Bill Ripken Discusses His 'Old School Guide to New School Baseball'

We talk to Ripken about his new book, 'State of Play.'

What motivated you to write this book?
I felt the conversation about “new school” metrics and numbers in baseball over the last few years got to the point where people were just assuming “old school” guys threw the bats and balls out on the field with no plan. But old school guys have always used numbers and information to come up with a plan to play. I think over these past few years that kind of has either been lost in translation or just assumed it was never the case because there’s so much talk about the new school and all their metrics, information, and numbers.

How much of the inspiration for this book came from how you and Cal grew up learning baseball from your “old-school” dad? Is part of this personal to you, that maybe some of the “old” concepts are being almost forgotten?
Forgotten, overlooked…yeah. First of all, most things that I got in the baseball world kind of went through my father. I’ve been able to take what I did in my career and go up to the MLB Network, where I’ve been for 11 seasons now. I see and do things, but to me it still reverts back to dad. Dad used to say, “You hit it, pitch it, catch it better than the other team and you win.”

When we watch a game today, I don’t think the game has necessarily changed that much. But a lot of the banter surrounding it has changed a lot. I have friends who ask me what a lot the terms they hear on TV mean [like launch angle and spin rate], so that’s why I’ve made a guide. But when you hit it, pitch it, catch it better than the other team, you still win. And that’s held true ever since the game started.

What was your writing process like?
I got an iPad Pro and I just started typing notes. Then I contacted one of my guys up at the network, Moses Messina, who was a researcher and is now a producer, and I started bouncing things off him. I sent notes in an email to him, he sent them back in a chapter format. I’d print the pages and marked in red pen where I needed to make improvements. It was quite the process, but it gave me an awful lot of time to go through things multiple times.

I have to say, to have all the “new school” terms explained in plain English in this book is great. I think a lot of fans hear all these terms like “launch angle” on TV and radio and wonder what they mean.
Babe Ruth had a launch angle. It’s not like this was invented. What was invented was the way to measure it. But when we say launch angle, right away people assume it’s an uppercut swing, which is not the case. Everybody wants to use launch angle as a phrase because it sounds cool, but it’s nothing more than the ball coming off the bat. Anybody who’s ever hit a baseball has a launch angle. It’s contact and what the ball does when it comes off the bat.

The other terminologies that just drive me crazy are when someone on the TV will say, “He worked on his launch angle in the offseason.” Well did he? Because the launch angle is a result. He may have worked on his swing in the offseason, top hand, bottom hand, but you can’t work on a result. You work on your swing, not the launch angle.

Who is the audience for this book? Baseball fans? Youth coaches?
I didn’t really go that far, but I called it the “Old School Guide to New School Baseball” because it is more of a guide. It was my initial thought for anybody watching the game, listening to the game, or anybody who hears a term that might not register. Hopefully I’ve addressed it in the book, and if I can educate a few people along the way as far as what some of these things actually mean and what they do, then I did what I set out to do.

You used the Houston Astros in a few examples in the book, which was obviously written before the sign-stealing scandal broke out. Video sign-stealing is not part of what anybody wants in the new school, right?
I don’t think that belongs anywhere in the old or the new. That was a situation where clearly some people went overboard and crossed the line of what you can and cannot do in sports. The way the conversation has swirled over the past few months, everybody’s on the same page with that. That one doesn’t belong to either school. That was in a situation where somebody or some group decided that they didn’t want to adhere by any rules that were set out there, and they decided to go a little bit rogue.

How do you think the situation ends up? What would you like to see? Baseball seemed like they thought it would kind of pass over, but it seems to not be the case now [in late February].
Over time things go away. I think that’s a realization, but also, we’re still sitting on the back end of the Boston Red Sox investigation going on for what they may or may not have done in 2018. Everything will end up ultimately in a better place for baseball because once these two investigations have concluded and everything’s been talked about, that will give the MLB the area to then rewrite some rules or write some new rules moving forward. And I’m pretty sure they’re going to put things in place that are going to be very detrimental to anybody that wants to overstep the bounds in some of these ways moving forward. Ultimately, I think baseball’s going to be better for this.

About halfway through the book, you write something like, “I’ve been screaming at kids to get off my lawn for the first 14 chapters,” a funny line. I’m bringing it up because you’re an old school person, but are you saying that you’re open-minded to new school ideas?
Here’s what I’m open to: I’m open for information and knowledge. I’m not open for the idea of absolutes and numbers to try to quantify things in certain ways that are being done. If you want to give me all the information you possibly have, I’ll be glad to take that in as a baseball person and a member of the old school and I will use what will make me better. And if I was a manager of a team, I would use what would make my team better. But I would hope on the other side of it, if I was a manager of a team, you would respect the fact that I said, “OK, I don’t want this. I don’t need this because it doesn’t fit in.” I would hope you would respect the fact that I know through my experiences, this is just not going to work.

If you’re outside-of-the-box thinking will make me better with my inside-of-the-box thinking, the inside of my box will grow. I guarantee it. But you have to respect the fact that if I don’t want to use it, I’m not being rigid, I’m not being unable or unwilling to conform to the new thought process. I’m just kind of understanding what these numbers are that you just gave me and they don’t work in my world of baseball so I’m not going to use them.

What percentage of teams would you say have a manager who’s really functioning through the front office during games. In your opinion, is that something that happens too much?
I think, to a degree, all managers should operate through the front office within reason. That should go on. There should be a 50-50 thing going on between manager and front office. Now, where it changes is, I think at 7:05 [the start of a game] the 50 percent that the front office is involved in should go away and the manager takes all 100 percent through the game because he has all the information.

What are your thoughts on the Orioles’ rebuild so far?
I think they’re all smart guys. I think they were a part of a Houston Astros that did some things a little bit different. But I also say throughout the book that the 2017 Astros team, which is a little bit in question as far as what we’ve learned now, they weren’t built anything different than the ‘96 Yankees. Or the Atlanta Braves that made it multiple World Series, or the San Francisco Giants that won a few, or the Boston Red Sox, who went to a couple World Series with their core players.

They were built through the draft and through development of players and I think you could argue that the core of the Astro team was probably better that some of the cores that I just talked about from other teams. And all this is laid out in the book as far as you know, who the players are and what they did.

So when you come here to Baltimore and you’re inheriting a team that’s lost a bunch of games, the first step was last June with the 1-1 [first overall draft pick], Adley Rutschman. You have a pillar there for a possible foundation moving forward. Your other draft picks may set you up to be in that situation to have a core that you can then build around.

A guy like Orioles general manager Mike Elias comes from a scouting background. That’s how he started, and he was a college pitcher. While assistant GM Sig Mejdal is more of the numbers guy. Is that a good way to go about things, blending somebody providing this “new school” information and somebody else from a more traditional scouting background?
Whether it’s the GM and field manager, or GM and the assistant GM and everybody else through the front office, the collaboration has to ring true. I believe Mike Elias was one who was responsible for taking Carlos Correa the draft for the Astros’ if I’m not mistaken. So like I was talking about with Adley Rutschman, that’s your basis to build around. If you can find the dude in the middle of the diamond and you can bring him into an organization, and he’s going to be with you for a while and he’s going to be a pillar. That’s your head start on everything else.