Tracy Ringolsby Q&A: Part 1

Tracy Ringolsby had covered many teams since entering the game in 1976. He most recently covered the Colorado Rockies for the Rocky Mountain News, but when it was shut down just before the 2009 season, Ringolsby kicked into overdrive. He helped co-found a Rockies website, picked up a TV gig with FSN Rocky Mountain, and wrote anywhere they would print him. A J.G. Taylor Spink Award recipient, Ringolsby also had a hand in the founding of Baseball America, and has been outspoken in the past regarding the movement towards statistical analysis at the expense of scouting, particularly around the book Moneyball. Ringolsby, who says he scored in the 99th percentile in math in high school and that he does understand stats, also understands the vitriol of the statistical community towards him. When we finished up, he asked for a heads-up when this would go to print so he could “prepare for the hate mail.” Many portions of the text were edited for brevity.

Q: The game has evolved a great deal since you started covering it in 1976. What, to you, have been the biggest changes, both on the field and off?
A: I just think the attention to it. With the internet, satellites, etc., have done, has made things seem bigger than they are. I remember being in grade school in Los Angeles and the only games we ever got on TV of the Dodgers were the ones they played in San Francisco. Everything else was on radio. Now it’s like, ‘I can’t believe that game’s not on TV somewhere.’ And so I think what happens is things get blown out of proportion because now, if there’s an umpire’s call or if there’s an on-field brawl, I don’t know if you can count how many times you’re going to see that in the next 24 hours. Whereas, back in the old days, you might get word of mouth, but you’d never realize really what it was because you didn’t see it. There wasn’t even a tape they could play later, because the TV stations, they weren’t hanging around for nine innings. They’d come out, shoot something early, and go back and put together the 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock newscast.

Q: Do you enjoy the interaction with fans on outlets like Twitter?
A: I think it’s fun – I mean I’m a fan. So we’re just kind of exchanging opinions. But I like people, so it’s definitely been a thing where I’ve never looked at fans any different than anybody else, other than the fact that if it wasn’t for them, then I wouldn’t have a reason to work.

Q: How do you find a balance between cheerleading for the team you’re covering and being objective?
A: Well you have to remember who you’re writing for. You’re writing for people who are fans of the game, so you have to try to take it from their vantage point. Fans want information, and I don’t know that there’s necessarily our job as a beat guy to have a lot of opinions. We can provide a lot of information that can shape opinions. There’s enough information there, and you have to figure out what fits and what doesn’t fit, what’s the most important thing, and what goes at the bottom of the story. So you’re making editorial judgments the whole time you write. But it’s important that when you write about something with a team, that you don’t have a pre-conceived agenda.

Q: But you’ve been on both sides, as a columnist as well. Have there been instances in the past when you were critical of a team you were covering and then had a source shut you out?
A: No, the only time I got shut out was by [Bob] Gebhard, because he felt like we had too much information. And so he wouldn’t speak to us. I mean, I remember him standing by home plate, he’d complain that Jack Etkin and I wrote too much baseball in the newspaper, and that if we were going to keep it up that he was going to cut us off and make sure that The Denver Post got any information that came along.

Q: What are the stats you look to most frequently when trying to analyze the game, both offensively and defensively?
A: I don’t know that there’s really good stats that analyze the game defensively. I know guys are trying to find ways to quantify it. But I don’t know that there is – you can talk about ground balls, but so much of it depends on the type of pitching staff you have. You watch the Atlanta Braves, when they had [Greg] Maddux, [Tom] Glavine and [John] Smoltz, and people would always talk about, ‘Man how’d they get in the right position all the time?’ Well, that’s because [their advance scout] could go out and do the advance work, and tell you where a guy was going to hit the ball if you pitched to a certain location. And those guys could hit the location. A lot of times a defensive guy can be betrayed by his pitcher having bad command because they can’t position themselves. You know, [Mark] Belanger was considered a great defensive shortstop – he had no range – but they had a pitching staff with the Orioles back then that if he could see the pitch they were calling, he’d cheat. And he knew that Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar were going to throw the ball where it was supposed to be thrown. So there’s so many intrinsic things there.

And you know offensively, I think you try to look at a number of things. They’ve got new terminology for it now, so there’s this feeling that we’ve invented some new way of evaluating the game, but what gets lost is that Branch Rickey invented on-base percentage. I remember when Tom Boswell first came up with total average. And I know that a lot of people claim that Boswell stole it from them, but he’s at least the one who made it fairly popular, and he had it published every year at Inside Sport. He was a beat writer with the Orioles – they had a bunch of rain outs one year – so he’d came up with it. And he showed it to Earl Weaver, and he goes, ‘I’ve come up with this thing called total average, tell me what you think of it.’ And Weaver looked at it – it was a number that combined a bunch of different things, including, like you’d get a point for a stolen base, but you also had a minus point for a caught stealing – and he goes, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good Tom. But you know, when Rickey created that he had a bonus for a grand slam because of the impact it had on the pitcher’s mentality.’ He had 26 farm teams, and he had a lot of faith in his scouts, and he’d get all their opinions, but he would also have Alan Roth work up the total average for all the players in the farm system, and if there was an outlier, a guy that had a real good total average, and he wasn’t listed by the scouts, that was Rickey’s way of doing quality control. He’d say, well, okay, what’s wrong with this guy? The numbers all add up, what is it about him that we don’t like?

So I guess, for some of us, that’s where some of the new inventions, we don’t get as excited about. I mean, I’m a stats guy. I was in the 99th percentile in math on my college boards. I was in the 78th percentile in English. I mean, I can’t evaluate a guy’s abilities, but I can add and subtract, divide, multiply. I understand statistics and probabilities and outliers and those things. Back then, we used to have to do our own daily stats, they didn’t have a computer to spit out stats. So, you know, the new inventions are fine, but the wheel’s been around for a long time, they just keep creating different cars.

Q: How does the way you use stats differ from what you have seen other reporters/analysts use?
A: I think it’s the same. I am one of those people that think there is a major mental aspect of the game. You know, that’s what I give Bill James credit for. You know, people don’t realize, Bill and I used to do a radio show together. But I’m going to give Bill credit. When he first went to Boston, there was this talk that anyone can be a closer. If you can get people out, you can get people out. And after they tried that for a year in Boston, he came back and said, ‘You know what? Not anyone can be a closer.’ And I equate that to, you went to school with people who could take tests. They didn’t really study, they took tests. And there were some guys who were the smartest guys you’ve ever been around, but they couldn’t take a test. You know, particularly like the SAT’s or ACT’s. There’d be kind of a panic syndrome that comes in. That doesn’t mean the test-taker is smarter than the other guy. So I kind of feel that there’s something to listening to what people say. I’m a big believer in the best players don’t win, the best team wins. And so you can’t just take numbers and say, I would project what this team would do if they’re all together, because the roles would be different.

Q: When did you do a radio show with Bill James?
A: It had to be about 1990 or so. He was in Lawrence, Kansas, Kevin Harlan was in St. Louis, he was the host, and I was in Dallas. We’d have a blast, we did the show every Sunday.

Q: What writers, baseball or otherwise, have influenced/do influence you? What writers do you make sure you read on a regular basis?
A: I read quite a few. I don’t have anybody who I necessarily say ‘Oh, I gotta go read this guy today.’ I more have guys, where, when different things are going on that I like to go check on and see.

Q: Any examples?
A: I like [Ken] Rosenthal. I liked Rosenthal even before I started working with him. If he had something, I had to check on it. There was usually validity to what he wrote. A lot of guys just write rumors, some guys I think they talk to each other and decide that this would be a good thing to do, you know what I’m saying? And so I think Rosenthal, he usually hits a point with something.

Q: Do you think most quality writers have migrated to the internet, or are there still print-only publications that you pick up?
A: I’ve always been more of a newspaper guy than anything anyhow, so there’s never been a lot of magazines that I’ve picked up. Going back to before, Richard Justice is a guy I like to get his take on things.

Q: Players are often quick to publicly dismiss statistics not found in a box score. Do you find this is true privately as well, or are there players who pay attention to advanced statistics?
A: I don’t know. I don’t really get into many statistical discussions with players.

Q: What is the appropriate line to draw, or is there an appropriate line to draw when it comes to getting to know players?
A: Well, you have to realize that you both have your own jobs to do and that they’re related, but you’re not part of the same group. And if you’re not careful the both of you will wind up in an uncomfortable situation. I think one of the things that’s always helped me is that I’m not a frustrated jock. I knew when I was in Little League that I couldn’t play the game. And so I truly appreciate the difficulty of being successful in it, and so I don’t think I’m a guy that sits there and starts talking about how things should have happened like some people do. I don’t put myself in that role.




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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


19 Responses to “Tracy Ringolsby Q&A: Part 1”

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  1. So far, so good. Looking forward to the rest.

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  2. sam says:

    excellent stuff

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  3. bowie says:

    Ringolsby misunderstands the 2003 Red Sox closer by committee experiment.

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  4. bowie says:

    These people who think you can’t win a lot of games without a single person holding the closer role… how do they explain all the great teams that won 100+ games and dominated the postseason without closers or even the notion of a save?

    to wit, I give you the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers relievers…
    Roebuck, 12 saves
    Labine, 11 saves
    Hughes, 6 saves
    Bessent, 3 saves
    Spooner, 2 saves

    Team winning % – .640
    world series winner

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    • SeanP says:

      I don’t think that you can compare modern relievers to a team from the ’50s. Relievers were used differently then because starters pitched more innings.

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    • fredsbank says:

      because relievers from the 50s were totally the same as modern relievers are, right?

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  5. Itocx says:

    @Bowie:

    Ringolsby quotes James “You know what? Not anyone can be a closer.” If anyone misunderstood the Red Sox closer experiment I would assume that it wasn’t James.

    Re. the 1955 Dodgers. They were the 1955 Dodgers as in 1955. That was a different game. They had 46 complete games out of 154 (30%). Their best pitchers started and their starters, including their ace Newcombe, regularly pitched in relief on their off days.

    I think Ringolsby puts it perfectly. There are some guys who can take tests and there are some who can’t. There was some guys who can take the pressure of closing out games day after day and there are some who can’t.

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    • Jeremy says:

      It’s probably true that not everyone can be a closer and that for some pitchers the pressure of closing is too much. But Ringolsby’s analogy is off the mark. Everyone in MLB has already passed an awful lot of tests–they’ve taken SATs, LSATs, MCATs, GMATs–and passed. These are people who are playing in front of 20 000+ people every night (unless they’re in Tampa). Most people who can’t handle pressure never make it to the big leagues. For some, there may be a perception of greater pressure and that may affect performance in closing situations. But I don’t see that as a convincing argument for the vast majority of ballplayers.

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    • bowie says:

      a) I strongly doubt that Bill James has ever believed that “anyone” can be a closer. That is because Bill James never really believed in the closer role to begin with. He famously said that using your best reliever in that specific of a role is a poor allocation of resources, akin to a law firm using its best lawyer to negotiate its office’s fire insurance policy. He has been an advocate of the relief ace model, using your best reliever in high leverage situations, be they the 7th inning, 8th, or later.

      b) You are right that there was somewhat less need for good relievers because they had more CGs. However, some of those complete games were losses, and of the 108 games not completed, 32 of those were wins saved by dodger relievers. That’s only slightly lower than the number of saves that a modern closer might net in a full season for a good team. The main difference is that the ’55 Dodgers didn’t suffer from having more than one guy handle 9th inning closing duties.

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      • MC says:

        This is more or less what happens now anyway. The 9th inning is usually tight, in which case in goes the closer. If it’s not, the team brings someone in to mop up. Also the team usually uses its 2nd or 3rd best reliever (after the closer) in those tight situations James was talking about.

        I like the concept of saving the best reliever on the team for last though. It’s not a good feeling to have your closer come in and strike out the side in the 8th only to have your 2nd best guy blow it in the 9th. With baseball games there is always the feeling of not knowing what will happen later in the game, it’s good to just have your closer waiting in the wings till the end. That’s just me though. But James’ idea is worth trying perhaps.

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    • Shaun says:

      It was a different game only in that teams worried about getting outs and they didn’t let some arbitrary statistic like saves dictate their strategy.

      Here’s the problem with the idea that there are some guys who can and some guys who can’t take the pressure of closing games: Reaching the majors is a grueling process. A player must one of the best amateurs, one of the best at several levels of minor league ball, he must survive and establish himself in the majors. It seems very unlikely that someone who can’t take pressure would make it through all these filters, establish himself in the big leagues, and be considered for a closer or late-inning role.

      Yes, there are those people who choke under pressure. Generally those people don’t ever establish themselves as major league players.

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  6. Ryan says:

    I used to read this guy’s articles on Fox Sports. They were always full of errors (usually egregious enough that I would email him; to which he never replied) and I was shocked when I found out the guy had been given the Spink Award.

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  7. Joe R says:

    I can’t applaud the guy who said that he felt “Vince Coleman outperformed Tim Raines”.

    From someone who actually did score 99th+ on everything math related, and works in statistics, the fact that he said that proves he either is trapped in biases, or lying.

    Either way, it’s not good.

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    • fredsbank says:

      its so nice that we can hold one thing someone once said against him and all his work forever.

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      • Joe R says:

        When it’s that amazingly incorrect and indefensible, it calls firmly into question his supposed analytical qualifications.

        Sure, perfectly good writer, but what he said about Raines is far beyond the realm of regular incorrectness, and into the realm of the uneducated.

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  8. Jim says:

    I got a 600 on my math SAT and I grasp sabermetrics better than this guy. Means nothing.

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  9. Oscar says:

    Sigh…”the wheel’s been around for a long time, they just keep creating different cars.”

    Yup, and guess what, today’s cars are faster.

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