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Tuesday

3

January 2012

53

COMMENTS

Q and A with the Daily Herald's Bruce Miles

Written by , Posted in General

There are only a few, but I think Bruce Miles is the best of them. The Cubs beat writers have accessibility to the team that we can only dream of.

Unfortunately the Daily Herald went behind a paywall, so I’m unable to read Bruce and participate on his blog, which was by far the best of the beat writers, routinely seeing hundreds of comments of (mostly) civil discussion. It was the best because Bruce took part in those discussions. One time, he even said that I was a bit of a ‘curmudgeon’!

Bruce was nice enough to answer a few questions for me and for more insight, follow him on Twitter @BruceMiles2112


VTFB: Can you give a brief synopsis of your career path, beginning from your days in college? I’m curious about the road you took that led you to Cubs beat writer.

Bruce Miles: I studied at Loyola University Chicago, concentrating in communications and journalism. I worked four years at the college radio station and was thinking of a broadcasting career. But at the start of my senior year, I got an internship at the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and immediately became hooked on newspaper work. The internship was unpaid, but I tried to work at the Law Bulletin as much as I could. I was always interested in sports, so I came up with a few features at the Law Bulletin. I interviewed athletes who had become lawyers, including Alan Page, former Bears kicker Bob Thomas, Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden and others. After graduating, I took a full-time job in corporate communication while covering high school sports for the old Suburban Trib and finally the Daily Herald. The Herald hired me full-time in 1988 to work the sports copy desk. I worked in a number of writing assignments while on the desk. When the Cubs beat opened before the 1998 season, I interviewed for the job and got it. It’s been quite a ride.

VTFB: Rumors have taken on a life of their own in recent years and I often wonder how much is true. One minute the Cubs are in on Prince Fielder, the next minute they’ve never made contact. How often are these so-called rumors nothing more than misleading leaks by either the agent or the team, to improve negotiations?

Bruce: More times than not, many more times, the rumors are not true. When Andy MacPhail and Jim Hendry ran things, they never liked starting rumors and rarely would comment on the record about them. I see the same thing happening with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. From my experience, these rumors start with agents, trying to drum up markets for their clients.

VTFB: Continuing with the ‘wonder if it’s true’ thought, I’ve seen it reported that Jim Hendry did NOT want to sign Alfonso Soriano to that 8 year, $136 million contract back in the 2006 offseason. That it came from above, perhaps by John McDonough who was then Team President. Do you know anything about this? Do you think there were any moves where Hendry received unfair blame due to interference from above?

Bruce: Hendry deserves his fair share of the blame for chasing Soriano so hard in the first place. From what I’ve been told repeatedly, the Tribune Co. higher-ups tacked on the additional two years to what would have been a six-year deal for Soriano. ? The Tribune Co. wanted Hendry to spend a lot of money after 2006, so maybe that led to him giving the kinds of contracts he gave to players such as Jason Marquis.

VTFB: Are there any players that take a leadership role in the clubhouse that the television watching fan might not notice? Someone who may be the first one there, last to leave, or even pull a youngster to the side for instruction?

Bruce: I’ve seen plenty. Some have led quietly; others have been more vocal and public about it. Kerry Wood and Bob Howry have been instrumental in helping Andrew Cashner. That’s partly why the Cubs brought Howry back for a second go. Although Aramis Ramirez never was a vocal leader or one who sought out attention for himself, he did help out a number of youngsters. Over the years, I can recall players such as Ricky Gutierrez, Greg Maddux and others make their feelings known when they didn’t like things. As far as getting there early and leaving late, I don’t think anybody ever beat Juan Pierre in that department, as unpopular as he may have been with some fans. I don’t think I ever saw anybody work harder.

VTFB: Normally when a team makes a trade or acquisition, the reports say that the GM made the move. With the Cubs today, it seems Theo Epstein is talked about more than Jed Hoyer. Any insight as to how they split their duties?

Bruce: Theo is heavily involved in all acquisitions. That seems right. Why not use his expertise? I don’t know that there’s any definite “split” in their duties. Hoyer has wide leeway and all the responsibilities of GM, but Theo is involved, especially with the bigger-ticket items.

VTFB: On a scale of 0-10, where would you rank the Jim Hendry era’s usage of advanced stats/sabermetrics? How about Epstein/Hoyer?

Bruce: With Hendry, I think his tenure began with that scale at 1, and gradually grew to about 4 or 5. With Epstein and Hoyer, it’s at a solid 9, but they also look at things like “character” and “chemistry.” They also believe in good scouting and listening to their scouts.

VTFB: You are one of the more statistically inclined Cubs beat writers, do you recall at what point you took up an interest in the advanced stats? Were you on board from the beginning or were you more of convert like Bill Simmons as he detailed in this article?

Bruce: Well, I like to think I’m THE most statistically inclined Cubs beat writer! I read Bill James’ Abstracts in the 1980s and developed an interest in that analytical side of the game then. As far as using advanced stats on the beat, it’s been a gradual process for me that I really believe took off around 2003. I credit that to the explosion of blogs back then and the large number of emails I would get from statistically inclined readers who always encouraged me to look at things in new ways and in different lights. When I tell people I learn a lot from the readers, I really mean that. I have to remember to balance my own interest in sabermetrics with the realization that not every reader has a handle on it. For example, I was asked by a reader once what slugging percentage is. When I presented a player’s stats as, say, .280/.350/.400, I had one reader ask what those numbers were. Another asked, “What is that, sabermetrics?” So you have to be mindful you’re writing a for a diverse readership.

VTFB: Give us a bold prediction for 2012.

Bruce: Carlos Zambrano comes back to the Cubs, stays on his best behavior and has a good (and complete) season. That may be completely off, but you wanted bold.

VTFB: When do you think the Cubs will be competitive enough to win the NL Central?

Bruce: Realistically, 2013, given the nature of the NL Central. The key will be sustainability, the bane of the existences of several Cubs front offices. So if players such as Brett Jackson, Javier Baez, Dillon Maples come on and join the likes of Starlin Castro and Andrew Cashner, maybe, at long last, the Cubs can achieve sustainability.

  • Noah

    Great interview and a good interview subject. I have often harped about the poor status of most local Chicago baseball writers. Bruce Miles is one of the exceptions who really does some inciteful stuff without doing the Phil Rogers pulling insane transaction ideas out of thin air thing. During baseball season, isn’t Bruce on the Score on Sunday mornings?

  • flyslinger2

    Too bad VFTB can’t negotiate some agreement to get his articles posted here as well.
    .
    When they can factor in the construction and integrity of the seam and the pattern of the leather on the ball and how it directly responds to the grain of the wood which in turns causes the ball to dance and jive as it makes its way back into play, THEN I may take advanced statistics seriously.
    .
    I remember my Prob and Stats professor in college on the first day of class saying statistics are as only as good as the rules made up to create the formula. I got an “A” in the class and to this day I can make up believable stats like the best of them.
    .
    The only stat that can’t be altered is the “1” or “0” that goes in the win/loss column.

  • Norm

    Fly, every team in baseball has a statistical analysis dept these days…that’s not enough to start taking it seriously?

  • Seymour Butts

    Nice job Norm.
    Awfully cool to get somebody quasi famous to answer your Q’s.

  • Nice interview Norm. I still think our VFTB staffers put out better quality than most of the beat guys on the team-level.

    As far as the stats stuff, I get both sides. Anyone who refers to a “number” representing “wins” “above” “replacement” for a “person” automatically pisses me off. I don’t know what goes into that model, but can tell you that it is performing math on non-discreet values…which is a pretty good way to give we STEM majors the finger.

  • Norm

    I’m not sure what discrete vs. non-discrete is?

  • Discrete is countable and unique. Take two pitching stats, WHIP and Wins. WHIP takes three discrete values: walks, hits, and innings. That statistic is well-defined. Wins is non discrete, since it is either awarded to either a) the pitcher who records the last out before the winning team gains a lead or b) the “most effective” pitcher if the starter doesn’t pitch five innings. That room for subjectivity makes Wins non-discrete, and therefor mathematically impure. Even that looks pretty math-y when compared to something like ‘runs saved.’ That is a notion at very best.

  • Buddy

    Great work Norm. And thanks to Bruce for taking the time. Very interesting stuff.

  • Norm

    Well those areas, discrete/non, are beyond me…but if you have an open mind, the person who created the framework for Wins Above Replacement routinely answers his emails and would probably be happy to address any objections/questions/issues…he’s very good about answering emails.

  • Well, here is the deal. I could run along and invent a metric that incorporates all sorts of information that I feel represents a player’s value. The base issue will still be present, because it will still involve somebody assigning weights to things. Hence the subjective nature of mixing real things with contrived things…they sound convincing, but in fact are just representations of real stuff. The craziest thing to me personally is how the game itself creates the figures that it does, by nature. Very athletic guys, big league pitchers, are great if they can get a base hit one in five times, and a hitting legend can do it two in five times. Crazy game…listen for a ballplayer mention “seeing the pitch deep in the zone” and try to figure out how to assign a number to that. You have to step back from the stats and consider how a guy plays the game to get the full picture.

  • BLPCB

    Nice job on the interview. In St. Louis right now.

  • Buddy

    Say hello to Sam Bradford for me.

  • Norm

    ““seeing the pitch deep in the zone” and try to figure out how to assign a number to that.”

    Well, what does seeing the pitch deep in the zone do for the hitter?

  • (facepalm)

  • Doc Raker

    Nice work Norm- please note Thed (Theo and Jed) consider ‘character’ and ‘chemistry’ in their roster decisions which are other words for ‘moxie’ and ‘grit’, I guess Thed thinks there is more to the game than just numbers.
    * “seeing the ball deep into the hitting zone” is a key to being a good hitter. It gives a hitter the time to recognize an off speed pitch moving out of the strike zone. Starting your swing to early is the opposite and is called ‘cheating’. When cheating you can look like Soriano on an outside slider or get caught out in front of the pitch which results in loss of power. Good timing is key to good hitting and letting the pitched ball travel deep into your hitting zone gives a hitter his best chance. This is an important concept for hitters, my 11 year old has been hearing this from his hitting coaches for 4 years. A good scout will watch how a hitter hits and this will be filed under ‘uses the whole field, good fundamental swing’ which transcends numbers.

  • Noah

    Jswanson, all WAR does, though, is take a set of discrete (or uses statistics based upon discrete numbers like ERA or FIP, depending on whose WAR you are looking at) and weights them. WHIP also weights the statistics it looks at, in giving walks and hits equal value. According to WHIP, a walk is just as bad as a home run.

    Watching the pitch “deep in the zone”, though, sounds like the old timey sort of thought that modern professional baseball has been clearly (and rightfully, in my opinion) moving away from. Jose Bautista became an exponentially better player when he started “cheating” as Raker described in and became a massive pull hitter. The vast majority of baseball players are vastly more successful when swinging to their pull field. Josh Vitters is great at making contact with a pitch “deep in the zone.” It’s just pitches that he shouldn’t be swinging at. Having good pitch selection and knowing which pitches to lay off seems vastly more important to me, considering how much better most players when pulling the ball. I just think that there are a number of statistics that show this more than the idea of “seeing the pitch deep in the zone.” Walk percentage, strikeout percentage, pitches per plate appearance, and the general batting success numbers (the triple slash and everything derived therefrom) all take into account whether a hitter is getting horribly fooled by offspeed pitches or not, and are distinct variables.

  • By trivializing plate discipline, you just let me know that we appreciate the game on wholly different levels. Different frames of reference.

  • Norm

    Thanks Doc.
    So seeing a ball deep in the zone probably leads to more contact, fewer swings at pitches out of the strike zone, and fewer swings and misses…things that show up in my favorite new fangled stats.
    And since I’m not able to watch every player in baseball to see with my own eyes if he lets the ball travel deep, I’m pretty comfortable looking at numbers to help make a more informed opinion of a player.
    I don’t understand why people are so against that.

  • Seymour Butts

    WAR..what is it good for??? uh huh.

    Both saber-metrics and gut feel from watching players actually play have merit, but the longer you wait to start your swing, the better the results. There is, to date, no metric for seeing deep in the zone,so I will propose DIZ E or deep in the zone efficiency. Not to be confused with Just Inept Zone Mechanics.

  • Whatever fellas. As a hack mathematician I can aver that your stats are mathematically more or less hand waving, and as a hack baseball player I can say that your views of the game are blatantly myopic.

  • chet

    awesome interview all the weay around. Nice work Norm.

  • Noah

    How did I trivialize plate discipline? I merely said I prefer to take my standards of plate discipline from actually variables instead of from something that is merely a common sense lingo that no one has been able to measure. Measurables always win out for me.

  • Noah

    And is it really the later you start your swing that is better, or the earlier that you can recognize what pitch is being thrown that’s better? Is the difference between Albert Pujols and Alfonso Soriano that Pujols starts his swing later, or that he has a higher likelihood of knowing what pitch has been thrown a few hundredth of a second after it leaves the pitcher’s hand than Soriano does? If someone throws you a hanging breaking ball, you’re a lot better off recognizing it quickly and pulling the ball than waiting on it, starting your swing later and driving it to the opposite field.

  • Jedi

    A blind adherence to old stats begat a blind adherence to new stats – but I’m told that the fools are those who prefer opinions based on watching players perform during a game.

  • Noah

    But Jedi, here’s the thing: I do take into account watching the game, as well as other people watching the game. But I weigh my own personal view on things below that of people who do this for a living. For example, the fact that it looks to me like Starlin Castro is an extremely inconsistent fielder as shortstop means only that: at this moment he’s inconsistent. The fact that guys like Keith Law, Kevin Goldstein and Dave Cameron think, based upon both stats and watching him play, think he’s likely to outgrow the position means a lot more to me, because they’ve seen at least hundreds (if not thousands) more plays in the field than I have. I do take into account my personal view based upon watching the game, but it comes in third behind statistical analysis and the views of others who I believe know a good deal more about the subject than me.

  • Norm

    And here comes the spin patrol making it sound like the stats crowd ONLY uses stats and is calling anyone who doesn’t like them “fools”.

    The way I see it is the stats crowd trying to have an open discussion, even offering those skeptical the option of communicating directly with the creator of the concepts in question to address their issues, but are met with responses like (facepalm) or “whatever”.

  • Jedi

    Norm – there’s sharing your opinion and there’s proselytizing. You tend to do the latter, even referring to people on the other side as flat-earthers.

  • Jedi

    Noah, I’m not surprised that you put your analysis in that order – it’s what I would’ve expected. I think what bothers me most about that approach is that when what you see with your eyes isn’t revealed as truth statistically, then the stats are always regarded as superior.

    Yadier Molina is a great example of that to me – for years he was thought of as the best defensive Molina and yet offensively inferior. His oWAR never reached past 1.7 until this year…but for a long time he’s been one of the guys that I hate to see come up when the Cards need a big hit or a rally. Watching him tells me that he has a way of being in the middle of things – his stats say that he’s not much more helpful offensively than the average player. In this particular case, I go with my eyes. In another situation maybe I don’t; but my sense from the new metrics crowd is that when stats and the eye test disagree – always believe the stats.

  • MJ

    Did anyone ever play baseball with one of those guys that had no real talent? He just showed up, flung the bat, or his glove, and everything came up roses? I had a guy like that on each of my teams. He’d come up to the plate and he’d somehow have terrible form, terrible plate discipline, terrible pitch recognition, and yet manage to get a bloop single here or there.

    Stats are over analyzed.

  • Guys like that often ended up taking me yard. Funny game.

  • MJ

    Funny indeed. Drives me nuts!

  • jgod42

    Jedi, the problem with only trusting your eyes is that as a casual fan you are beholden to your memories. Of which, you will mostly remember key moments such as big hits and big misses. Unless you are charting every event that your eyes see and then analyzing your notes your “see with your eyes” is pretty short sighted. pun intended.

  • chris in illinois

    Over the years, I’d much rather have Yadier up in any key situation than Albert, Edmonds, McGwire, Rolen, Holliday, Berkman, or half a dozen other far better players than Molina. He’s been a terrible offensive player, but for 2011 his entire career….the Cards have won despite him, not because of him…the numbers show that he has sucked plus my eyeballs have said the same.

  • Jedi

    chris in illinois – none other than Tony LaRussa called Molina the greatest catcher in the history of the game. So thank you for making my point.

  • Doc Raker

    Norm- Exactly right, those good fundamentals you mention lead to good stats. There is a connection and a place for understanding both fundamentals and stats. I understand jswansons point about arbitrary values on stats that can result in garbage in garbage out analysis and understanding fundamentals can keep one from getting led to a garbage out signing. Soriano managed to put up good numbers but with such poor fundamentals he was bound to fail in susataining those numbers. The Yankee’s and the Ranger’s would never have taken him back because they already knew from watching him, his contract year 40-40 didn’t fool them. Soriano folled everyone who just looked at his numbers.

  • CubbieDude

    Norm: Very nice job.
    Bruce Miles: Thanks for taking the time. You’re the best.
    Seymour: “Absolutely nothing” (flashing on Jackie Chan’s rendition of “WAR…UHH…What is it good for?”).
    MJ & jswanson: “Better to be lucky than good”.
    Jedi: Greater than Yogi Berra?

  • Gary

    Well done. Hate to show my age, but, like Bruce, I first started reading The Bill James Abstract in the early 80’s. Occured to me then, and now again, that the art/science of Sabermetrics did NOT start with Bill James, as widely thought. I believe the father is Joe Falls who wrote back in the 60’s and 70’s in the Sporting News. Anyone with similar recollections?

  • Jedi

    @CubbieDude – LaRussa says so…I don’t totally agree. But I think Molina is far more comparable to the greatest catchers in history than his stats would indicate. Statistically, he’s more in the Tim McCarver/Russell Martin range – my eyes tell me that he’s a lot closer to LaRussa’s assessment than he is to those guys.

  • Doc Raker

    Noah- Yes, a well timed swing later in the zone that squares a ball up is better than an early swing that squares a ball up. The former swing has much more power.
    I don’t think Juan Bautista cheats. Bautista changed his mechanics to include a leg lift, not swing earlier. The leg lift keeps his weight back until he pulls the trigger, once the trigger is pulled all his weight tranfers to his front foot putting all of his body’s weight into his swing. If your weight already transfered to your front foot before you swing you have no power, it is an all arm swing- you may make contact but you won’t drive the ball anywhere.
    Also, someone with a quick fast swing can wait longer to pull that trigger, “Bonds had the fastest hands anyone has seen’ or so many say- a huge advantage because he can sit and wait longer than most to pull the trigger.
    * I don’t think the best hitters are pull hitters, I think the best hitters use the whole field. You hit the ball where it is pitched (within the hitting zone). A pull hitter is just hitting balls that are on the inside part of the plate which leaves a big hole on the outside corner.

  • @Dude…yeah. Yogi is top five though.
    5) Johnny Bench
    4) Yogi Berra
    3) Jose Molina
    2) Bengie Molina
    1) Yadier Molina

  • Jedi

    Not sure I can get behind that jswanson, but if assume the top includes in some order Bench, Berra, Fisk, Piazza and Pudge. I think you can talk about Molina in that next group; and he’s only 28. Santiago, Varitek, Carter, Posada, and the short-injured career of Joe Mauer. I’m sure I left someone out.

  • Doc Raker

    Noah- Pujols starts his swing much later than Soriano. Pujols doesn’t chase many bad pitches. Soriano starts his swing early and gets fooled endlessly. Pujols has a short quick compact powerful swing. Soriano has a big long swing using the heaviest bat (40oz) in the bigs to create his power. The difference is stark.

  • Doc Raker

    George Mitterwald and Damon Berryhill.

  • Paul Bako and the Molina brothers’ mom.

  • Buddy

    Is this the same Yadier Molina who has a career slugging percentage of .377?

  • chris in illinois

    Really??
    .
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    Really??
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    You are mentioning Molina as one of the greatest catchers in history?? Really??
    .
    .
    .
    I’m (almost) speechless. For Molina to be among the top ten catchers in history his defense must be the best of all time by a magnitude of 1000. He’s been a lousy hitter for a catcher and a terrible hitter for a MLB player. If he’s one of the best catchers of all time then Placido Polanco is the Ty Cobb of 3b/2b.
    .
    .
    .
    Let’s finally set something straight, stats aren’t just random assignations of value, they represent what has happened on the field. By any rational view of his stats (you know the things that measure what he has done on the field), Molina is a very mediocre hitter. Now I can believe that he’s a fine receiver and a fine game caller—what I don’t buy is that his unparalleled excellence makes up for his distinct ineptitude as a hitter. If he was the best defensive player in the history of baseball at any position, he still doesn’t crack the top 50 of catchers of all time….
    .
    .
    .
    I thought I’d heard everything…

  • Buddy

    Thank you Chris! The fact that stats measure performance cannot be mentioned enough.

  • Jedi

    I think your argument is with Tony LaRussa.

  • Buddy

    With all due respect, I really don’t care what LaRussa told some reporter. He was likely lying. Just like when Rex Ryan told a radio show host that he’d take Mark Sanchez over Peyton Manning. What else is he going to say to the media? “My guy sucks and I wish we had somebody else.” Not likely.

  • Jedi

    Actually Buddy, it was after the World Series – and LaRussa’s entire point seems to have been that sometimes a guy isn’t the sum total of the black and white stats on a page; some guys are more valuable to him, a three-time World Series winning manager, than their stats would indicate. That was the basic context.

  • Buddy

    Fair enough Jedi. Maybe he was drunk?

  • Jedi

    Dave “Soup” Campbell was in the room so that could be the reason.

  • Lizzie

    Norm, I’m late to this party but I just wanted to send along my kudos for a fantastic column. It was nice of Bruce to take the time to speak with you and you asked really great questions. Not the usual beat stuff but rather things we really like hearing about! Thank you both!!!