Why Jesse Spector Writes

What follows marks the fifth installment in this absurd experiment, which has already seen Bryan Smith, Craig Calcaterra, Tommy Bennett, and Will Leitch bring the lyrical pain.

Today’s willing participant is Jesse Spector. Mr. Spector serves not only as a copy editor for the New York Daily News, but also as the keeper of that paper’s Touching Base blog, from which post he’s able to proselytize the gospel of sabermetrics to one of the widest readerships in the fifty nifty.

Please note that this installment of the series is packaged in two unsullied parts: Spector’s initial response and then his answers to my follow-up questions.

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Part One: Spector’s Initial Volley

For an answer to your series’ titular question, I write for the same reason that Tim Lincecum pitches. He’s a pitcher. Not to put myself on his level, but I’m a writer. The difference is that “writer” is not really my job. Seven years ago, I was working part-time at the Daily News, and the full-time job that opened was on the desk — as a copy editor, I edit stories and write headlines. That job brings with it a lot of downtime over the course of an evening (I work from 6 p.m. until 1:30 a.m., with the “crown jewels of the week,” Tuesday and Wednesday, as my days off). I mostly use mine to either watch games or work on writing ideas — since a lot of my ideas come from things I notice while watching games, I guess that’s really one and the same.

I do it because I enjoy it, and because, like the bench guy who goes to the batting cage in the fourth inning, I want to stay fresh. It doesn’t hurt that I see the future of print journalism being online, and developing a presence on the Web can only be a good thing for my career. I also do it because I really enjoy baseball, and I like to share my thoughts and observations, and I have a strange passion for the oddities of the game that occur on an almost daily basis — I don’t know who else in the “mainstream” media would come up with a blog post like this one. It’s not earth-shattering, but if you’re watching a game or looking at the box score the next day, you might say to yourself, “Gee, I wonder how often that happens?” Then you forget about it without ever getting the answer. A lot of the time, I can provide that answer — and I really get a kick out of looking up stuff like that… which really tells you just how big of a nerd I am.

There’s also the Nine Innings Q&A series, which is a ton of fun, and I delve a bit into analysis — though sometimes I save that for my weekly articles in the paper, like this one from a couple Sundays ago. I think that one might be as good an example as any of the oddity of who I am as a writer. I would call myself a sabermetric centrist. Hopefully, that means that people will enjoy reading what I write whether their next stop on the Internet is FanGraphs or Murray Chass’ self-hating blog.

That’s all for me for now… I have to get ready to go to Yankee Stadium to ask some pitchers about velocity variations on their off-speed pitches, and the importance of not letting the off-speed stuff and the fastball be too close together. Then I’m going to take what they say, mix it up with some PitchFx data, heat for three hours at 350 degrees and have a story for the weekend. I’ll be glad to continue this later.

Part Two: Questions Round

Cistulli: Let’s look at that last point — the one about velocity variations — first. The interaction between players and journalists is nothing new. Obviously. Between players and sabermetrically oriented journalists, however — that’s a different beast. Most recently/famously is the amusing tete-a-tete between Jon Sciambi and Chipper Jones (which Dave Allen used as a jumping-off point for three sweet articles here at FanGraphs). But that story — it’s more the exception than the rule at this point.

And yet, as much as anyone writing today, you’re positioned to combine access to players with sabermetric findings. I’m not suggesting that you should give advice to Derek Jeter or whatever, but I’m curious: How have you integrated your sabermetric knowledge with your reporting? How do you plan to integrate it in the future? (And finally: What’d you find out today at the ballpark?!?)

Spector: Let me start today by saying that my story wound up having little to do with the importance of keeping a velocity gap between fastballs and off-speed stuff, save for a mention of Oliver Perez still having a 10-12 mph difference between his fastball and slider. That was how I got into a discussion of how it’s not Perez’s fastball velocity that matters. I talked to Andy Pettitte and David Price about the way that they work over hitters — both lefthanders, one who throws a “slow” fastball, another who pumps an average of 94-octane gas. I then take high-leverage situations both have faced, and analyze the pitches they used to get big outs, and, well, I’ll send you the link when it comes out. [Click here to see the story in question.]

That happens a fair amount — I go into the process of writing my weekly story with an idea, then wind up changing it based either on how interviews go, or what research uncovers.

I haven’t had any incidents quite approaching the Sciambi/Jones level, but there have been times when I’ve brought up stats to players and they’ve looked at me askance. But that’s also the case with a lot of non-stats-based questions that I ask. My queries usually require a level of thought that doesn’t lend itself to cliches — with the exception of Jeter, who is at a Hall of Fame level of answering questions without actually saying anything — so I’ll either get a lot of “I don’t know” type responses, or players will say things to me that are well thought out and quite useful. I like that a lot about what I do — it’s very different from a beat guy’s job of working in the day-to-day grind.

But for the most part, I really try not to bring sabermetric knowledge into the clubhouse, at least not to start an interview. Maybe if I was talking to someone like Brian Bannister (I never have, but based on all I’ve read from Joe Posnanski, I think he might be down for it), I would jump right in, but I feel like it’s better to just go in with the basic concepts — that’s why I’m talking to the players anyway, to get their thoughts on what they experience on the field. My job is then to relate it back to the numbers. At least that’s how I see it. But if I get into a conversation with a player, and I feel it’s right to jump in with something like, “the hold — that’s just a totally bogus stat, right?” then I will. It doesn’t happen often, though.

I don’t see my style changing vastly in the future, but you never know — especially if I wind up in a different job at some point. Like everything else, adapting is key. As far as what I’m doing now, I can prepare and plan what I’m going to ask before I get to the ballpark. But if I’m covering a game (which I don’t really do very often now, but would like to do more of in the future), I might do something like take Leverage Index into account in which parts of the game I’d write about. Usually, it’s intuitive, but sometimes, key moments are hidden, and the stats can expose them. I could probably say that a little bit better, but I’m trying to speculate about something when I’m really not sure how journalism — or my career in it — will develop.

Cistulli: You appear to self-identify as a newsman — a progressive one, certainly, but definitely within that tradition. The sabermetric revolution is one that’s typically occurred via the internet. Though, yes, these are merely different forms of media — different containers for content, essentially — I think most readers have developed a different set of criteria for adjudging “quality” in the respective forms. (Posnanski’s longer pieces, for example, make complete sense as blog posts, but might not be successful as print articles)

Furthermore, you write for a paper that, in addition to having existed for nearly a hundred years, also has one of the largest circulations of any American paper. While bloggers generally have more freedom for establishing a voice (a point that Will Leitch made in his own addition to this series) the Daily News has an audience with expectations. There’s an established voice, one which the readers demand, at some level, to continue.

I’m curious as to how much such considerations factor into your work for the Daily News. Obviously, you’d be crippled by constantly thinking about it. But, generally speaking, how do such constraints inform your work?

Spector: I’ve actually thought a lot about the way that my blog fits into the bigger picture of the Daily News establishment. I think that my blog draws readers who aren’t otherwise reading The News. At least, that’s the reasoning I’ve half-jokingly convinced myself of that my blog doesn’t get more comments — you have to be registered with the Daily News’ website in order to comment, and I think that a lot of people are finding me through social media, or links from other baseball sites, rather than through the front door of the NYDN. And the Daily News really has a lot of different voices anyway, so I’ve decided to try to develop my own voice — and I’m forever meaning to carve out the time to do more long-form stuff on the blog — and not worry too much about the established voice. My face is on the thing, after all, and it’s not like I’m going that far off the beaten path that the NYDN has established for the last 92 years. So, at this point, I mostly do what I do and try not to worry too much about that.



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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.


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Joseph Zeman
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