On baseball reporting

by Jason Wojciechowski

Let’s talk about baseball reporters. You’re reading this on the internet, so it seems likely that you encounter the work of baseball reporters somewhere, whether on one of the major sports destinations (ESPN, CBS, Yahoo), on Twitter, via your friends sharing their work on Facebook, Google Plus, or a new social network I’m not cool enough to know about. In your run-ins with these writers, you’ve probably come across them expressing opinions — on award voting, on the great ethical issues of the (baseball) day, on which team ought to acquire which player, on the social value of the bunt, and so forth. I want to be clear right up front: everything I say below is not about baseball reporters expressing opinions.

So what am I going to complain about? Reporters doing what they do best: reporting. Specifically, why I think they should stop doing it.

I like the free press. I think it’s awesome. I cannot imagine this country without it. But I’m pretty well done with it when it comes to baseball. I have two criticisms here, one small-scale and one that gets to the heart of what baseball reporters do.

Taking the easier first. Yesterday, a well-known sports reporter passed along a nugget on Twitter that said that one of the teams currently looking for a general manager was likely to finalize its decision soon such that the team would be making an announcement between the end of the League Championship Series and the start of the World Series. I’m not anonymizing the information reported the same way I’m anonymizing the reporter himself — that was literally the substance of the reportage. Some team. Would name a GM. Sometime soon.

If one of you Dear Readers out there can point out the value of this to me, I will gladly listen. As it is, I think it’s utterly worthless. What do any of us know now that we did not know before we read the tweet? This wasn’t an isolated incident. This kind of “reporting” doesn’t happen frequently, but it does happen. As far as I can tell, it’s essentially a way for the writer to show off his sources. The prescription for this is easy: stop doing that.

Now the harder issue. Put aside the worst of reporting, the stuff that turns out to be wrong or is just gullible repeating of trial balloons intentionally leaked by some organization or, as above, adds absolutely nothing to the discussion. (Or, incredibly appropriately, as my attention has been called to it in the midst of writing this, put aside weird allegations that Tito Francona abused pain pills and lost his clubhouse to an orgy of fried chicken and video games. I’m not even going to link it. You can find it if you must.) Take the best of baseball reporting: the (correct) reports that a player is going to sign with a particular team, that a trade is going down, that meetings are happening that could result in the firing of a manager.

We’re all thinking of the same stories, the same reporters giving us good, hard, inside information? Now explain to me the value of any of this. Tell me what we gain from Jon Heyman stalking around the winter meetings, hiding in bushes to eavesdrop on front-office conversations, from Jayson Stark working the phones all year long. What is the point?

Mostly what I think we gain is 24-48 hours advance notice on personnel moves. We hear that Manny Ramirez is getting traded to the White Sox on Tuesday and he’s traded on Wednesday. Or that Bob Geren is getting fired, or that Theo Epstein is going to Chicago. And all of this matters … why? No analyst worth their salt starts analyzing until they know enough of the facts to actually weigh in, so we don’t get a head start on our blog posts about whether the Dan Haren trade was smart for Arizona. And even if we did get such a head start, I can circle back to the same question again: why does that matter? We’re going to analyze big trades to death whether we learn about them via team press release or a leak from someone’s sister.

So knowing things early is pointless. Is there value in learning about scuttled deals that never would have seen the light of day? Take the Rich Harden A’s-Red Sox deal from this season that would have given Oakland Lars Anderson plus a (supposedly intriguing) player to be named later. What insight do we have from knowing about this deal, and from knowing that it died when the Red Sox saw Harden’s medical reports? We know the Sox were desperate for a starting pitcher? I’m pretty sure we could tell that by (a) their subsequent trade for Erik Bedard and (b) the generally pitiful state of their rotation. We know that the Red Sox were trying to do something? Ok, so Theo Epstein is competent. There’s news. We know that Rich Harden’s medical reports are really bad? I think we all knew that he was, on a scale of one to ten, a negative-three on the injury scale.

It is my contention that we could mount this type of criticism against every piece of rumor-mongering or leak-reporting that’s ever been done about baseball. We simply do not need to know, or do not need to know at that time. It’s all a distraction from what’s on the field, or from the actual moves being made off of it. It gets people riled up for no good reason. It adds no value. Prescription: stop doing it.

Now, I don’t think that literally everything sports reporters do is valueless, but it’s not clear that their work couldn’t be covered elsewhere just as easily. On business issues, I think it’s important to have honest reportage on the true cost to taxpayers of a stadium or the likelihood that a threat to move a team to another area will come to fruition. However, the writers who work municipal issues, the city council, the economic beat, and so forth are at least as well-positioned to cover these stories as sports reporters. I also don’t want to do away with the game story — enough weird stuff happens in a game of baseball that a box score isn’t sufficient if you didn’t see the game for yourself. It’s good to have writing that describes how the crucial error was made, how close that 7th-inning foul ball was to being a game-changing homer, or who started the bench-clearing brawl. Bloggers can do recaps really well, though. Very few actually do, but that’s because the paid newspaper folks are already doing it. Cut them out and the blogs will pick up the slack. Having someone around to ask a manager or player for his reasoning about a particular play or decision would be useful in theory, but nobody ever says anything substantive anyway, and reporters are too afraid to lose their access to ask actually challenging questions.

Adding all of this up: why are we paying people to do this work?