This article is part of our Charging the Mound series.
From: Jeff Erickson
Sent: Monday, August 19, 2013 9:59am
To: Christopher Liss
Subject: Charging the Press Box
Chris, this week I wanted to start with a slightly different topic from our usual fare - and thank goodness for that, because in August it's really difficult to start articles touching on our usual topics when there's so much else going on.
You engaged in a really interesting discussion/debate with Ken Rosenthal on Twitter last night, regarding the use of anonymous sources. It was a short conversation, but it was conducted more professionally than your standard conversation on the medium - it's what the connectivity of Twitter should provide.
This discussion raised for me the issue of whether there's ever a good time-and-place in sports reporting to use anonymous sources. The old standard I've heard is Watergate - the importance of the issue and the risk to the source have to be that high to justify granting that anonymity. Obviously sports rarely have that sort of high level of geopolitical importance. If you're using the Watergate standard, I can't think of a good sports reason.
Of course, such standards have eroded, not just in sports, but in almost all forms of media. Many might argue that there are no standards period, but that's probably not fair, certainly not for me as a non-journalist to allege.
Where should the line be drawn now? In a way, I almost think it's the trivial stuff that should allow it - trade rumors and the like - rather than the serious stuff. At the trade deadline, I enjoy reading those rumor pieces, though I'll concede that they're non-essential. They wouldn't exist without the anonymous sources.
Right now, the use of anonymous sources in sports presents a bit of a Prisoner's Dilemma. If "off-the-record" discussions or blind sourcing is so pervasive, if one reporter refuses to employ them, they run the risk of being at a big information deficit compared to his or her peers. Maybe the idea is that he doesn't need to write those type of stories, and instead write other stories. That's all well and good, but to other problems (at least) are raised. That writer has editors and publishers that want them to ferret out specific type of information, and aren't guaranteed to be sympathetic to that stance. Moreover, sources within the game - be it a GM, a manager, a player or a scout - will choose to talk to the writer's competitors instead once they find out that the writer won't grant them anonymity. The sources within the sport won't have the motivation to change unless a much larger number or writers change their stance. It's easy for us to decry the writer from afar, but it's not our job on the line.
So what's the solution? How can mass change occur to reverse this erosion of standards?
From: Christopher Liss
Sent: Thursday, August 22, 2013 3:16am
To: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging the Press Box
First off, the article Rosenthal wrote and anonymously sourced alleged Alex Rodriguez could have settled on a much shorter suspension had he caved earlier in the year. Now maybe that's true, and those sources for some benign reasonwanted to let us know without saying who they were.
But in the weeks since MLB announced ARod's 211-game ban, there have been several pieces - see here, here and here - sympathetic to him, in large part because baseball was overly harsh (and also because ARod is a scapegoat for a PED era in which commissioner Bud Selig was himself complicit).
In other words as much as ARod is almost universally reviled, Bud Selig's overreach is in danger of turning public opinion. Now that an ostensibly clean ARod's healthy and playing well, and the Yankees are winning again, there's a risk that instead of being the good guy who cleaned up baseball, Selig winds up looking like a heavy-handed dictator mostly concerned with his own image.
Wouldn't it be convenient then for people to learn MLB never intended to be so draconian toward ARod after all, and it was actually ARod who refused to settle for a slap on the wrist (sitting out while injured) and forced their hand? Had Rosenthal named his sources, and it turned out they were MLB officials with an obvious interest in re-establishing ARod as a villain, any reader could see the bias and dismiss the report as spin. But he didn't and instead passed off this information as fact. The article begins:
New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez could have accepted a suspension for far less than 211 games.Rodriguez's settlement discussions with Major League Baseball over his role in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing-drug scandal included proposals for significantly lower penalties, sources told FOX Sports.
The average person reading that is going to think ARod chose not to take baseball's lighter penalty, and because the source is unidentified, we have no way to assess the credibility of that statement.
Second, I don't want to single out Rosenthal as the only reporter who grants anonymity with no justification except that it's how he gets the story - almost all prominent reporters of any kind do it, and to his credit, he actually addressed it above. But his justification of: "Trust me, I'm reliable," ultimately falls flat. While I view him as one of the best sports reporters, and I have little doubt he's diligent about weighing the validity of the information he gets, it's beyond the capacity of any person to exercise consistent unbiased judgment when one feels dependent on these sources for one's livelihood. He wants the story, and he believes the source won't give the quotes otherwise. And as you pointed out, the editor wants the story, so who's really vested in making sure Rosenthal's column doesn't become the mouthpiece for some interested and anonymous source?
The answer is probably the informed reader - not that one has any actual clout in these matters. But at least one can ask the writer to aim higher and not use unsourced quotes that read as statements of fact.
Moreover, managers, baseball players, government officials, etc. give on the record quotes all the time. If someone wants to get information to the public but won't attach his name, a writer should be presumptively suspicious of that person.In a court of law, testimony used to prove the truth of what someone else said is considered hearsay and is therefore inadmissible. It's presumptively unreliablebecause there's no opportunity to weigh the credibility and motives of the person who said it.Serious whistleblowing is obviously an exception (where anonymity is sorely needed especially in the current climate), but as you point out, sports reporting almost never rises anywhere close to that level.
Third, I think you overstate the actual need to use sources who won't give their names. Who really cares about this story once you realize there's no credible sourcing to it, and it could very well be MLB propaganda? Do we really want to read stories that might be bullshit?
As for trade rumors, they're fun, but often they're advertised accurately as "rumors," and we expect many if not most of them to be false. So, I agree there's less at stake there, and while it's not exactly highbrow journalism, it rarely purports to be.
From: Jeff Erickson
Sent: Friday, August 23, 2013 2:05pm
To: Christopher Liss
Subject: Re: Charging the Press Box
"... Selig winds up looking like a heavy-handed dictator mostly concerned with his own image."
I think that pretty well summarizes his reign (and it's a reign, not a tenure) as the commissioner. How many key initiatives have been announced as been passed unanimously? Is there really that degree of consensus among the owners? Or has there been a lot of back-room arm-twisting by threat or payoff? It's reminiscent of Soviet Union election results.
From the outside, I think it's easy to think we're overvaluing the importance of these types of stories. But there are a dwindling number of jobs in the industry, and it's cavalier to say to go get another job or another type of job if he is to keep his journalistic integrity. As long as editors and publishers insist on running these stories and not forcing reporters to put the sources on record, I don't see it changing. And the powers that be won't change if they believe it will compromise their access, which is the real issue.
With September around the corner, this will be our last "Charging" of the regular season, as your football work will demand your time. We've already covered what went wrong for us, but what went right? What else will you take away from this season? As you leave, I'd like the following from you, and then I'll finish with mine:
AL & NL MVP
AL & NL Cy Young
And most importantly, because this is still a fantasy column too, your top 15 for next year.
From: Christopher Liss
Sent: Sunday, August 25, 2013 3:31am
To: Jeff Erickson
I can't speak to whether editors and publishers are insisting on these kinds of stories, but I'd be shocked if there were a dwindling number of jobs in the sports media industry, given the launch of FoxSports 1 and the NBC Sports Network, along with the recent growth of the MLB Network, NFL Network and online portals like Yahoo! Sports, Grantland and all of the fantasy sites.
Moreover, ultimately, the public pays the bills either with subscriptions or viewership, and as long as the material is well-written, informative and interesting, they're not going to stop consuming it. Ask yourself this: Is the anonymously-sourced "ARod could have settled and gotten a lighter penalty" story so important for Rosenthal? Or could he have passed on it and written on another topic with attributed quotes and verifiable facts instead? It seems odd to avow the importance of anonymous sources to editors and publishers while acknowledging that using them destroys the value of the content.
Finally, the whole debate over what editors and publishers might want, whether it's hard to find another job, whether important sources will let you interview them with attribution really isn't our problem. It's for the outlets and reporters to resolve. I'm just a dude reading the story. I want to know whether it's likely to be true, or if MLB officials exaggerated and planted it at the behest of the commissioner. If the writer doesn't offer that to us, and we actually want to have an informed opinion of whether baseball's been unfair to ARod, then we need to let author, media outlet and/or public know the article has failed in that respect. What they do with it is up to them.
Back to on-field baseball matters:
AL MVP - Miguel Cabrera. Mike Trout might be ever-so-slighly better counting defense and base-running, but Cabrera's ability to play third base even poorly allows both Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez into the lineup (whether that's a good thing this year is debatable) - he gives the team his bat plus open slots at 1B and DH. In the NL, I'll go with Yadier Molina. he's a plus-hitting catcher and an all-time great defender who seems to make the entire pitching staff better. I know he was on the DL, but he's the best player on arguably the league's best team. Clayton Kershaw gets the Cy Young, and he's got a decent case for MVP, too. AL CY - give it to Max Scherzer - Comerica Park is the seventh most hitter-friendly one in baseball this year, and he's got a WHIP of 0.90, i.e., he's just not allowing base runners, despite a below-average defense.
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Carlos Gonzalez
4. Robbie Cano
5. Paul Goldschmidt
6. Troy Tulowitzki
7. Andrew McCutchen
8. Bryce Harper
9. Clayton Kershaw
10. Chris Davis
11. Adam Jones
12. Jason Kipnis
13. Jean Segura
14. Joey Votto
15. Edwin Encarnacion
Anyone I'm leaving out?
From: Jeff Erickson
Sent: Sunday, August 25, 2013 8:18pm
To: Christopher Liss
Subject: RE: Charging
Ultimately I agree with you on the issue, and I think it's an even bigger problem outside of the sports world. And the more these sources insist on being anonymous, the more it seems likely that they have an agenda to advance. "Government sources...", indeed.
With regards to the awards, NL Cy Young seems pretty easy in favor of Kershaw now. The tougher decision will be (a) how he factors into the NL MVP race, and (b) how early do you take him next year? But more on that in a second. Rest of the awards, in order:
AL MVP: I have Miggy over Mike Trout, too. Trout's been fantastic since April, but given my hesitation to fully buy into the defensive WAR numbers for both WAR calculations, and because there's such a gulf this year between the Tigers and Angels, I'm more willing to give Miggy a bump over him thanks to the team context. I wonder, did Chris Davis merit consideration for you, or is this a two-horse race?
NL MVP: In a year where there's not one stand-out bat, there's a pretty good argument for 4-to-5 guys, including Kershaw. My bias is to leave the pitchers for the Cy Young, because starters can't go more than 35 games a year. And that still might be persuasive here, this year. But Kershaw has made it tough. He has the highest WAR (per Baseball-Reference.com) in the NL and the second highest in baseball. Only Adam Wainwright has thrown as many innings (1/3 of an inning more), and there's a good sized drop after them. You made a strong argument for Molina, and even though WAR for defense is hotly debated, if anything, his defensive impact as a catcher can be understated, at least statistically. But I think that I might go with Andrew McCutchen. Again by WAR, he's made the biggest offensive impact in the NL, by a surprisingly big margin (6.0 vs. 5.1 for the next highest), for a team tied with the Cards for the division lead, with less around to help him. Should the "less around to help him" argument carry any water? Maybe so, maybe not, but my instinct is that it matters with these things. I also looked at Paul Goldschmidt, but admittedly did not do so for Carlos Gomez. Maybe defense is my blind spot, at least when it raises one player to equal another, rather than clearly put him over the top against an offensive equal.
AL Cy Young: I think there are four, maybe even five legitimate candidates. I fear that Scherzer's awesome season is going to be classified as a endorsement of wins as an evaluative measure, as the anti-sabermetric crowd makes their last, dying gasp of protests. The truth is that he's been great by any measure. I'd endorse him by a hair over Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda.
And finally, here's my top 15. I think the top two are pretty obvious, just a debate of order. But after that, Kershaw is the big wild card. Because let's face it, if we're going to base it on pure value and reliability, shouldn't Kershaw be #3? There's just as many pitching points to chase as there are hitting points, and Kershaw gets you points in four of those categories. But ... I've never had much success when chasing starting pitching early, even when it was Pedro Martinez against the world, when he was the single most valuable commodity in fantasy baseball. It's just not my favorite way to build a fantasy team. So if I'm not willing to do it in practice, how can I preach it?
But at the end of the day, value is value - we're here to assess it, and you can use it how you see fit.
1. Miguel Cabrera
2. Mike Trout
3. Robinson Cano
4. Andrew McCutchen
5. Clayton Kershaw
6. Bryce Harper
7. Paul Goldschmidt
8. Carlos Gonzalez
9. Troy Tulowitzki
10. Edwin Encarnacion
11. Ryan Braun
12. Chris Davis
13. Jose Bautista
14. Hanley Ramirez
15. Jacoby Ellsbury
First out: Jason Kipnis