring to the table.

BB: Whatís JP like to work with?

KL: I couldnít imagine a better boss or mentor. Everyone likes working for him. He has brought a single strategy to baseball operations that governs everything we do, and heís been consistent about it from day one.

BB: Tell us about some of the other key personnel in the front office.

KL: Tony Lacava is kind of my twin from the scouting perspective - we both work directly for JP, almost as ďspecial assignmentĒ types. Tim McCleary is our Assistant GM and manages many contract negotiations, arbitration, waivers and roster management, and other technical matters. Jon Lalonde, Charlie Wilson, and Kevin Briand represent the Toronto contingent of our scouting department, and they absolutely shone during the leadup to the draft. And Iím not sure what Ron Sandelli does, but heís always there for dinner.

BB: Some Jays TV broadcasts actually include OBP, and I saw OPS used in the Globe & Mail last month for the first time. Are the more advanced (relatively speaking) stats making real headway ?

KL: Weíre definitely seeing and hearing more about things like OBP and slugging percentage, which is a mixed blessing. Itís better than talking about hitters in terms of their RBI totals, but obviously most of those numbers need context, and none of them - not even OPS - really tells you much about the playerís overall performance.

BB: How do you statistically compare playersí defensive abilities, and how important are those criteria in your overall evaluation of a player?

KL: I have yet to see a defensive metric with any predictive value. So at this point, we rely more on traditional methods of evaluation, with statistics coming into play more as a reality check than as a determining factor.

BB: Letís talk about the clubís on-field performance. Was April discouraging?

KL: April was discouraging only to the extent that we were losing games we probably could have won. We donít expect to run with the Yankees and the Red Sox just yet - JP has been upfront about our timetable. We did feel that after the first 20 games, our schedule evened out a bit, and weíd face more teams with whom we lined up better.

BB: Then, of course, there was May. Mark Hendrickson has talked about a ďdefining moment.Ē Can you pinpoint a time or an event that seemed to spark the turnaround?

KL: The ninth-inning comeback against Kansas City, clearly. Not only did our offence keep fighting, but that was one of the first games where our relief corps had an opportunity to have that kind of an impact on the outcome of a game.

BB: How was that four-game sweep in New York?

KL: Well, as a former Yankee fan, I enjoyed it. But you also have to remember what they did to us to start the season, so letís not get too far ahead of ourselves.

BB: Tell us about the organizational philosophy thatís being implemented in the system.

KL: Hitters who control the strike zone and hit for power, pitchers who work quickly and throw strikes. Itís reflected in our scouting and our player development.

BB: Name five minor-leaguers whom every Jays fan should keep their eye on.

KL: Keep your eyes on:

- Alexis Rios, who has developed greatly as a baseball player over the last year and is now better able to make use of his tools.
- Vince Perkins, with a devastating slider and mid-90s fastball; as his control improves, heíll start to get a lot more attention.
- Guillermo Quiroz, already just 3 homers short of his 2002 total, despite being one of the youngest regulars in AA.
- John-Ford Griffin, who hit some tape-measure BP shots in spring training. And
- David Bush, our 2nd-round pick from 2002, pitching very well in his first year as a starter.

BB: How about five minor-league sleepers?

KL: I think both Jorge Sequea and Jimmy Alvarez have good shots to at least become major-league utility infielders, if not something more than that. Sandy Nin has gotten very little attention, but heís pitching very well in the Sally League and has excellent command of a low-90s fastball. Tim Whittaker should end up catching in the big leagues, since catchers with hitting ability are hard to find. And Simon Pond might not be sneaking up on people any more, but the guy can hit.

BB: Any word on Francisco Rosarioís recovery from the Tommy John procedure?

KL: Heís doing fine so far. Remember, heís just eight months off surgery.

BB: Your A-Ball pitchers are an organizational strength. Who are the three best hurlers down there?

KL: In no particular order, Iíd say Bush, Dustin McGowan and Perkins are the three guys in A-ball who have the best combination of stuff and of development to date.

BB: Tell us about Aaron Hill, your first-round draft choice.

KL: Itís hard to find bats of that calibre at premium defensive positions. Weíll always have a hard time passing on a player like that, especially when he shows the plate discipline that Hill had in college. Heíll report to minicamp in Florida and be assigned either to Auburn (the higher of our two short-season clubs) or Pulaski.

BB: How about the players chosen in rounds 2 through 10? Any sleepers in there you want to brag about?

KL: I could brag about all of them, but I think most teams would say the same about their own selections. We were very happy to get a bat like Christian Snavelyís as late as we did [6th round]. Weíre also thrilled with the starting pitching we obtained, like getting Josh Banks in the 2nd round after we expected him to go earlier than that.

BB: Once again this year, pitchers were your primary target in the draft.

KL: We decided that our organizational need was pitching over position players, so thatís what we emphasized. You have to have a strategy before the draft even starts, so that youíre making minor decisions during the draft.

BB: You didnít take a high-schooler till the 19th round this year. Whatís the truth behind the rumour that scouts were told not to bother to look at high-schoolers?

KL: That rumour is completely false. I was really disappointed to see that printed in a local paper without any attempt to confirm or deny it with the front office.

BB: We like to ride the local baseball writers. Have you had any encounters with them? Iím thinking of a certain ďRain ManĒ articleÖ.

KL: The Toronto media has been, on the whole, very good to me. Mike Ulmer wrote a nice piece about me in December, and while Geoff Baker's copy editor didnít do him any favours, his infamous piece on me had some good content about JP's philosophy. I've only had one writer come after me in print, but overall our press corps is very friendly and I think they like what we're doing with the team. If nothing else, we give them plenty to write about, because we're different.

BB: What are your favourite baseball bookmarks on the Net?

KL: That Baseball Prospectus site is pretty good. Other than that, I spend most of my time on local newspaper sites and Baseball America (I subscribe to their premium service). The signal-to-noise ratio is pretty low on a lot of the baseball sites I used to frequent pre-Blue Jays.

BB: Is Batterís Box read by anyone with the club?

KL: I read it somewhat regularly, but I think Iím the only one in the front office. I donít know of any players who read the site, although I would guess some of them do. Most of the guys have laptops and use the Net quite a bit.

BB: Outside the Jaysí front office (and Batterís Box, of course), who are the smartest people about baseball that you know?

KL: That troika in Oakland includes some serious brains. Iíd like to see the three of them on Jeopardy! sometime.

BB: Youíre getting a reputation as a pretty mean guitar player. Do you ever do any jamming for more than just fun? What are your other hobbies?

KL: I just play for fun. Itís relaxing, and thereís great satisfaction in learning to play a new song, no matter how simple. I like to read, mostly classical literature, anything by PG Wodehouse, history of science books, and of course, books about baseball. I love to cook - actually, thatís probably my main hobby. When I get home from a trip to Toronto, usually the first thing I do is cook an elaborate meal. In the fridge right now, Iíve got a chicken soaking in buttermilk to be fried up tonight.

I guess you could say that my attention is easily diverted. Ooh, shiny...

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