Buster Olney Answers Your Baseball Questions
Last week we solicited your questions for ESPN baseball reporter and analyst Buster Olney. There were a lot of really interesting questions, and I think Buster chose well; moreover, his answers are excellent — especially, in my view, his last one. Along the way, he addresses the Steroid Era, budgetary and expansion issues, and how he came to be called Buster. Thanks to all for participating.
The N.B.A., N.F.L., and N.H.L. all have much stronger salary caps relative to M.L.B. What is the likelihood of M.L.B. moving to a true salary cap in the near future? And, in your opinion, would this move be good for the game? — David
David, I don’t think there will ever be a true salary cap in Major League Baseball, not only because the union won’t necessarily go along with it, but also because teams like the Red Sox and Yankees and Mets probably don’t want it, either. This is why Wellington Mara‘s decision to put the interests of the Giants beneath those of the N.F.L. at large, decades ago, was so extraordinary. In theory, it would be good for baseball’s parity — certainly it would be good for the Blue Jays and Rays — but a lot of rival executives believe that baseball benefits from having the Cubs, Yankees, and Red Sox serve as franchises that always generate interest in the sport, no matter where they play.
Do you think the Nationals will actually break the 1962 Mets’ record for the worst team in history? — Another David
No, the Nationals are way ahead of the pace of the 1962 Mets; at their current rate, they’ll rack up 45 victories this season, or five more than those Mets. And GM Mike Rizzo says that the front office isn’t under orders to move money, so there won’t necessarily be a fire sale of Adam Dunn and Nick Johnson and Josh Willingham. In any event, the legend of the ’62 Mets is forever safe; even if the Nationals lost 130 games, the ’62 Mets might always be held up as the standard for bad teams.
What’s your favorite Rickey Henderson story? — Nann
Last spring, Rickey went on the ESPN radio show Mike and Mike and, one by one, he addressed the Rickey legends deeming them either truth or myth. He acknowledged that yes, in fact, he did frame the rather large bonus check (I think it was for $1 million) rather than cash it; yes, in fact, he did suffer frost bite in the middle of the summer because he fell asleep on an ice pack in the trainer’s room; and he acknowledged other stories. What I loved about this whole thing was that while a whole other lot of stars would have refused to answer these questions, Rickey answered with candor, and with a smile on his face. It was classic Rickey, because he has always been steeped in confidence, very sure about who he is, and comfortable about who he is.
If you could own your own baseball team, would you rather own a large-market or small-market team? — Casey
I’d rather own a large-market team — for the obvious advantages. It’s a romantic notion to think that you could put together a championship team on a shoestring budget, but for every Tampa Bay story, there are 20 like the Oakland Athletics this year. Billy Beane gambled on a trade for Matt Holliday, and because Holliday has been a disappointment, Oakland’s offense has been awful — and there really isn’t a whole lot the Athletics can do. The margin for error for small-market teams is so thin that just one or two significant setbacks will wreck years of planning and a winter’s worth of work.
I am a Cubs fan. Life expectancy is roughly 75 years in the U.S. With this rubric, I have about 50 years left. My grandfather lived to 77 without seeing a Cubs World Series title. Do you think I will see a Cubs World Series title in my lifetime? Or will I die hapless, unfulfilled, and angry? — James
Don’t sell yourself or the Cubs short. Don’t ever give up hope … that cryonics might work.
Considering the stat-intensive nature of the game, what role has data mining had in how managers approach the game? Why don’t we see managers engaged in dashboarding specific situational stats in the dugout rather than keeping them in their head or scribbled on a piece of paper? It seems like technology has really been implemented quite well for investigating pitchers’ deliveries and batters’ swings but not necessarily for managerial decision-making. — WJ Smith
A lot of managers have absolutely devoted themselves to the use of statistics — some with the nudging of front-office types — to determine lineups and possible late-game match-ups, and their use of numbers goes beyond the typical analysis of batter vs. pitcher. They’ll look at which hitters tend to hit the ball on the ground to support their possible use of a fly ball reliever, for example. But there are still some managers like one manager I dealt with in this decade: in the hours before an important game, I walked up to him and asked if he planned on using a certain player based on really great matchup numbers against a certain pitcher. The manager looked at me and said, “Wow, that’s pretty interesting.” He clearly hadn’t looked at the numbers, and he hadn’t considered that option because he wasn’t in the habit of using statistics; I had assumed he would’ve known these numbers by heart. The next day, that player was in the lineup.
Do you feel that with some of the drug-related stigma around power hitters, and the recent selection of Dustin Pedroia as MVP, that baseball is heading back toward an emphasis on the basics, including speed and defense, and hopefully in the direction of five-tool players rather than guys who rely on the long ball? Also, do you feel that the game has really been cleaned up with the new rules, or are guys simply being more creative in covering up their cheating? — James
I do think that in some ways, we have seen a broader shift already as we come out of the Steroid Era — mostly in that teams are tending to rely on younger players more than they have in the past, because executives now are trusting players over 32 or 33 years old less than they did five years ago. In 2005, the presumption was that aging players could be productive well into their late 30’s, but in retrospect, a lot of executives think that success for older guys was based on drug use. More specifically, I do think that teams are focusing on defense and developing contact hitters more than we saw at the height of the Steroid Era, when teams essentially built their offenses around walks and homers. And yes, I do think the game is dramatically cleaner than it was five years ago, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t cheaters who are beating the system, or that the threat of increased drug use in baseball will be in place for the rest of our lives, no matter what kind of testing regimen they have in place.
In your 18 years of covering baseball, how have you seen your interaction with the players change? Have they become more reluctant to engage with you in the recent years because of the negative publicity steroids have brought baseball? — Jared
For the most part, it’s remained the same. I’ve always felt that baseball players have gotten a bum rap for being difficult to deal with, and my experience is that 99 percent of them are cordial, at the very least, and mostly terrific in their dealings with reporters. The biggest change is that I’m getting older and have less in common with the players than I did 20 years ago, when I listened to the same music as the players did and had the same set of slang. That’s not the case anymore, for sure — but really, that’s not a big deal.
If we can (hopefully) agree that we are moving past the steroid era, what do you think will be the defining aspect of the upcoming era in baseball? Also, should the luxury tax rate be higher? And is there a way to force small-market teams to spend their revenue sharing dollars on payroll? — Eitan
The game is getting younger and younger and younger, which makes sense when you look at other sports like tennis and golf and the N.B.A. Part of the reason why this is possible is that I think young players have a much better sense of their own pitching or hitting mechanics when they reach the big leagues than they did 25 years ago. Recently, I watched a replay of Ron Guidry‘s 19-strikeout game on YES, and I was stunned by how so many veteran players really had poor hitting mechanics and seemed to make fewer adjustments than what you see with hitters these days. The players are younger, and in some respects (but certainly not all), they are better.
I do think that the luxury tax should be higher, but only if teams like the Marlins are compelled to spend more money; as you suggest, there should be a floor on payroll, as well as a ceiling.
Who do you think is the “smartest” (Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor-style) player in the game today? — Simon
Albert Pujols. He does everything well, and this year, I think we’ve seen him take his concentration level and leadership to another level. It seems like the pitcher is at his mercy all the time, and you’re almost surprised when he doesn’t get a hit.
In your opinion, what percent of M.L.B. teams are efficiently run businesses? I find it hard to believe that a majority of teams are even close to maximizing their revenues and/or on-the-field performance. M.L.B. teams are in a closed society, i.e. there are no hungry startups nipping at the heels of an established industry giant a la Google vs. the entire newspaper industry, so there is less incentive to run an efficient business. Plus, I see a lot of family members in senior management positions (not saying they’re not qualified, but there are more family hires in baseball than in industries with publicly-traded companies; clearly this says something). — Bobby
I’m guessing, but I would say that about half of the teams are well run — more than a decade ago, for sure. That percentage will climb as teams become more adept at drafting and developing young players with a higher rate of efficiency, and in how teams improve their medical practices. A lot of teams still base their medical care with the best friend of the owner’s son (who happens to be a doctor) rather than with the best possible care-givers. That is changing.
Why doesn’t M.L.B. expand? The data don’t lie: U.S. net population growth is strong, ticket sales go up every year (even during this brutal recession), and it should be apparent that politicians will roll out the red carpet to their local teams (see the publicly financed stadium deals that the Mets, Marlins, Twins, and Yankees are receiving). It’s irrational not to expand. So why isn’t M.L.B. doing this? — Hugh
I think M.L.B. execs are worried about expanding too quickly, as the N.H.L. seems to have done, and they’re not confident that they have any slam-dunk markets still available. There are questions, for example, about whether Las Vegas is truly viable, or Portland, or Norfolk. But if the economy turns and baseball settles Tampa Bay’s stadium plight and M.L.B. gets a favorable labor deal, then yes, I think they’ll start talking expansion again.
How did Robert Stanbury Olney III become Buster? — Dave
My great-grandfather passed away two days before I was born. He could never remember the name of little kids, so he generally called them all Buster. So after I was born, my Mom was feeling sad about him and happy about her new son, and so she started calling me Buster. Except for the first day of school, when the teachers shouted out roll call, that’s what I’ve been called ever since.
Baseball writers currently have a monopoly on the Hall of Fame, M.V.P., and Cy Young voting in baseball. Does this self-contained and self-defined group adequately represent that universe of baseball knowledge that can pass judgment on these awards? — Jack
There’s no question that over time, the writers have missed on some votes. Pedro Martinez should have been the M.V.P. one year, and in another year, Ted Williams would’ve been M.V.P. had one writer not left him off his ballot entirely. But really, no matter what system you came up with, it would be imperfect. The fans vote on the All-Stars, and Josh Hamilton got in this year when there were probably 25 outfielders more deserving. The coaches and managers vote on the Gold Glove Awards, and we’ve seen incredible travesties with that — most notably, when Rafael Palmeiro won the Gold Glove Award while serving, primarily, as a designated hitter. A vote based purely on a Sabermetric analysis would have its pitfalls as well. There was one year when a star player told a couple of writers that he would never speak to them again if they voted for a certain rival on their ballots, a situation that threatened to undermine that team’s clubhouse; and after confirming that appalling story, there’s no way I would’ve ever voted for that player for M.V.P., a situation that a SABR-like approach would’ve never addressed. In short — yes, I think the writers do the best possible job on the voting because they have the ability to meld all the factors mentioned above. (Now, the question of whether writers should be involved in the voting — and creating news — is another ethical question altogether.)
What’s the best insight on life that you’ve learned over all of your years following baseball? I’d love to hear your thoughts, short and sweet (think the length of a note you would have signed in a high school yearbook). — J.C.
Most baseball players have a remarkable ability to put a bad day behind them, and I saw that and tried to draw on that. If you went 0-for-4 one day, that didn’t necessarily have to affect your ability to go 4-for-4 the next day — if you work to turn the page emotionally. I have tried to use that in my own work.