Nine innings of banter with John Sickels at the Kansas – Texas game

Copied over from Rock Chalk Talk.  Thanks John for the interview!


John Sickels is one of the best known baseball analysts in the country.  He entered the profession as Bill James’ assistant in 1993.  From 1995 to 2005 John worked at ESPN as their minor league baseball correspondent.  His “Baseball Prospect Book” has been a must-have annual publication for baseball prospect junkies since 2003.  John also publishes almost daily on Minor League Ball.  John and I both live in Lawrence Kansas.  We went to the Kansas – Texas college baseball game today.  Nine innings of banter followed. 


Kansas was hosting the #1 ranked Texas Longhorns.  John is an alumnus of the KU graduate history program, where I am currently enrolled as a doctoral student.  Kansas had already won the first two games of the series 5-4 and 4-3.  A win today would mean the first KU sweep of Texas since forever.  The Jayhawks sent freshman Lee Ridenhour to the mound.  Ridenhour has pitched amazingly well so far this season, entering the game with a 3-1 record and a 1.61 ERA.  The Longhorns sent sophomore Cole Green up as their stopper.  It was an overcast and breezy day at the park.  Only about 500 spectators showed up for the key contest.  Kansas’ 2nd round NCAA tournament basketball game vs. Dayton was being played at the same time.  Kansas would go on to win that game 60-43.  The University of Kansas’ baseball team has been easy to overlook considering it shares the campus every spring with one of the best basketball programs in the nation, although the 2009 baseball team is off to a surprisingly strong start.  Maybe the Diamond Hawks will demand a bit more attention this year?


In the first inning John and I were just getting to know each other, which turned out not to be too difficult a task.  You see, the two of us share an uncanny amount in common.  John earned his masters degree in Modern European history at the University of Kansas.  I am finishing up my doctorate in the same program.  Both of us worked with the same advisor, who we both hold in high regard.  John started work on a dissertation about the religious and ethical underpinnings of socialism as it was practiced in Britain.  I found this a pretty interesting topic.  It will be surprising to very few that after a few years of research John found he preferred writing about baseball to researching the unique theoretical constructs of British socialism.  He dropped out of graduate school to focus entirely on his writing career in 1997.


I asked John how it was that he first met Bill James.  He explained that his wife had asked him one day when he was thrashing around looking for summer employment, “John, if you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”  John laughed, “I’d work for Bill James.”  The next day Bill James bought a briefcase as the luggage store where John’s wife worked.  “Are you Bill James, the baseball writer?”  “Yes.”  “My husband just told me yesterday that the job he would most love to have would be to work for you.”  “I need an assistant.  Have him call me.  Here is my card.”  John called the next day, they met for lunch, and he was hired.  Sometimes the world just looks out for you.  John’s own account of these events can be found in this article were he wonders if it was luck, fate, or providence that brought him and Bill James together.


I ventured, “I understand Bill James is not the most cuddly man to work for.”  John agreed.  “He can be gruff.  But I liked working for him.  I worked for him for three years.  When he decided to stop publishing his annual player profile book he didn’t need me any more.  He told me, ‘John, I don’t need you any more.  You are going to have to get another job.’  He gave me three months’ notice and a great reference.”


“So, while you were in graduate school, did you follow the Kansas baseball team?”  John said that he came to almost every game while he was a graduate student.  He followed the team in 1993 when they made their run into the college world series.  “The 1993 team might have saved the program.  The facilities at the time were not at all up to the level of the other teams in the conference and some people were talking about shutting down the program.  I come out to Hoglund as often as I can.  The last two years I’ve been very busy with other duties and so I only saw three or four games last year.  I think I’ll be here more often this season.”


I asked John what he thought about the 2009 team.  “I am only getting to know this year’s team, but I already like Jason Brunansky quite a bit.  He is small but he has a lot of potential.  He might be good enough to be a prospect.  Tony Thompson has a good build.  And Buck Afenir can hit well enough, but I wonder if he struggles with inside breaking pitches.”


“Do you think KU can compete year in and year out with the elite programs?  Or should KU fans reconcile themselves to seeing a good team every 10 or 20 years?”  John thought about this for a few minutes before answering. “It’s in-between those two choices.  I think KU can be a good solid program and can compete every year.  But they are not going to be a true elite program like Texas.  Maybe Kansas can get to the same level as Nebraska.”


Kansas mounted the first threat of the game in the third inning.  David Narodowsky and Brian Heere singled back to back.  With runners at first and second and one out, Green buckled down and got Robby Price to fly out and struck out Buck Afenir after falling behind 3-0.  The game remained scoreless. 


John and I started to talk more about what he is best known for, his ability to analyze baseball prospects.  I asked him if he had any advice for players who were drafted out of high school.  Did he think it better to go to college or to sign a professional contract?  “That depends on a lot of factors.  Most people would benefit from college.  It is a good place to grow intellectually and emotionally.  But if the player is offered a lot of money, ….this is especially true for pitchers who might blow their arm out early, taking the money might make more sense.  It has to be looked at on a case by case basis.  I don’t have a set dollar figure at which I draw the line - sign for this much, go to college for that much.”


I pushed a bit deeper into this topic: “Let’s look at a specific example.  Zack Greinke.  What do you think?  Would Greinke have done better had he gone to college?”  John: “Well, some of those psychological issues might have been identified earlier had he gone to college.”  I agreed saying, “Greinke was thrust right onto the national stage at a very young age.”  John: “Yes, he was.  But I want to say this.  I think the Royals organization, Alaird Baird, Buddy Bell, they were all very decent with Greinke.  There are a lot of organizations who would not have responded in the same manner.”


“In your opinion, to what level of minor league baseball does Big-12 baseball correlate?”  John’s answer came as a bit of a surprise.  “Short season A ball.  I don’t think even major conference college baseball has the same consistency of pitching which you find at High-A ball.  And the scheduling is so different in college baseball.”


Kansas opened up the scoring in the fourth.  KU loaded the bases with no outs and Nick Faunce singled to center to plate Tony Thompson and Jimmy Waters.  David Narodowsky kept the inning rolling with an infield single to third which brought home Preston Land.  Texas coach Augie Garrido had seen enough, and he came out to the mound with the hook.  Reliever Keith Shinaberry immediately restored order by inducing Brian Heere to hit a soft line drive to Brandon Belt which the UT first baseman converted into an unassisted double play.  Robby Price brought the inning to a close with a ground out.  Kansas led 3-0 after four innings.  Ridenhour had the runs he needed.  Could he make them stand up?


“What are the hardest parts of evaluating college baseball players as opposed to minor league players?”  John started off with a short answer, “Metal bats.”  He paused, and then dove into the topic.  “The sample size is so small in a college season.  And there is such a wide variation in the level of talent on opposing teams.  It just is really hard to compare college numbers with professional numbers.  And if you restrict yourself to only looking at numbers built in conference match-ups the sample size gets even smaller.  All I can really do is look at the numbers, strike out rates, walk rates, etc., and see how this player is doing in the context in which he has played.”


“I like to focus as much on performance as tools.  I look for a player who combines these two characteristics ideally.  A player with poor tools but who still performs well in college is not to be written off.  He can still climb the ladder.  A good example of this is David Eckstein.  Conversely a player with good tools but who does not perform in college can still become a good professional player.  So much of a player’s performance is based on environmental issues that are hard to understand or judge.  In college a pitcher with good tools but with bad performance can still succeed at the next level.  This is less true when it comes to position players.  If a position player has good tools but can’t perform well at the college level, they probably cannot play at the professional level.  Although it does happen at times.  Look at Byron Wiley of Kansas State.  He looked awful last year in college and is hitting very well in the Pioneer League.”


Texas chipped away at the KU lead in the top of the fifth.  Texas catcher Preston Clark opened the inning by reaching first on a rare David Narodowsky error.  The Longhorns moved him around the bases and he came home with two outs on a wild pitch.  Kansas 3-1 to the bottom of the fifth.  I still felt comfortable.  Ridenhour was pitching very well.


“What do you think about the use of metal bats in college baseball?”


John answered, “Ideally I’d like colleges to switch to wood so I can better translate the numbers from one level to the next.  But I do not think this will ever happen due to the monetary issues.”


“Another thing I look at is physical build.  Take [Texas outfielder Kevin] Keyes for example.  Even if he went 0-12 this weekend I still would be interested in him.  The Texas catcher, Preston Clark, is another example of this.  He moves well for a stocky guy.  He can probably stick at catcher.  I look at how graceful and athletic the player looks while playing the game.”


Texas nibbled another run off the lead in the top of the sixth.  Brandon Belt led off the inning with a triple down the right field line.  So well placed was the golf-like shot and so problematic is Hoglund’s right field foul territory that at first I thought he might have an inside the park homerun.  One out later Kevin Keyes brought him home on a ground out to short.  Keyes now had six of Texas’ nine RBIs on the weekend.  I was tired of the Hawks pitching to him.


I asked John what else was on his mind.  His answer was fascinating.  “When I am asked to make a prediction about a player, I still think more like a historian than a journalist.  As I have gotten older I feel more comfortable admitting to myself and others how much I do not know.  There is a danger among us analysts that we are just coming up with more complicated ways of explaining the same basic truths.  And I think that next big field in baseball analysis is going to have more to do with player psychology and make-up than numbers.”


Texas completed their rally in the seventh.  With two outs lead-off batter Travis Tucker singled cleanly to right center field bringing home the tying run.  With the lead gone, Kansas head coach Ritch Price came out to get his freshman.  Ridenhour left the mound to a nice round of applause.  His line in first Big-12 start was not bad at all - 6.2 innings, 8 hits, 3 runs, no walks and four strikeouts.  Travis Blankenship continued his excellent season by inducing a ground out to end the inning.  The game was now tied going into the seventh inning stretch.  This weekend has been heaven.  Nice spring weather and three tight baseball games.  The only thing left to make it perfect would be for one more KU rally and a series sweep.


I quickly shifted John from the cerebral to the idiotic with a series of rapid fire banter questions.


“Kirk or Spock?”




“What the hell!  Talk about small sample sizes.”


John laughed.


“What was the first record you bought with your own money?”


“I’ll name three!  Billy Joel’s “Nylon Curtain,” The Police “Ghost in the Machine,” and Pink Floyd, “The Wall.”


“Wow, you either started buying records pretty late in life or were a very pretentious young man.”


“I was a very pretentious young man.”


“Are you proud of those purchases?”


“The last two for sure.  I understand those records today on a deeper level than I did as an angst-filled teenager.”


“If they made a movie of your life,” he laughed and I told him to just go with this, “who would play you?”


“Ideally, Ben Affleck.  But more realistically Seth Rogen.”


“Who would play your arch enemy?”


“Ben Affleck in a beard.  My greatest enemy is myself.”


“Like Spock in that episode where he had a beard.”


“Yes, ‘Mirror Mirror.’”


“Yes, it is strange and disturbing that we both know this much about Star Trek.  Moving on, Kyra Sedgwick, hot or not?”


“Oh, she is pretty hot.  But I am desperately in love with Drew Barrymore.”


With Taylor Jungmann on the mound in the bottom of the seventh KU reclaimed the lead.  Brian Heere is having a break out season.  He took Jungmann’s third pitch into right center field for a double.  Robby Price moved him to third on a bunt and Buck Afenir hit a deep sac fly to bring him home.  KU had six outs to protect a 4-3 lead.


In the eighth inning John and I discussed the possibility that socialism took a different, developmental route in Britain than it did on the continent as so many of the movements early British supporters came out of the religious and utilitarian community.  This is really what we talked about.  John is drawn to social explanations for historical movements, while I lean towards materialistic explanations.  Maybe this explains why he found his way to British history while I have been more at home in France.


In the ninth inning John and I talked about some of his other interests.  He is proud of his 2004 biography, “Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation.”  “Was the book well received?” I asked.  “Yes, the reviews were good.”  “Did you meet Bob Feller?”  “Yes, he was kind of a difficult man.  But I met with him several times.  In retrospect I wish I had interviewed more people who knew him as a player.”  “What did he think of the book?”  “I hand delivered a copy to him when it was done.  He opened it up to the final page right away.  He read the last pages right in front of me.  He wanted to see my conclusions.”  “Wow, that must have been uncomfortable.”  “Yes, it really was.  And my conclusions were that he had his good points, and he had his bad points as a human being.  In the end I thought he was an enigma.” “Did he like your conclusion?” “When he finished reading it he shut the book and looked at me and said, ‘That’s fair.’”


Just as Bob Feller was closing John’s book Paul Smyth was closing the book on the Longhorns.  With a runner at second Smyth struck out Travis Maitland looking on a 1-2 pitch to earn his third save in as many games.


Kansas improved to 13-7 and 3-0 in the Big-12.  Texas fell to 14-6 and 2-4.  This was the first time Kansas has ever swept Texas in baseball.  This is also Kansas’ first ever 3-0 start in Big-12 play.  The myth of the magic Hog grows.  Kansas is now 10-0 at Hoglund Park.


The Jayhawks are back in action Tuesday and Wednesday as they host the Leathernecks of Western Illinois.  First pitch for both games is at 3PM.