Rob Neyer says goodbye to ESPN


Rob Neyer has announced that after 15 years — which is about 300 in Internet years — he’s leaving ESPN.  Rob is going to keep writing, of course — we don’t know where, but a little bird tells me that we’ll hear more about that part tomorrow morning — but this is still pretty major news. As long as there has been Internet baseball writing, Rob has been over at ESPN, so in many ways this is the end of an era.

While Bill James is rightfully credited for revolutionizing baseball analysis, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the revolution doesn’t happen — or at least doesn’t happen as quickly and as thoroughly as it did happen — without Rob Neyer. Rob, who was once James’ assistant, popularized sabermetrics via his ESPN column/blog, reaching far more people in his first few weeks as an Internet writer than the number of people to whom James sold his original Abstracts. He was the gateway drug for stat geekery. At least he was mine.

It was 1998. I was fresh out of law school and was working my first real job. Somewhere during my seven years of higher education I had regressed from baseball fanatic to a mere casual fan. I still followed the Braves, but I wasn’t nuts about it. I watched baseball, but I missed a lot of what was going on.

It was then that I discovered Rob’s column, and it was nothing short of a revelation. Five days a week, this voiceless man in red faux flannel would challenge nearly every lazy assumption I had about the game. Telling me things like RBIs weren’t the most valuable measure of a hitter. That strikeouts weren’t the worst thing in the world. That Dante Bichette wasn’t really any good.

Rob didn’t make his pronouncements from on high and expect you to take his word for it. He showed his work. He encouraged you to run the numbers yourself. He wrote in a clear and uncomplicated voice that made even the most complicated concepts seem quite simple, which was extremely important to a mathophobe like me. I read Neyer every day.  He, more than any person or event, rekindled my love for baseball that had gone somewhat dormant in the 1990s.

I began writing about baseball myself at a now-defunct webzine in 2001. There is no question I never would have done so without Rob Neyer’s influence and inspiration.  While that ‘zine tanked in early 2003, I considered it a success because at some point during the run Rob, who must have been forwarded the link by one of my 11 readers, sent me a nice email telling me that I had done a good job on a particular piece of analysis. That email was the biggest reason why, a few years later, I felt like I was good enough to start my Shysterball blog. I didn’t care that absolutely no one read the thing for the first couple of months. Rob had once seen my work and said it was good and that was all the validation I needed.

But then people started reading Shysterball. Why? Because Rob started linking it.  At first just a couple of random “this is neat” links. Then, in November 2007 he mentioned Shysterball prominently during one of his ESPN chats.  My traffic took off.  I was asked to write some guest columns on other websites that got some notice. Eventually I was asked to move Shysterball to The Hardball Times, and from there I was asked to chip in part time on the blog that became HardballTalk. In short, I owe my career to Rob Neyer.

Thank you for all of your great work for ESPN, Rob.  Good luck with all of the great work you’ll surely do in the future.

2018 Preview: Texas Rangers

Getty Images

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Texas Rangers.

The Texas Rangers had been, more or less, the class of the AL West for several years, but that came to an end last year. Injuries, a bad bullpen and underachievement doomed them early and before all the leaves were on the trees the Astros had all but locked up the division. There were some bright spots — Adrian Beltre notched his 3,000th hit and Joey Gallo emerged as the 40-homer threat many have long thought he might be — but otherwise it was a bad year for the Rangers.

Will it be another bad year? Hard to say no, though there is a lot more upside with this club than with a lot of other sub-80 win teams from 2017. For that upside to pay off, however, the Rangers are going to have to win a lot of bets.

The outfield is a good place to begin looking for that upside. Nomar Mazara has not yet put it together over the course of a whole season, but he has shown some promise and could be poised for a breakout. Delino DeShields may not be what many thought he might be a few years back, but he’s got wheels and can get on base. Left field is being kept warm for top prospect Willie Calhoun who came over in the Yu Darvish trade and is having his service time manipulated, but he’ll be up soon. He’s expected to rake. Whether he can hold the position or, rather, will have to take at-bats away from Shin-Soo Choo at DH is an open question.

The infield needs a couple of fairly attainable things to happen for the lineup to really be a plus. First, it needs Adrian Beltre to be healthy and to show that he has at least some gas left in the tank. I have learned over the past 20 years to not bet against Adrian Beltre, ever, so Father Time will have to prove me wrong. It also needs Rougned Odor to snap back into shape after a lost-in-the-woods 2017. I hate the phrase “he’s better than that,” but he really is better than that. Elvis Andrus is Elvis Andrus and that’s fine. If Gallo can cut down on the K’s even a little bit and mix in a couple of more base hits to go with all of that power he could be an MVP candidate. In order of likelihood, I put it (1) Beltre being Beltre; (b) Odor bouncing back; and (c) Gallo cutting down on strikeouts, but if just two of those things happen the Rangers lineup will be in good shape.

There are a lot of question marks with the starting pitching and a couple of lottery tickets. Yu Darvish is long gone, but Cole Hamels remains at the top of the rotation. The problem is that Hamels had his worst full season in several years last year and it may be that all of the miles on his odometer are catching up with him. The biggest offseason pickup for Texas was Mike Minor, who had a monster comeback season with the Royals after multiple years lost due to arm injuries. That monster year came out of the bullpen, though, so it remains to be seen if he can move back to the rotation and remain both impressive and durable. He’s one of the lottery tickets, although one with much better odds than, say, the Powerball. He’s like a scratch-off with some risk but a decent shot at some winnings.

A longer shot is Matt “Mega Millions” Moore. The one time top prospect of the Tampa Bay Rays is still somehow just 28, but he’s coming off a lousy year in San Francisco, in which he led the NL in both losses and earned runs while plying his trade in a pitcher’s park. I guess you can be a silver-lining guy and say he’s durable again or you could do that thing where people look at a one-time phenom and imagine that he has at least one full-promise year in him, but it’s not super likely either. Martin Perez and Doug Fister round things out. You basically know what you’re getting out of those two at this point: competence, but not necessarily any shot at greatness. Bartolo Colon is knocking around and he’ll likely get some starts at some point. He always gets starts.

The bullpen was a mess last year. It’s not clear that it’ll be better this year, but it’ll certainly be more interesting, as Jon Daniels went out and signed Tim Lincecum and gave him a big league deal from which to launch his comeback. He may challenge for the closer role, though Alex Claudio has it for now. Matt Bush will look to recapture 2016 form as a setup guy. Jake Diekman should be back to full strength after a mostly lost 2017 due to colon surgery. Not a great group, truth be told, even if they will be fun to watch at times.

Overall, I think the Rangers are better than bad but the pitching is a big problem and they need too many things to go their way to count on being good. If everyone stays healthy and more than half of the guys who struggled last year return to form or fulfill potential, hey, it’s a pretty interesting group of players. A group which, while not good enough to challenge Houston, could be in the mix with the Angels and the Mariners to be a Wild Card representative.

If most of those bets don’t pay off, though, it’s gonna be a long year. I’m a risk averse gambler, so I’m going to hope to be pleasantly surprised, but I predict that the upside will remain out of reach.

Prediction: Fourth Place, AL West