Interview with Juan C. Rodriguez

Now, the Maniac has definitely done his share of Q&A’s, especially with the fine folks that run the baseball blogs over here at FanSided. They’ve gone well for the most part, but hectic schedules being what they are, it got fairly difficult to do them on a regular basis before series, so I halted the idea temporarily.

Recently, however, I got a chance to get some questions answered by someone who does do interviews and other journalistic pursuits for a living, the Maniac’s favorite Marlins beat writer, Juan C. Rodriguez of the Sun-Sentinel! As most of the Marlins community knows, Juan not only writes for the Sun-Sentinel, but also pens a very popular blog about the Marlins for the paper as well. He was gracious enough to answer some of my questions about the business of beat writing, the Marlins, and a tad on stats and sabermetrics as well. Check it out!

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1. How did you get started in the business of sports journalism?

First off, I’d like to thank Michael for giving me the opportunity to contribute to his blog. As you all know, he provides great analysis of the Marlins using tools that for the most part we in the mainstream media either ignore completely or don’t employ to the maximum benefit.

As to how I got started in the business, it goes back – way back – to Coral Gables High School. They have a great student newspaper there that enabled me to meld my interests in both sports and writing. I was sports editor my junior and senior year, and continued pursuing the profession at the University of Minnesota. I did not major in journalism, but worked in the sports department of the student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, all four years I was there.

While in college I interned the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a year after graduation I landed in Melbourne at Florida Today. Back then, the Marlins had their spring training at Space Coast Stadium and Florida Today had a full-time, traveling writer on the Marlins. I ended up on the Marlins beat in July 1997 and covered the team through the 1999 season.

From Florida Today I went to the Miami Herald, where I spent 3 ½ years but didn’t do a ton of baseball. When the beat writer job opened at the Sun Sentinel in 2002, I jumped at the opportunity and was fortunate enough to get the job. I’ve been covering the Marlins for the Sun Sentinel since then.

2. What kinds of special insights do you get as a beat writer that we as readers or even bloggers like myself would not have access to? Anything interesting about the Marlins that only a beat writer would know that you can share with us?

Not too long ago I finished Joe Torre’s book, The Yankee Years. Torre recalled a conversation with Brian Cashman about sabermetrics and how to use that data. One thing Torre told Cashman was not to forget the team has a heartbeat. As a beat writer that spends countless hours with the players in the clubhouse, watching them take batting practice, observing how they interact with each other and the coaches, I get a good sense of that heartbeat.

Incidents like the blow up between Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla earlier this season generally don’t play out in front of the press. We rarely get to see stuff that blatant, but if you pay attention you figure out the clubhouse dynamic and it’s my belief that often translates to success on the field. I’m a big believer in team chemistry and having the access we do gives us great insight as to the health of that chemistry.

I’ll share this story with you from the last weekend in Philadelphia. On Saturday night the Marlins had their rookie hazing. Generally, players only have to dress up once, but the senior members of the Marlins decided to hit most of the young players. The repeat guys were all good sports, but Emilio Bonifacio wanted no part of it. He bolted out of the clubhouse without putting on his costume. Several players were visibly upset. I asked Boni about it the next day just to satisfy my curiosity more than anything and he said he’d already dressed up with both the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Does that explain his inability to get on base? Of course not, but those kinds of things in the long run can affect team chemistry.

3. Obviously, you have a pretty popular blog among South Floridians and other Marlins fans. What are your thoughts on the Internet media like blogs and social news sites like BallHype?

I don’t know how popular it is, but yes, Marlins fans have engaged in some spirited discussions in that forum. To be honest, I was a little slow to embrace blogs. I don’t spend a lot of time reading them, and once it became apparent we needed to have one, I wasn’t sure about the ultimate goal. Was it my responsibility to spur conversation on a Marlins topic du jour? Did I need to have a “take” like a columnist, which as a beat writer is difficult and isn’t really my job. Was I supposed to break news on the blog? I’m still not sure I have it right. I dipped my toe into live game blogging late this season. The dozen or so regular contributors fantastic, but I couldn’t justify keeping it going with the poor numbers.

The bloggers I don’t enjoy are the talk-radio types that are observing from a distance and throw out uneducated opinions about the subject matter. Is there a place for that? Absolutely. Those types of blogs can be useful from the standpoint of taking the pulse of the fan base, but I prefer forums like Michael’s. He brings an expertise and insight that goes beyond the “fire Fredi Gonzalez for bringing in Renyel Pinto” stuff.

If anybody would like to chime in with what they want in Sun Sentinel’s Marlins blog, I’m certainly open to suggestions.

4. Nowadays blogs and other Internet sources are overwhelmingly numerous, and they have the advantage of instantaneous (theoretically) gratification over print media. What can print media like newspapers have to offer that keeps them their own separate medium? Will these two different sources merge to create some new conglomerate, or will they be able to coexist with their own advantages and disadvantages?

The sad fact is the newspaper audience does not get as comprehensive a coverage as our Internet readers do. Newspapers still exist because of the advertising revenue they generate, but several factors have led to the deterioration of everything around those ads.

As you all can probably tell, the newspaper itself is considerably thinner. I simply don’t have the space any more to say everything I want to about a specific game. What often happens is I’ll submit 350 words for the newspaper and 580 words for the website. Time is a big problem as well. Our deadlines have gotten earlier. Many nights our newspaper readers will get a game story sans quotes. I have to file my first story at 10:30. When the game ends after 10, I’m up the creek. Obviously, I don’t have those time constraints for the web.

I don’t think newspapers will go away entirely, but at the Sun Sentinel and everywhere else, we’re devoting more resources to providing thorough coverage online.

5. All right, now onto the Marlins. What are your impressions about them now that the season is over?

If I’m not mistaken, I picked them to finish 82-80, not because I thought their starting pitching wouldn’t hold up but because I thought they had too many question marks in the lineup. Turns out the Marlins had a fantastic offensive season and the rotation struggled. I would never have dreamed three-fifths of the season opening rotation would have to spend time in the minors because of performance issues. Not to blame one guy, but Ricky Nolasco’s first nine starts were mind-boggling. I thought the Marlins might have an 18-game winner on their hands based on how he finished 2008, and I still think he has that in him. They were careful with Josh Johnson in his first full season after Tommy John, a little too careful at times I thought. Hopefully next season the Marlins will let the reigns loose on some of these guys and we’ll see them get to 115-120 pitches more regularly. The bullpen was a nice surprise. The Marlins have had plenty of success through the years dumpster diving for relievers and this season was no different with guys like Kiko Calero and Dan Meyer. By season’s end the workload no question affected their pen’s productivity. Offensively, I thought they team as a whole had a nice season. They didn’t rely on the home run ball as much and the run production didn’t suffer as a result. The catching platoon worked out great from an offensive standpoint. Chris Coghlan was exceptional with the bat, although as Michael deftly pointed out in a recent blog he is not a left fielder. The defense was great at times, but they had some stretches early and late when it sucked.

6. You and I had a little tiff initially about our thoughts on Emilio Bonifacio, though we both essentially agree. I thought you were too light on him, and you thought I was too harsh on your writing about him. What are your thoughts about him and what the team wants to do with him in the future?

Great question. A lot depends on who comes back. Dan Uggla is gone, so maybe Boni gets a crack at the everyday second baseman job. President of Baseball Ops Larry Beinfest said at his season wrap-up he thinks Boni can still be an everyday guy. Don’t shoot the messenger!

Boni’s best position is second and they could decide to keep Chris Coghlan in left, which I think is a mistake. If Jorge Cantu comes back I see him at third, even though he is much better at first. My feeling is Logan Morrison or Gaby Sanchez is the Opening Day first baseman in 2010, though the Marlins ultimately could put Morrison in left. If Cantu departs, I don’t get the sense the Marlins want to put Coghlan at third. Yet we all know how it went for Boni at third. For a guy billed as a “slick fielder” I was surprised at how poorly Boni was defensively, not only at third but he didn’t dazzle me anywhere else on the diamond either.

Short answer, I have no idea. A few thoughts on Boni…I do like his skill set and think he will improve. Maybe his ultimate fate is an Alfredo Amezaga-type super utility guy, even though Boni can’t play short anywhere near as well as Amezaga.

Going back to that “heartbeat” concept, seeing Boni struggle day in and day out I never got the feeling he was getting buried mentally. That was not the case with Cameron Maybin, which is why he got sent down and Boni remained in the lineup as long as he did. Plus, it seemed like Boni would do at least one thing a game that would give you hope he was getting it. Did that justify carrying a guy with one of the worst OPS among NL regulars? Probably not, but the Marlins didn’t have a ton of alternatives.

7. What’s the top priority for the Marlins front office this offseason?

More starting pitching depth. If the Marlins don’t get a young starter with decent upside when they move Uggla it would be a huge disappointment. This season exposed the Marlins’ thin organizational starting pitching. Granted, we would never have seen Jon Koronka and Graham Taylor if Rick VandenHurk and Ryan Tucker hadn’t gotten hurt, but Sean West was forced to the majors a year ahead of schedule and a lot of those first round pitching picks haven’t panned out, from Jeff Allison to Brett Sinkbeil to Jacob Marceaux. The Marlins turned Aaron Thompson into six weeks of Nick Johnson, but I don’t think Thompson will be an impact starter either. Their best starters at Double-A this season arguably was Cristhian Martinez.

8. It’s rare that beat writers use the saber-stats that bloggers of my type often cite, However, you’ve gotten a bit into the statistics craze, and I think that’s a pretty useful tool for all analysts to have. What’s the most fascinating thing you got from the sabermetric craze that you’ve found so far, and where would you like to go with it from here?

Sabermetrics are becoming more and more difficult to ignore, at least if you want to provide readers with comprehensive analysis. Take Ricky Nolasco. It’s easy to offer up the 9.07 ERA through nine starts as evidence he sucked, but any attempt to explain his struggles that omits his .330 something BABIP is lacking. That’s one reason I hope the Marlins don’t trade Nolasco. His luck is bound to change.

I’ve only scratched the surface in my coverage. I really haven’t hit things like WAR and VORP in large part because every time you use them you have to explain them. Same with things like weighted on-base percentage and equivalent ERA. I’m a big fan of Baseball Info Solutions and love the Bill James Handbook. Some of the other writers tease me about using BIS as much as I do. I’ll use John Dewan’s defense stats regularly and find that whole art of quantifying a player’s acumen with the glove fascinating. That said, I do believe your eyes tell you a lot about how good a guy is defensively as well. Every spring training I’ll do a story about baserunning and how the Marlins graded out in the handbook.

Again, my thanks to Michael for allowing me to contribute. I look forward to a continued dialogue about the Marlins this offseason and into 2010.

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Thanks again to Juan C. Rodriguez for the interview and the kind words on my blog. I’m trying my best to offer up good analysis on the Marlins, and I hope all of you are enjoying reading it as much as I am enjoying thinking it up and writing it. Now go check out JCR’s blog, he’s got the coaching staff questions covered.

Topics: Emilio Bonifacio, Juan C. Rodriguez, Miami Marlins, Ricky Nolasco

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