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Summary

Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, and Meg Rowley are joined by former co-host and current Tampa Bay Rays analyst Jeff Sullivan to discuss the experience of working for a team that almost won the World Series, touching on what exactly Jeff’s job is, what he learned in his second year with the Rays, what he did during MLB’s spring lockdown, whether watching the playoffs was fun, adapting to 2020’s new rules, dabbling in advance scouting, postseason superstitions, being second-guessed, learning new skills, whether the Rays will trade for Mike Trout, and much more.

Topics

  • Interview with Jeff Sullivan
  • How to say Jeff's job title
  • What Jeff did during the shutdown
  • Were expectations at work lowered due to the shutdown?
  • Differences in the second year on the job
  • How do you contact people during the shutdown?
  • How analysts intersect with player development, how do you approach a coach with a suggestion?
  • How many people read Jeff's analysis?
  • How many stages does an idea have to get through before it reaches a player?
  • How to decide which "trends in the game" analyses are most relevant?
  • When did Jeff get the sense that the team was going to do something special?
  • Learning that the playoff structure had changed the day before the season began
  • Learning that there would be no off-days in the postseason
  • Jeff's "pod-Rays" pun
  • Watching baseball in person
  • Did he enjoy watching games, given the stakes involved?
  • The cost of superstition
  • How much more teams know than the media who second-guess them
  • How useful was the data from the short 2020 season?
  • Would Jeff has been as invested if he had left the Rays at the end of the regular season?
  • How his work changed during the postseason
  • Effect of the new rules for 2020
  • Influence over player acquisition
  • What new data analysis skills has Jeff learned?
  • Wearing pants when working from home

Notes

  • Jeff's business card reads "Analyst, Baseball Development", but do you say "Jeff is an analyst of(?) for(?) baseball development"? Jeff doesn't know either. "The general joke is that I develop baseballs."
  • The Rays had the last game in spring training before the shutdown. At the end of the game, instead of announcing, "We'll see you at the park tomorrow!" the PA announcer said, "The rest of spring training has been cancelled due to the COVID pandemic!"
  • Jeff flew back home to Oregon. He lives near a college campus and walked through the green space a lot, becoming very familiar with all the wildlife.
  • Analysts still had plenty of data to study. In addition to spring training data, they had the time to explore things they wouldn't normally have had time to investigate.
  • While many senior executives have young children, most of the analysts (including Jeff) do not. Jeff doesn't feel that his work was significantly affected.
  • Meg notes that her second year as managing editor of FanGraphs was easier if only because she knew that she could do the job, not necessarily that she got any better at it. And because she now knows who to call to get help for specific things.
  • It took Jeff a while to get to know and develop relationships with the other members of the team, such as coaches. His boss told him, "We're expecting your onboarding process to take about two years," which struck Jeff as odd seeing as he was signed to only a two-year contract. He does acknowledge that he has more familiarity with how everything works in the second year.
  • Jeff observed that it was easier to contact people during the shutdown because you knew exactly where to find them. They weren't out running practices, for example.
  • Jeff is not physically with the players, so he's not directly involved in player development. If he has an idea for a coach, he doesn't go straight to the coach. His suggestion gets edited heavily. "I probably get edited more now than I did when I was writing for publication."
  • Sam figures that instead of writing for a mass audience, Jeff is writing for a very small audience, perhaps of only one person? Jeff says that it's not that he has a specific person he's writing for. The analyst team share ideas among themselves. It took Jeff some time to learn what ideas are interesting to the team. He gives as an example that he could do a deep analysis of Mike Trout, but that is not useful because (no spoiler here) the Rays have no intention of acquiring Mike Trout.
  • If Jeff gets an idea, he'll collaborate with one to three people to try to distill the recommendation to a half-dozen-word email. To avoid overloading others, they spend a lot of time trying to make their messages concise. "I spent an entire Friday some weeks ago whittling what I think was like four paragraphs of information down to about three sentences. It's like trying to convert articles into tweets."
  • Jeff's job includes keeping an eye on trends in the game as a whole. Meg jokes that if Jeff has something the Rays aren't interested in, she can create a fake account for him to post it on FanGraphs.
  • Jeff acknowledges that any halfway good team made the playoffs this year, so the Rays making the postseason was not much of a surprise.
  • After the Miami coronavirus outbreak, Jeff saw a tweet that said that Rob Manfred had cancelled the season. He was completely taken in before realizing it was a fake account.
  • Everyone Jeff knew was surprised by the sudden change in playoff format, but they weren't thrown into disarray by it. They just incorporated it into their outlook. In the short term, the Rays were hurt because expanding playoffs in a short season hurts the stronger teams. But in the long term, it helps them because it gives a small-market team like the Rays better chances against the big-spending teams in their division.
  • Jeff: "There was a lot of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants this season."
  • Sam notes that Jeff had used a "pod-Rays" pun, but then three weeks later the Rays were playing a playoff game a Petco Park. Sam wonders if Jeff regrets having used it too soon. Jeff is unapologetic. "I give it no thought and continue to give it no thought."
  • Jeff attended some World Series games in person. There were around 11,000 fans in attendance, and Jeff didn't find it as jarring as he had expected.
  • Jeff was under tight restrictions on game days. From 8am to 4pm, he was entitled to "free time in your hotel room". This gave him some appreciation for what players go through.
  • Jeff found the experience of watching the games very stressful. "It was all just miserable to watch." Jeff also appreciated why baseball players are so superstitious. "I think it's because it has no cost." On the last out against the Astros: "Sports has caused me to cry a lot before, but not like this."
  • Jeff revealed that there are "pennant rings", or as Jeff calls them "loser rings".
  • Meg notes the difficulty of deciding when to send Jeff a congratulatory email. She doesn't want to do it too soon, because she knows that she's not at the top of the pecking order, but she doesn't want to let the moment go unacknowledged either. Jeff can't imagine what it's like for a player who has a big moment and returns to the locker room to find 500 messages waiting for him. How do you respond to 500 messages?
  • Ben notes that there's an opportunity cost to superstition: Using a player for superstitious reasons prevents you from using a better player. Jeff explains that the organization has a plan and they succeed because they remain data-driven.
  • Jeff suspects that a lot of the writers who second-guess team decisions know that they are under-informed, but their job is to have an opinion. Jeff has no time or inclination to read what the second-guessers are saying.
  • Jeff points out in particular that it is not always obvious that a reliever is unavailable because he's tired from earlier outings.
  • Jeff jokes that for nearly all teams, the off-season is run by an algorithm. Trades and waiver claims are completely automated. "It's essentially automated Tinder."
  • Jeff says that the 2020 season was real baseball, and the data will be treated as such.
  • Jeff start to make a nautical analogy but catches himself.
  • Jeff notes that the full name of the devil ray is the "lesser devil ray". Curiously, there is no "greater devil ray".
  • Sam is fascinated with how Jeff, whom he saw as somehow who didn't get caught up in the winning and losing of baseball, got so emotionally worked up. If Jeff had left at the end of the regular season (on good terms), he says he would have been way less invested in the outcome. Sam concludes that Jeff's emotional involvement was just him being invested in his career, not in the team.
  • Jeff says "playoffs are weird." "There's so much advance work that goes nowhere." He'll spend an entire day investigating something and conclude an hour before game time that it led nowhere.
  • The team did consider the effect of the new rules, particularly the impact on roster construction.
  • Ben notes that he still roots for players he hired for the Stompers. He wonders if Jeff feels the same way about players he helped acquire. Jeff has talked to many scouts, and they all acknowledge that they completely missed a great talent at some point, and they just have to accept that as part of the job. You have to learn not to get too emotionally attached to specific players, since it clouds your judgement.
  • Jeff was afraid of using SQL prior to joining the Rays, but he now realizes how much easier it makes analysis.
  • People who learn that he works from home will say to Jeff, "Oh, so you don't have to wear pants." Jeff makes clear that if your pants are uncomfortable, the solution is to get better pants.
  • Jeff notes that at the start of the pandemic, Oregon shut down the wilderness areas, which made no sense because people don't congregate in the wilderness.
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