5 for Friday: Dirk Hayhurst, best-selling author, former MLB pitcher
Dirk Hayhurst pitched in only 25 games over parts of two MLB seasons some years back — which is a whole lot more professional sports experience than most any of us can claim and is, therefore, pretty rad — but his true calling has come from his talents off the field rather than on it. Armed with a communications degree from Kent State University and years of moving through the lower minor leagues, Hayhurst has (in less than five years) authored four books on his career in baseball, how his life has been affected by that path and just really any relevant observation that pops into his (rather hilarious) brain.
Aside from the books, he’s also become one of the web’s most thought-provoking baseball writers, contributing to a host of sites on such topics as the use of amphetamines, the sport’s archaic insistence on "unwritten rules" and the pressures of actually stepping astride a pitching rubber in front of tens of thousands and being expected to throw a ball at a high rate of speed accurately over a small target. His Twitter account is a must-follow.
Now, Hayhurst is going back to school … kind of. While his writing career continues to flourish, he’s taking classes every Saturday for the next two years at Kent State to earn an executive MBA. ("If I could do it any faster, I would!" he says.) Still only 33, Hayhurst is starting to think about a post-baseball life in earnest and was gracious enough to chat with FOXSports.com by phone earlier this week for another edition of 5 for Friday. Always outspoken and rarely reserved, Hayhurst touched on a number of issues facing baseball, including how velocity relates to arm injuries, whether the sport has a "fun" problem and what he’d do if elected MLB commissioner.
1. MALINOWSKI: So you’re going back to school for your MBA. What’s that all about?
HAYHURST: I hate covering baseball, let’s be honest. I like it when you have a wardrobe budget and you’re on TV and the money’s great, but even then, it’s still just an argument about a narrative that’s generated mostly by numbers and those numbers are fresh every night. It’s weird because baseball is a very hierarchical system of, like, when people make comments about how the game is, if you don’t have 20 years under your belt, it doesn’t matter if you’re right, you’re wrong. So a guy like me, I played long enough, I understand what’s going on. And I’m also not super famous, so I don’t have to worry about my legacy, so I can just say what I believe happened without worrying about fallout to my empire.
But I think a lot of times, what people think is that I’m just this young, salacious done-nothing who tricked his way onto television. And so because I have that working against me all the time, I know that I’m just one famous big leaguer away from being replaced at all times. So I think the MBA was kind of a way for me to keep myself employable outside of baseball.
2. MALINOWSKI: There has been a rash of arm injuries in baseball this year, and one of the things that people like Leo Mazzone and Tommy John have stressed to 5 for Friday is that it’s about this relatively newfound obsession with velocity, that coaches are teaching guys that the only way to have a successful career is to throw as hard as possible. Your own career was effectively ended by a right-shoulder injury that took away the zip on your pitches that you once had. Is that a fair assessment of where baseball’s mindset is right now, vis-á-vis pitchers and velocity, or is that too sweeping of a generalization? Does baseball have a "velocity epidemic," so to speak?
HAYHURST: I don’t necessarily think that it is entirely velocity’s fault, but I will say that a large part of it is. It’s not just velocity in and of itself but the obsession with it. And the reason I say this is because it’s not like Little League says, "This is what you should do in the big leagues." It’s always the opposite. The big leagues always dictates pretty much what every league will try and do beneath it. But if you look at the two poles from where baseball begins in a person’s life to where it ends up, there’s this thinking that you go from Little League to the big leagues and the rules will apply the same way all the way through. It couldn’t be more opposite. People still think about the biggest sample, the Little League base, and then the big leagues, which is the most prominent sample. What they forget is, in order to get into pro ball, you have to impress the people who hold the gate to pro ball, and the people who hold the gate are only impressed by certain tool sets because certain tool sets, if they’re in high quantity, they increase the probability of who gets drafted and who’ll actually pan out in the big leagues. And if that happens, then a scout can take a risk on a guy knowing that if this guy will pan out, he’ll make more money or not lose his job and he’ll get to stay around the game longer. So this whole kill-or-be-killed, fit-through-the-eye-of-a-needle process kind of takes over once you start getting into high school, college, summer ball on the precipice of pro ball. And the separator for kids is they have to throw really hard because results are always going to get discounted at the amateur level. They’re always going to say, "Well, it’s college. College hitters aren’t that good." Or maybe, "It’s summer ball. Summer ball hitters aren’t that good." So none of that matters to them, but velocity does. It’s like speed. If you’re fast, you can always run fast. If you can throw hard, you’ll always throw hard! You may not always hit for power, so in a game of chance and "what have you done lately?" … these skills that people think can translate over everything are way more valuable, and velocity therefore becomes more valuable.
The problem is that in order to get drafted, you have to be in the right spot at the right time, which means you need to throw all the time, whenever you get a chance to, as hard as you can each time in order to impress a radar gun. So by the time you’ve gotten into pro ball, you’re already accustomed to throwing as hard as you possibly can every time you get the opportunity, which better be every day because that’s the only way you’re going to get drafted. So now there’s a huge amount of wear and tear on your body while it’s developing, and you get into the big leagues and you’re already beat up. All the hoops you had to jump through set you up to break by the time you actually make money for what you’ve done.
3. MALINOWSKI: So what can be done?
HAYHURST: I would love to see baseball as 50 percent Mark Buehrles as opposed to 50 percent "guy I don’t know and will never really get a chance to know because he’s on the DL and I never hear about him anymore." But I think that "pitchability" has always been underrated, and it’s gotten more underrated as time has gone by. The problem is that now you’re not just talking about pure results. If you look at where modern baseball is trending in terms of sabermetrics, which is saying that guys with higher velocities tend to make more mistakes but they don’t get punished for those mistakes, whereas a guy at a lower velocity can make the same amount of mistakes and he’ll get punished for more of them. And then we turn that into cruel, hard math and then we trust that math, the math actually does pan out. If you throw harder than the human body can naturally react to, you should have an advantage. Now you can raise the whole correlation/causation issue if you want, but I think if we were focused more on execution — you can still be successful, you just can’t make as many mistakes. From what I know as a player and from what I know of sabermetrics and probabilities, I will say that you can still be as successful not throwing hard; you just have to make less mistakes. And people have made less mistakes for a very long period of time and they’ve been alright! Baseball can adopt that model again, but now it’s going to need hard data to support that again. I think what’ll start pushing that forward is the cost/risk/benefit ratio of monitoring the health of players and how that affects the financial underpinnings of an organization, once someone can say, "Well, if we keep so-and-so’s pitch count under this or keep so-and-so on a velocity threshold, it’s been proven over the last decade that we’re going to get more innings out of him."
But do we get to the point where start heavily evaluating sabermetrics based around medical data and we start making changes because of that? Or do we just go with what we have now and start putting six men in a rotation, so that we can have more rest and have higher velocities? What changes? Something is going to have to because we’ve already put this ball in motion.
But do we get to the point where we start heavily evaluating sabermetrics based around medical data and we start making changes because of that? Or do we just go with what we have now and start putting six men in a rotation, so that we can have more rest and have higher velocities? What changes? Something is going to have to because we’ve already put this ball in motion. So the logical conclusion of this, in the next couple of years, won’t be "Tommy John surgeries go down," it’s going to be "Tommy Johns continue to go up," until we have another trickle-down change adopted by teams with players trying to reach the big leagues.
4. MALINOWSKI: A lot of what your writing does, in the end, is something that I personally believe most good sportswriting should aspire toward: To humanize professional athletes and, to a certain extent, de-mythologize them and show that they’re just people, too. Do you feel that as part of your responsibility when you write about various things, to bring that perspective from the other side?
HAYHURST: I think it’s (exhales) what’s really tough is that you’re dealing with sports entertainment, you’re not dealing with sports news or sports politics or whatever, where this needs to be reported accurately because it’s going to affect us. And yet at the same time, it does affect us. It’s weird. It makes an impact on our society. People say, "Oh, so-and-so needs to be a role model." And then they say, "I’m not a role model. Never signed up for that." No, you never did, but just because you reject the reality doesn’t mean it’s not reality. It is reality. Alex Rodriguez being a jackass does affect people. It shouldn’t. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know who to be more embarrassed by, his behavior or people who let his behavior hurt them or they’re worried about the value of the "marred image" of the Yankees, as if they didn’t have a psycho owner for how long.
When I do that, it’s because when I talk about it, it’s in this tone of "Ladies and gentlemen, you’re all kind of being ridiculous. Did you even realize you were holding that torch or pitchfork, or is it just instinctual for you now?" It’s like when I called out Clay Buchholz for cheating and (Michael) Pineda for cheating, yeah, the year that that happened, the year that Buchholz cheated, people were calling me this worthless piece of s*** and people wanted me dead. And even the next year (when Pineda was caught), even the Red Sox were like, "Yeah, everybody does it." Jeez, everyone puts something on the ball.
I think when you don’t get mad when everyone else gets mad, or you don’t pretend things are good when everyone else is pretending, naturally you’re going to look like the selfish person who can’t let everything lie. But for me, I realized what’s happening. These people, these ridiculous entities in our world, these entertainers called athletes, they have such incredible power over all of us. And a lot of them use it for good, but it’s just so canned, isn’t it? I mean, Derek Jeter is not going to play his last game and go to heaven to be with the Father and the Son and prepare a place for us all. He’s just going to retire. When did he become an incarnation of the afterlife? I don’t get it. But if you were to say, "He was a pretty average shortstop defensively; great hitter, especially in the postseason; wonderful guy; wish him all the best," that wouldn’t be enough anymore. And people would be mad at you for that. When you get to that point, someone has to stand there and say, "Stop. Think about it." And when you’re dealing with news or politics, you can have that moment of debunking. But when you’re talking about sports entertainment and you try and debunk it, people think you’re a salacious a****** and they want you to shut up because they think you’re only doing it to draw attention to yourself. There certainly are people successful at doing that for those reasons, but it’s not always like that.
5. MALINOWSKI: Building on this idea of the season-long deification of Derek Jeter, does baseball take itself too seriously? Does it have a "fun" problem, or lack thereof? And sort of related to that, if you were somehow elected commissioner, what would be the first thing you address?
HAYHURST: Well, I think that when players can say, "An accident happened and therefore I must throw a ball at your head," yeah, it might take itself a bit too seriously, or it might have too much ego. And I understand that; I can bust that all way down to the neuroscience involved there, but I’ll spare you. But it comes back to this point where a dollar should only be worth a dollar, a stock should be evenly valued when you buy it, but a baseball player or baseball team or baseball season can have a ridiculous overvaluing to the point where it’s just a bubble. It’s an expectation bubble, and we do it constantly. Part of the fun of ruining fun is overvaluing fun. It’s just how baseball is. It’s like when Dan Le Batard sold his Hall of Fame vote to Deadspin, and he said how he thought this has all gotten so ridiculous and here was some anarchy in the church of baseball, and I think that’s great! It’s a victim of its own pride and ego sometimes, and it needs people to buck it.
And then people say, "Well, no one’s bigger than the game, man." But everyone’s bigger than the game. It’s a game. But what you’re saying is, no one’s bigger than the religion we’ve built around it. And if you pulled that out of context, people would say it’s ridiculous to deify sports or deify a player or let them have this much control over it. You say it’s ridiculous to let money or Prada or the Kardashians have this much control over us, people would say, it’s stupid, you’re right. But when you say that about baseball, suddenly it’s not stupid anymore. It’s part of American culture. It’s part of who we are as a people. And that definitely needs to be challenged, man. (Sighs.)
I would hope that, in the years to come, baseball would become a quicker game, that’s it’s played faster, that some economist sits down and looks at it and realizes that if revenues continue to go higher and it becomes more profit-driven and players have limitless power without a salary cap and they can basically make up rules for people they don’t represent, that this is essentially going to destroy itself.
I think that baseball, whatever it becomes, will not be as good as what it was. That’s just how we are as a people. We always look back and think it was better than what it is now. That’s true of every generation. But I would hope that, in the years to come, baseball would become a quicker game, that’s it’s played faster, that some economist sits down and looks at it and realizes that if revenues continue to go higher and it becomes more profit-driven and players have limitless power without a salary cap and they can basically make up rules for people they don’t represent, that this is essentially going to destroy itself. It will never be about the game, it will always be about the pageantry of it, and then winning, when it becomes no longer profitable, it’ll all become like professional wrestling in a way. It’ll just be about showing off and trying to throw the ball as hard as you can and hit as hard as you can, surgically repair these guys as fast as you can, and repeat. You play 162 games of it now. I don’t think you need that many games. Why would you ever need that many of anything to decide something? It’s just stupid. And purists will be furious about this, but just because something has always been done a way is not a good reason to keep doing it that way. In fact, it’s the worst reason you can possibly name.
The game is slow. The game is hypocritical. The game has frontier justice. The game is revenue driven. It’s not a game so much as it is a business that we just role-play in as players. I think that all needs to change, and when it does, baseball will be better.