At first, it isn’t quite clear what Brian Kenny is so excited about. The MLB Network host has stormed into a production meeting waving a handful of papers and hollering about Sergio Romo starting for the Tampa Bay Rays. There is no “hello,” no “good morning,” only delighted cries of, “they’re doing it” and, “it’s happening.”
Then, as a dozen producers, researchers and analysts stare with raised eyebrows, Kenny explains. By sending Romo, a middle reliever, to the mound in the first inning the following day, the Rays will not merely attempt a “bullpen day.” They will instead debut “The Opener,” an entirely new strategy that Kenny and others have touted for years. Romo, a righty, will face the top of the Los Angeles Angels’ order, which is stocked with right-handed hitters, before the Rays turn the game over to lefty “starter” Ryan Yarbrough, who will then pitch as long as he can.
It doesn’t matter to Kenny that World Series-winning manager Joe Girardi, seated across the conference-room table, is skeptical of the idea or that veteran reporter Jayson Stark, also on hand, is uneasy about it as well. Kenny is stoked. The Rays’ embrace of The Opener is, as he will later declare on air with tongue only somewhat in cheek, “the vanguard of the revolution.”
In addition to being the host of MLB Network’s afternoon studio show MLB Now, Kenny is a full-time sabermetric crusader, and with modern analysis already having won the day in front offices and much of the online baseball community, he has devoted himself to conquering one final frontier: television.
With a take-no-prisoners style of debate and a deep, unshakeable belief in his worldview, Kenny, 54, has established himself as not only MLB Network’s go-to voice on advanced stats but also the most visible proponent of modern baseball metrics anywhere on the dial. Some critics say he’s too statistically oriented for TV. Others argue he’s too TV-oriented for statistics. But at least one observer has come to believe he’s the perfect liaison between statheads and the television audience they have largely failed to reach.
“You have to have someone with Brian’s entertainment capabilities to pull it off,” says Ken Rosenthal, Kenny’s friend and MLB Network colleague. “Unless you have someone like Brian, who is such a great TV person, explaining the numbers and breaking it down and becoming a character on television … this stuff can get a little boring, a little dry.”
After the production meeting, Kenny returns to his desk to draft an essay lauding the Rays’ decision to start Romo. Before long, he’s on the phone with Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, practically shouting about why “The Opener” represents the future of baseball. When that conversation ends, he sits down to explain why he fights so passionately for the cause of advanced analysis.
“I have a low tolerance for nonsense,” Kenny says. “And when you work in TV you hear a lot of it.”
In most ways, the “stats vs. scouts” clash that drove baseball debate for years has been firmly settled. Front offices are now run by data-driven Ivy Leaguers with full staffs of quants. In the media, holdouts like Stark and Rosenthal cite advanced metrics without second thought, while ESPN.com lists WAR on its leaderboard page. “Exit velocity” has become a household term, and FanGraphs has been name-dropped at press conferences — by players who demand and deploy information from front-office types they once stuffed into lockers.
But turn on the television, and it can seem as though it’s 1998 again. Game analysts often treat advanced stats with suspicion, acknowledging modern analysis only to question it — or to run context-free Statcast graphics. Studio shows generally feature former players who know exactly how to hit a slider or turn a double play but wouldn’t know how to explain ERA+. For better or worse, the analysis offered on baseball broadcasts differs almost categorically from what’s available online.
It was within that context that Kenny set out to become the TV host of choice for the sabermetrically inclined fan.
When Kenny first discovered advanced stats in the early 1990s, he assumed the revolution would be quick and bloodless. That everyone would read Bill James and immediately abandon triple-crown stats. Instead, progress was slow. Kenny landed at ESPN in 1997 and quickly became a face of the network’s baseball and boxing coverage, but the industry still wasn’t ready to talk about sports the way he wanted to. Even on the Baseball Tonight shows he hosted, wins were valued currency and one-out sacrifice bunts were defensible strategy.
“At a certain point in my career, I couldn’t just keep saying, ‘That’s a good point’ and throw to break,” he says. “In the TV world that’s all that’s required of me, but I can’t live that way.”
By the time Kenny arrived at MLB Network in 2011, he had a reputation as a baseball wonk with a distinct view of the game. When he began suggesting ways the channel could improve its studio programming, his bosses asked if he’d like a show of his own, and he began hosting Clubhouse Confidential, an offseason program built around advanced stats. That, plus regular duties on MLB Tonight, kept him busy until 2013, when the network launched MLB Now, a year-round program Kenny attempted to tailor toward “the thinking fan.”
In its original conception, MLB Now called to mind the debate-centric talk shows that had found viewership (and criticism) on other networks. On most days, Kenny sat across from the proudly old-school Harold Reynolds and bantered about subjects on which the two had little common ground. In one memorable segment, Kenny brought up win-expectancy tables in arguing against Carlos Beltran’s decision to bunt the prior day, leading Reynolds to counter that he knew bunts were valuable simply from watching games each night. Kenny then pulled open his button-down to reveal a blue T-shirt bearing the words “STOP BUNTING.” Reynolds laughed nervously.
After one exhausting year of Kenny and Reynolds’ sniping, MLB Now adopted a new format, in which Kenny was joined by a rotating cast of analysts who ranged from former players to veteran writers to stat gurus to celebrity guests. The idea was, and remains, that everyone deserves a voice, even as Kenny ultimately gets the loudest one.
MLB Network coordinating producer Marty Montalto, who has worked with Kenny for years, says MLB Now’s arc mirrors that of the broader baseball world. The show’s high-pitched Kenny vs. Reynolds era, Montalto points out, coincided with apotheosis of the sport’s old school-new school debate, the controversial AL MVP race between WAR champion Mike Trout and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. In the years since, the producer says, MLB Now has changed along with the rest of the industry.
“Nobody’s yelling at each other anymore,” Montalto says. “It’s more just really interesting conversations going on every day with people from different backgrounds.”
Early in his MLB Network tenure, Kenny recalls, he sensed unease from former-player analysts not used to hosts sharing opinions — let alone such seemingly radical ones. But as Kenny’s colleagues got to know him, most began to appreciate his passion and his perspective. MLB Network personality and former big-leaguer Mark DeRosa says he enjoys working with Kenny, that Kenny’s stats (and willingness to wield them) keep him sharp.
“He’s taught me a lot about looking at the game differently,” DeRosa says. “You can’t just say something and not have number or reasoning to back it up.”
Kenny says his views have softened since his days sparring with Reynolds, that he has learned from his former-player colleagues and gained a greater appreciation for qualitative factors such as clubhouse chemistry and mental fortitude. But on the day of Tampa’s “Opener” announcement, it becomes clear he has lost little — if any — of his feistiness.
After delivering his peppy essay about the merits of the Rays’ plan and why similar maneuvers could soon sweep the league, Kenny plops alongside Girardi, Stark and former outfielder Chris Dickerson for an open discussion about the strategy. At first, Girardi seems receptive to the wisdom of an “Opener,” at least in select circumstances. But as Kenny beats back opposition from his panelists with pointed questions and quizzical expressions, the former manager turns against him, joining Stark and Dickerson in opposition. Over a nearly nine-minute segment, Kenny banters with Stark on process vs. results, pushes back against Girardi on the value of steady roles for relievers and shoots down Dickerson’s argument that “The Opener” strategy could leave the Rays’ bullpen in shambles. He entertains, even accepts, a point from Girardi about saving Romo for late-game situations, but soon after he stands up from his desk, lifts his hand to the sky and declares, in case anyone doubted, that “I love this idea, and I stand by it.”
— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) May 19, 2018
It’s hard to imagine many other studio hosts remaining so resolute in the face of three dissenting panelists, but as Kenny sees it, he has little choice.
“When you work with ex-professional athletes, there’s a lot of alpha-male going on,” Kenny says off-camera. “I learned that you need to get right back after them. That’s what they expect, that’s what they respect.
“Otherwise, you’ll just be shoved aside.”
Kenny views baseball’s culture war as serious business — as evidenced by the analogies he uses to describe it. Players are “foot soldiers,” who “can’t be expected to know strategy from a general’s point of view.” His crusade against old-school thinking constitutes the “fighting of the darkness.” When he really gets going, you wonder if he’s about to compare Chris Russo to Voldemort.
But as it turns out, being a devoted warrior for the righteous cause of sabermetric thought can be a good way to win detractors.
Kenny receives plenty of criticism, not only from saber-skeptics who prefer wins and RBIs to FIP and wRC+ but also from members of the analytics-oriented crowd he seeks to represent. In a scathing review of Kenny’s (generally well-received) 2016 book “Ahead of the Curve,” Baseball Prospectus wrote that Kenny “characterizes the sabermetric movement as wholly virtuous and falls into every old, lazy trap he himself decries,” adding that he “creates a new dogma with new unassailable figures and new (unquestioned) metrics.” Hang around Baseball Twitter for a while, and you’ll inevitably find fans who see Kenny as overly strident, who accuse him of rejecting nuance and who believe he’s stuck fighting yesterday’s war.
Kenny acknowledges that his Twitter persona leans combative (“I like to get people’s goat, I shoot things out to shock and awe”), but he resists the idea that he’s some know-it-all stat-nerd caricature. He says his desire to state (loudly) how right he is comes from years of being told (loudly) how wrong he was.
“Years ago, if you weren’t barking at it, pounding at it, you were getting swept away,” he says. “Someone who’s saying, Why is he so strident about this? It’s because I was getting punched in the face for so long.”
To some extent, the same bulldoggish qualities some viewers resent in Kenny are the ones that make him so compelling on television, where having the best argument doesn’t mean much if you can’t present it with gusto. No one doubts that Kenny believes what he says on air. When he suggests that baseball should abolish the error statistic or that Bernie Williams belongs in the Hall of Fame, it’s because he truly, deeply means it. But the host readily admits that his television persona represents a “heightened version” of himself, with an extra dose of made-for-TV pugnaciousness.
The medium shapes Kenny’s work in another way, as well, limiting just how deep into advanced statistics he can dive. On, say, FanGraphs, a writer can spend hundreds of words examining a subject from various angles, acknowledging counterarguments and embracing gray area. On MLB Now, there’s pressure to make a point quickly and clearly, before finicky viewers tune out or change the channel.
“You can’t put up a pie chart,” says Elliot Kalb, senior editorial director at MLB Network. “People are watching, sometimes they’re watching on a small device, sometimes they’re watching from the bar. There’s not that much space. With the real estate involved on the screen, you just can’t give the depth that FanGraphs does.”
Those who work on MLB Now realize that discussing advanced stats on television requires a delicate balance, centered on accessibility. Dig too deep and casual fans will drift off. Cut corners and statheads will rebel. There’s simply no pleasing everyone.
Ultimately, Kenny is too strong-willed and sure of himself to ever be universally loved — or even universally liked — the way some veteran studio hosts are. After all, Ernie Johnson and Rece Davis don’t tend to correct and dispute their colleagues’ arguments with the tenacity of a courtroom lawyer. But in watching Kenny on air and speaking with him off it, it becomes evident that being liked is not his priority. His priority is being right.
With the “Opener” conversation over, MLB Now moves on to less divisive subjects, such as how baseball can elicit more balls in play and what constitutes a hit vs. an error. Kenny nods along with his panelists and jokes with them during commercial breaks. But back at his desk after the show, he remains incredulous that none of them can see the Rays’ genius in starting Sergio Romo.
“They agreed with it, but there was something inside of all of them that was fighting it,” he says. “It was almost something unanswerable. That’s the power of our bias.”
The following night, Romo will silence the top of the Angels’ lineup in a one-two-three first inning. A day later, he will start again and retire five Los Angeles hitters without allowing a hit. Kenny will take a victory lap on Twitter and on his show, reminding anyone who will listen that he had conceived of “The Opener” years ago and even devoted a section to it in his book.
As Kenny says New York governor Mario Cuomo once told him, “If you don’t blow your own horn, sometimes there’s no music.”
The early success of the “Opener” will rank as a big victory for Kenny and all other analysts who have suggested it over the years, providing further evidence that the statheads have won the war for baseball’s strategic soul, that old-school convention is no match for logic, reason and data. But it will also beg the question, how much is left to fight for? Now that outsiders have become the insiders, is there still room for Kenny’s brand of righteous indignation?
For Kenny, that isn’t a question at all. In this moment, as adrenaline pumps following his just-completed show, it’s clear he has no plans to give up the battle. As long as some fans remain unconvinced, as long as some of his colleagues continue to push back, and as long as most TV productions choose old-school over new-school, he will always find something worth arguing about.