I’m incredibly pleased to present the first of what I hope to be many enjoyable interviews as a TYA columnist, as I recently had an opportunity to chat with Yankee beat writer Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. Bryan does an excellent job covering the Bombers at both the mothership Yankees.com and Bombersbeat.mlblogs.com, and in my opinion, has become one of the more recognizable faces in mainstream Yankee reporting. Before we dive into the conversation, I’d like to give Bryan a huge, huge thank-you for graciously sharing some of his time with me and providing TYA’s devoted readership with that much more quality Yankee-related discussion.
Matt Warden: Okay, I have to ask. Did you grow up rooting for the Yankees? How did you end up becoming the official Yankee beat writer at Yankees.com, a job that countless fans would undoubtedly love kill to have?
Bryan Hoch: I have such a weird history with that, and sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. I do remember having a Don Mattingly poster on my wall as a kid, and it was a thrill to get to face Jesse Barfield at the Yankees’ Fantasy Camp a couple of years ago. That said, after the strike in ’94, I lost interest in baseball for a couple of years. I actually started watching the Mets more in ’96, wanting to see how the Generation K kids — Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson — turned out. Good timing, huh? Going through school in the New York suburbs wearing a Mets cap in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 wasn’t exactly ideal. I paid for it, big time. Once I lost a bet on the Subway Series (regular season) and had to go to my morning classes wearing one of those plastic Yankees helmets. I looked like John Olerud.
As for the job, it was a lot of work and some fortunate timing. I did a lot of Internet writing from 1996 to 2002 (do a Google search for MetsOnline.net and you’ll get the full story), and continued that through college with a variety of publications and outlets. Basically, once I got my foot in the door, I wasn’t going to give it up. I knew I wanted to write baseball, somehow, some way. Around ’04 I was able to start freelancing for MLB.com, covering the Mets and Yankees for their home games as a backup, and I got word during the Winter Meetings in ’06 that the Yankees beat might be coming open soon. I made sure everyone who was in a position to make a decision knew I wanted it, and it all worked out. I accepted the job even before they could tell me what it paid.
MW: So, who are some of your favorite fellow beat writers? Why?
BH: It’s a good thing we’re all friendly, for the most part, because I honestly spend more time with these guys than I do my own family — and it’s not even close. We’re together so many days out of the year that it would be ugly if we weren’t at least cordial — now, that’s not to say we won’t crush each other with a story if given the chance, but at least it makes for a pleasant work environment. I don’t want to name names, but it’s not really necessary anyway: they’re all here for a reason, because they’re good at what they do. And they’re good guys too, which is a bonus.
MW: How do you feel about baseball’s statistical revolution? We understand that you of course write for a very wide audience, and not every fan is a sabermetrician but as fans grow increasingly educated about advanced statistics, do you find yourself looking to incorporate more advanced statistical analysis into your writing?
BH: I want to, I need to. You’re right in that the audience is wide — every time my inbox pings, it’s like the lottery. You go from fans who want to debate Jeter’s UZR or something to fans who think Johnny Damon is still on the roster. I think that over the next few years (5? 10? 20?) you’ll be seeing more sabermetrics in mainstream coverage, but I don’t know how long it will take for the masses to accept it. Considering how many eyeballs are on the copy, I do try to sprinkle those stats in when it makes sense, but I’m also careful to explain it. One trick I’ll use is to write a story as though my mom is going to read it; if I can see her getting confused by it, then there’d probably better be a sentence in there saying what this is all about. The numbers we all used to go by on the back of baseball cards are comfortable, they feel right, but there are definitely better ways to evaluate players than batting average and wins-losses.
MW: Do you ever find stories on Yankee blogs? And if so, do they ever influence your opinions or the topics you decide to write about?
BH: I definitely read many Yankees blogs during the day — I think it’s great to be able to see things from a different perspective than the one we get here every day. I think it’s important to keep up with everything Yankees that’s out there, and that includes fan blogs, message boards, and Twitter. You never know where the next story might come from!
MW: How does covering a team affect the way you feel about them? While you have to remain objective, presumably you wouldn’t want to cover the team if you didn’t also like them. Do you find yourself rooting for the Yankees to win, or are you ultimately rooting for a good story?
BH: Yeah, you can’t do the job that way. I always find myself explaining the job to people, and even some of my oldest friends don’t completely get it. I’m not rooting for the Yankees, I’m not rooting against them. They win, I go home. They lose, I go home. It doesn’t change my day, it just changes the stories you read. It’s like being an umpire; my job is to be impartial but accurately describe everything that’s going on. I don’t play for the Yankees, I don’t work for them. That’s just reality.
You know, sometimes people will e-mail me and say, “I’d be great at that job, I’m the biggest Yankees fan ever.” That’s really not good enough. I always say, if you get into this, it should be more because you love to write, because you’re going to be doing a ton of it. Also, if you really are the “biggest Yankees fan ever,” then embrace that fan part of it; it’s fun. Keep on getting to the Stadium 15 minutes before first pitch, drinking a frosty beverage during the game, chasing autographs, yelling at the Red Sox or whoever from the stands — because you sure aren’t going to be doing it from this side of the fence. You’re going to spend a lot of time watching baseball, and that part of it is terrific. But they say there’s no cheering in the press box for a reason, and it’s true.
MW: Okay, time to shift gears a bit. Although this topic has been discussed ad nauseam, I’d be remiss not to ask your opinion anyway. What’s your take on the rotation? Can we step back from the ledge or is Yankee Universe in as dire of a situation as Sports Talk Radio would have us believe?
BH: That’s pretty funny — definitely step back from the ledge. I mean, there are a lot of question marks about the rotation, as you guys can see too. I think CC Sabathia is going to have a big year after getting in better shape, and Phil Hughes is following up on an 18-win season. Some of that was run support, but he could wind up having a better second half now that he’s been through that innings limit wall, so to speak. A.J. Burnett needs to be better, and he freely admits he was a mess last year, but maybe having a new voice in Larry Rothschild will help him. His motion looked cleaner the first time out, for whatever two innings of Grapefruit League ball is worth. After that, I think there’s no reason Ivan Nova can’t be a capable No. 4 starter at this point in his career, and you’re looking for one of the other guys — probably Freddy Garcia — to give you five or six good innings as the No. 5. He’d be a patchwork guy until something else comes along, or maybe you could make it the whole season with him. Maybe it doesn’t knock you out but I don’t see them losing 90 games, put it that way.
MW: Many of us here at TYA expect CC to opt out although that’s not to say he won’t stick with the Yankees afterward via a revised contract. Where do you see that saga heading?
BH: You’re probably right. Those clauses are in there for a reason, and it’ll be to CC’s advantage if he has another terrific year — say, 21 wins — and opts out. I do believe him when he says he loves it in New York and even though making $23 million a year would be plenty for you and I, if he earns a bigger deal, who can tell him not to go for it? He’s in a very rare, special position. If he has another year like last year, the Yankees will have no choice but to write him a big check.
MW: We’ve spent a lot of time covering the organization’s prospects and their relative value. Who in your eyes is likely to don pinstripes in the near future and contribute in a meaningful way? Who might find success elsewhere?
BH: This probably isn’t anything you haven’t already heard, but I could see Andrew Brackman making it to the big leagues at some point this year — be it as a starter or out of the bullpen — and the talk of spring training has been Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos, who won’t start the year in New York but may not be able to be kept down for long. Jesus Montero, if they hang on to him, should be their catcher of the future; I don’t see a problem with the Mike Piazza comparisons and he actually might wind up being a better catcher than Mike was. I don’t expect the Russell Martin era to be anything more than a transition. Austin Romine is probably ready to catch at the big league level right now but I’m not sure if he’ll get the chance. No real surprises in that group, and we could go into more detail about guys like David Phelps, Eduardo Nunez, Brandon Laird and others, just off the top of my head, but those are the guys I’d watch for in 2011 for sure.
BW: Interesting move all around, especially since it provided a window into the divide between Brian Cashman and some others. More interesting to me was that Cashman made no attempt to hide it and let everyone know the move wasn’t his. As far as baseball goes, I don’t really see why Soriano would have a problem pitching the eighth instead of the ninth, as long as Girardi doesn’t try to get four or five outs from him. It behooves him to have a big year so he has the power to opt out and see if there’s a closer’s job elsewhere — or, who knows, maybe he stays and becomes the next Yankees closer after Mo. To me, Joba is your sixth or seventh inning guy, and it’s up to him to prove he can still be more than that. Starting is still in the back of his mind although I don’t think the Yankees will ever give him that chance again.
MW: Yankee player most likely have a huge year is _____? Why?
BH: To me, Robinson Cano. I think we’ve only started to touch what this guy is going to be. I see a player who has made huge strides in just the last few years, and I’m not talking about statistics only, although there was properly some MVP talk about him last year. This is a player that Girardi had to take out of a game for not hustling back in 2008, and I don’t think you’ll see him make those mistakes again. His focus is sharper, his workouts have increased, he’s becoming a team leader and I only see big things ahead for him as long as he stays healthy. You could make a case he’s the best hitter in the Yankees’ lineup right now.
MW: Yankee player under the most pressure is _____? Why?
BH: All of them? I mean, it is the New York Yankees, pressure and pinstripes go together. But if I have to pick one, let’s go with A.J. Burnett. He knows what he means to this weakened rotation, and he didn’t come to New York to be embarrassed like he was last year. He’s supposed to be the No. 2 starter behind CC Sabathia and it’s time for him to reclaim that.
MW: How would you grade this past offseason (A, B, C, D)?
BH: Brian Cashman gives it an ‘incomplete,’ but since the semester is over, I don’t think he’d argue if I said D. They thumped their chests about how starting pitching was the focus and came away with non-roster invitations for guys like Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. It’s hard to view that as a success. Sure, they fell back and upgraded the bullpen by getting Soriano, but that wasn’t what they set out to do. In fairness, I can’t kill them for not getting Cliff Lee — they used the same playbook that worked with Sabathia, but if Lee really was intent on going to Philadelphia, what are you going to do? The way the Derek Jeter negotiations were handled, all around, also wasn’t ideal.
MW: Fair enough. So, who’s the favorite in the AL heading into the season then?
BH: Boston, sorry. Cashman himself agrees, but said that the Yankees have been the hunted before and come up short, so let them be the hunters and see if that works for them. The Red Sox look strong on paper, and no one would debate that. They had a heck of an offseason, but that doesn’t always translate to regular season results. What crushed them last year were injuries, so they’ll need to stay healthy.
MW: Yikes. Alright, well I suppose that’s as good of segue as any into my last question. Most importantly, will we be watching October baseball?
BH: Well, I’m not going to be booking any October vacations, let’s put it that way.
* * *
So there you have it folks! I hope you all enjoyed this interview as much as I did. As always, please feel free to leave your thoughts/questions in the comments section and I’ll be sure to pass them along to Bryan.
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