Posted by: Peter Houston | March 12, 2010

The Jays Balk Guide to Reading Baseball Writing

It took me a long time to think up a name for this post. Ya, that’s all I came up with. You know, good old writer’s block. Or, as we call it around here, writer’s balk. Maybe that’s fitting, because it’s going to be a post about writers, mostly baseball ones. Good ones, bad ones, and everyone in between.

This is a post I’ve wanted to do for awhile now. Since we started the Balk, my reading diet has become very baseball heavy, and the difference between the good writers and the bad ones has become remarkably clear. What I’ve noticed more than anything is that you can classify all the writers into a few simple categories. They are (but not limited to): The Writers, The Stats Guys and The Insiders.

The thing is, a lot of writers fit neatly into one of these categories but try to cross over into one of the other realms. They either don’t know their place or don’t want to accept it. It’s like when hitters know they should try to move a runner over or lay down a sac bunt, but try to drive the runner in anyway. Painful to watch, and painful to read.

So without further ado, I present the first ever Jays Balk Guide to Reading Baseball Writing. (Warning: It’s long).

The Writers

Ever since before I can remember, Sports Illustrated has been my favorite magazine. If you like sports, there’s literally nothing like it. Awesome articles, awesome pictures, awesome stats and awesome writers. Once I graduate from SI for Kids, the main thing I remember about getting my Sports Illustrated was immediately turning to the last page. That’s where Rick Reilly dwelled.

Rick Reilly was my favourite sports writer for a long time. He is a perfect example of a guy who fits into “The Writers” category. That’s because he wasn’t really a sports writer, he was a story teller. The people he told stories about just happened to be involved in sports. He could make you laugh, cry or drop your jaw in amazement, all in the same story. He was so good he was voted National Sports Writer of the Year eleven times. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times is the only man with more. He may or may not be the reason I liked reading as a kid, and still do today.

But then Rick Reilly did something I’ll never forgive him for. He left Sports Illustrated. Why he went to ESPN, I’ll never know. I mean I think I know why – it’s always about the money – but I’ll never understand it. That back page was his. It was the best part of the magazine. I actually used to put aside issues with stories of his that I especially liked, and then re-read them later. And then he just left. I’ve probably read less than five of his stories since he joined ESPN in 2007. I don’t really know why – they’re probably just as good – but I guess I’ve just never forgiven him.

SI throws in a random assortment of writers on that back page now, but none of them come close to replicating the Life of Reilly. You can’t blame them, it’s a lot to live up to. There’s only one man from SI who comes close, but he never writes for the back page. He probably never will because his stories are always one the lengthier side, but that doesn’t matter.  No one will ever really replace Reilly. The reason I bring up this man is because he’s a baseball writer. The best in the biz in my opinion. He is…

Joe Posnanski

Joe Posnanski clearly falls under the writer label. Sure, he’s not afraid to use stats to make his point, but he doesn’t try to overdo it. His writing skills are always what carries the story. The thing about good writers is that no matter what they write about, you want to read it. I read Posnanski’s 9000-plus word blog post about the last decade of the Kansas City Royals, and enjoyed every minute. But these are a couple of stories of his that any sports fan should read. No, nevermind, not just sports fans. If you enjoy great stories, you should read these. Musial is about Stan Musial, and the type of guy he was. Herschel is about the best college football player of all time, Herschel Walker.

Bottom line is the man can write, and he sticks to his guns. For baseball fans out there, he should be a staple in your diet. He writes from SI the magazine, SI.com and his blog: http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/.

Grade: A

Will Hill

Will “The Thrill Writer” Hill has been AWOL since about Christmas. As far as I know, he only writes for TSN.ca, and I haven’t seen anything of his pop up in awhile. A little bit disappointing. He’s a very solid writer who probably wrote the best piece about the Halladay trade. I only started reading him this winter, and because I’ve only been exposed to such a limited body of work, I can’t give him a great mark. At this stage he’s kind of like a prospect, he just needs more development time. Either way, look out for The Thrill Writer in the future.

Grade: B+

Richard Griffin

Griff knows his Jays. He’s a decent writer. But for some reason I just don’t like reading him very much. Maybe it’s because every time I finish one of his columns I expect it to be raining outside. When he does those articles where he focuses on a player and tells their story, it’s usually a lot better. He does a good job of digging out interesting tidbits most people probably didn’t know. In my mind, he’s good not great, but you should still probably read him if you’re a Jays fan.

Grade: B

Bob Elliott

Elliott is kinda like a Griff, except he writes for the Sun, not the Star. Elliott has an in-depth knowledge of all things Jays, especially prospects. He does a good job of writing the stories nobody else seems to write about. But, he does seem to have a strange infatuation with AA and his revamping of the scouting department. His writing skills could also use a bit of work. OK, I don’t exactly know what “writing skills” he needs to work on, but his columns just don’t make me want to keep reading. Just be more like Reilly or Posnanski.

Grade: B-

Robert MacLoed

I originally had Jeff Blair slotted in here, but when I went over to theglobeandmail.com to review some of his stuff I was denied. Apparently I have to be a member of Globe Plus or some crap to read Jeff Blair’s not-worth-paying-for columns. I haven’t read anything of his in awhile, but from what I can remember they were nothing special. I also follow him on Twitter and couldn’t disagree more with a lot of his opinions. Jeff Blair, fail. Robert MacLeod will be pinch hitting. He’s the Globe’s loyal foot soldier, usually pounding out game stories while leaving all the column glory to Blair and Steven Brunt. I’ve always thought those game stories were above average, mixing in enough writing an analysis to balance out the mandatory what-happened that a monkey could write. In my mind, that’s how it’s done. A game story guy (I guess I could have made another category) not trying too hard to be a writer.

Grade: B+

The Stats Guys

Tom Verducci

Verducci is a smart guy. He created the Verducci Effect, which is pretty impressive. He’s also written a lot of interesting columns about the playoffs and how baseball’s are the most unpredictable of any sport. Long story short, he does his research, gets the facts, the stats, and writes something interesting. He doesn’t try to get too cute or too fancy with his writing. He lets his research do the talking. For example, check out this piece on Ryan Howard, and how he faces a ridiculous amount of breaking balls. Betcha didn’t know that, did ya? His stuff’s always interesting and usually something you hadn’t thought of before. And the reason he get’s a good grade in the Jays Balk Guide is that he doesn’t try to be a Writer or an Insider.

Grade: A-

Dayn Perry

Dayn Perry is a serious stats guy. He’s always good for intriguing, BABIP-based projections. That’s what he does best, looks past all the stats that casual fans use (such as AVG, HR, RBI etc) and into those complicated ones that no one wants to spend 2 minutes of their lives understanding (BABIP, ISO, FIP). He also authored an interesting post recently that suggests the Yankees were relatively lucky last year based on their runs scored vs. runs against. He says that usually when teams are lucky one year, they come back down to reality the next year. That’s good enough for me. The only knock against him is that he doesn’t write a lot of stuff compared to the other writers.

Grade: B+

The Insiders

Ken Rosenthal

OK, where do I begin. The reason I decided to finally balk about baseball writers is this man. Specifically, this article. Again, where do I begin. It’s not that I completely disagree with what he’s saying in the article, it’s that he doesn’t know where he fits in the universe of baseball writers. Ken, you’re an insider, not a writer. You are usually the first guy to break trade rumours, free agent signings etc., you usually do a pretty good job of predicting where people will land (see Halladay trade), but that’s what you should stick to. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even write at all. Just update me on Twitter. Because when you write something on Twitter it won’t make me feel physically sick to my stomach.

Take the Cardinals article I linked as an example. Rosenthal is clearly trying to make what is a completely uninteresting point (I think the Cardinals are really good, but not as good as some people think, and the race in the NL Central might be closer than people think, I think) interesting with some creative writing. One word: fail. Reading the article makes me feel like I’m driving over speed bumps too fast. The lack of flow makes Bizarre look good (random hip-hop artist reference). He tries to hook the reader in with a “I’m going to make a bold statement” lead, but then immediately takes it back in the second sentence. WHO DOES THAT?

As you know by now, the most important thing you can do to get a good guide in the Jays Balk Guide is to know your place. Rosenthal doesn’t. He’s a really good Insider trying to be a Writer, but he’s a really bad writer. So if you want the latest inside word on trades and free agents, give Rosenthal a read, but don’t expect to enjoy it.

Grade: C+

Jon Heyman

Heyman is the SI Insider. He’s probably second in the industry to Rosenthal, but he’s still pretty good. And unlike Rosenthal, he seems to know his place. He occasionally dips into the column-ish writing style, but its usually decent writing. Again, unlike Rosenthal, he doesn’t try to do too much with it. And he usually makes interesting points or observations (I still can’t get over how dumb that Cardinals article is). Heyman’s Around the Majors segment at the end of his articles are always nice. They’ve always got a good blend of information on injuries, contract negotiations, trades, prospects and funny quotes. The knock on him is that he’s not usually the one breaking stories, and his anonymous sources don’t seem to be the most reliable.

Grade: B

Writers who didn’t make the cut for whatever reason:

All those ESPN Insiders (Buster Olney, Keith Law etc). I don’t want to pay for stuff I can’t get for free so I can’t give them a grade. Also Morgan Campbell, Jordan Bastian, Steven Brunt, Ted Keith, Joe Lemire, Sky Andrecheck, Rob Neyer.

Maybe when I have more time/energy, or maybe in Jays Balk Guide to Reading Baseball Writing 2.0, I’ll give those guys a write-up. Until then, I hope this serves as a useful guide to who you should and shouldn’t be reading.

PH

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