Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: Smart Baseball (2017)

By Keith Law

"Smart Baseball" is sort of like a college textbook, except for the fact that there aren't many classes in most universities on baseball analysis.

Translation: For the most part, it gets a bit more difficult to read as you go along.

Even so, you'll probably come out a bit smarter once you are done reading it.

Keith Law is the professor of sorts for the book, and he's well qualified to lead the discussion. Law is a former writer for Baseball Prospectus. He worked in the front office of the Blue Jays for a while - heck, he was the entire analytics department - before moving on to ESPN. Law's columns there have been smart and interesting.

In his first book, Law takes us through the revolution in baseball statistics. If you've been paying attention for the last several years, you know that all sorts of different numbers are now "out there." Suddenly such terms of "spin rate" and "launch velocity" are popping up on television broadcasts.

This book is divided into three sections. Part One is going to be the most interesting for most readers. Here Law goes through some common statistics that pop up in baseball, and shows why they aren't too useful. Batting average doesn't account for walks, pitching wins has too many external factors influencing them, saves hardly tell the story of relief pitching, fielding percentage scratches at the surface of telling how good a particular player is, and RBIs are skewed toward good teams because they generate more opportunities (in other words, a good player on a bad team won't drive home many runners, because there are fewer runners to drive in). It's all very logical and well done.

From there, we move into the new wave of baseball numbers, relatively speaking. On-base percentage has been around for quite a while, but no one seemed to pay attention to it until, oh, maybe 15-20 years ago. From there, we get into such numbers as slugging percentage and OPS, Fielding Independent Pitching and Win Probability Added, and UZR/dRS fielding ratings. I'm not going to tell you I understood some of them too well, because I didn't.

Luckily, things get a little easier in Part Three. Law looks at Hall of Fame debates through the new numbers, tells what a scout does in this new age, and opens a door to a vast data-collection project in Major League Baseball that will be a huge tool for further analysis. You'll come away thinking, why is Jack Morris on the inside of the Hall of Fame and Lou Whitaker on the outside?

Law is a good teacher, and he explains this stuff well. Still, it's easy to wonder if we've gotten to the point where we're leaving some people behind. Some of these statistical tools are great for evaluation over the long haul, and teams can use them to try improve their rosters. But fielding zone ratings aren't going to pop up on scoreboards during your next visit to the baseball park. Yes, the game can be enjoyed at all sorts of levels, but sometimes the discussions here can be more centered on the long term than short term. If I'm watching a game featuring a starting pitcher with an ERA of 3.00, I have a rough idea that he's pretty good. The team may want more information than that, but I'm quite satisfied with that much data while I'm having a hot dog and drink.

The Revolution really is here, and "Smart Baseball" will help you understand what's happening. But if you prefer to stay "blissfully ignorant" of the new statistical tools used at the game's highest level, that's fine too - there's room enough for everyone. And it's not like batting average and RBIs will disappear anytime soon.

Four stars

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: The Immaculate Inning (2018)

By Joe Cox

"The Immaculate Inning" as a concept is something that seems relatively new in baseball, at least by that name. It happens when a pitcher throws nine strikes and no balls in an inning, meaning that no fielder even touched the ball during the course of sending the batting team down in order. I'm not sure I heard the term used in this way until a few years ago.

Now it's fairly common when it happens, which isn't too often. Maybe the book, "The Immaculate Inning" will help give it a bit of a boost in popularity.

Author Joe Cox essentially has written a book of lists without the actual lists. He has compiled some achievements that take place in a given game, season or career that are not quite unique but very unusual. It's something of  a crash course on the personal side of the game, since the feats are done by players and not teams.

Having perhaps confused you with those last couple of sentences, let's explain the format of the book. Cox has picked out 30 different items for examination. They include such items as 20 strikeouts in a game, hitting for the cycle, "super slams" (walk-off grand slam homers when down three runs), Triple Crowns as a batter or pitcher, 30-game winners, 50-save seasons, etc. Most of the choices are solid enough, although I could have done without "Position Players Pitching" (uncountable at this point) and "Surviving Shenanigans to Win a League Batting Title" (a little arbitrary concerning the definition of shenanigans).

Let's take 50-homer seasons as an example. The text has how many times it has beendone in baseball history (45 through 2017), the most recent time (Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge last year), standout and surprise names on the list, and the chances of additions in the future (in this case, quite good considering the homer-happy environment). Then Cox tells the personal stories of those on the list, usually in about four or so sections. In this case, we have Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, Cecil and Prince Fielder, and Stanton and Judge.

Based on the back of the book, there's little doubt that Cox did his homework here. He went through a lot of books, websites, newspapers, etc. to collect information for this book. Cox definitely gets major points for that. He even interviewed a half-dozen players about their achievement; too bad some of the 19th century performers weren't around to comment.

OK, does this all work? That I'm not so sure about.

It's a difficult assignment to make some of this material interesting. There's some play-by-play of games from long ago, and it's easy to get the idea of what happened pretty quickly. The life stories of well-known players are rather well-known so it's tough to be drawn in, although some new tidbits for some may emerge along the way there. For example, I had no idea that Ken Griffey Jr. tried to commit suicide as a teen by swallowing a couple of hundred aspirin tablets.

It's also a surprise that each category doesn't have a full list of those who are in "the club" at the end of each chapter. Some lists would be a little lengthy, but it would have helped to see all the names in most cases.

"The Immaculate Inning," then is a tough needle to thread. Readers need a strong interest in baseball to even pick it up, but those same readers might not learn that much along the way. Those who are in the sweet spot will learn some historical background on the game, but their numbers won't be great.

Two stars

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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review: The Arena (2017)

By Rafi Kohan

Arenas and stadiums fill an interesting role in our society. They bring people with a common interest together. What else does that?

What's more, when people walk through the gates, they anticipate having a good time. It might be a sporting event, or a concert, or some other function, but there's always a chance they'll have a memory that will last for a lifetime.

Rafi Kohan decided to take a good-sized look at the subject - and perhaps he discovered along the way just how good-sized a book like this needed to be. He explores a variety of issues dealing with our arenas and stadiums in "The Arena," and does it with a good combination of smarts and good humor.

Obviously, some of the subjects could have been turned into books on their own. The most obvious in that category is what's involved in building the arena or stadium in the first place. Hundreds of millions of dollars go into construction of our sports palaces, and quite a bit of comes from public sources.

Is it a good investment? Economists and certain activists will tell you no, that it doesn't generate that much money for those who could use it - instead benefiting owners and players, who are usually doing pretty well as it is. Maybe that money should be going to where it is needed more, or where it might have a larger direct impact. You can do a lot with a billion dollars. On the other hand, such facilities do improve the quality of life in a particular area, and serve as free advertising for a community. That can help lure new people and industries to town. We do need and enjoy our gathering places.

After getting through the areas of building new structures and maintaining old ones (Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wrigley Field in Chicago), Kohan moves on to a variety of related subjects. Some work better than others. The ticket-scalping business has changed over the years, as their resale has become legal and in some cases encouraged if done through approved sources. The story is a little on the confusing side. The Superdome's role in Hurricane Katrina is quite a tale, as you probably know, but it's tough to say if it fits into this book smoothly.

But about a third of the way through, Kohan moves into areas that are more suited for this format. What's involved with maintaining fields in baseball and football? What do teams do about bad fan behavior? What did the Jerry Sandusky scandal do to the bonds that tied Penn State fans together? What's involved in trying to make sure that fans have fun at a game, win or lose? What's involved in keeping the place tidy, or changing it around from event (hockey game) to concert hall?

The last two chapters are particularly thought-provoking. Our professional sports teams have embraced the military in recent years, with reunions and introductions and discounts, and so forth. The armed forces are popular, and teams no doubt think it is good to link themselves with patriotism. But there are many forms of patriotism and service to the country, and those other versions are usually ignored at our games. Kohan doesn't spent long on this area, but you'll certain think about it the next time there is a brief ceremony at your next game.

The author concludes with a visit to the Silverdome, which hosted many events including the Super Bowl during its relatively short lifespan. Eventually it was allowed to sit and crumble, becoming a symbol for the issues of decay that struck parts of the Midwest in recent years. But every city faces such decisions concerning our public facilities, and the sports versions' span of usefulness seems to be shrinking by the day. I might have been tempted to open the book with the story of the Cowboys' stadium and end it with the Silverdome, if only because the contrast would be so dramatic. But, that's just me.

As a book, "The Arena" is not going to be for every taste. The first part takes some concentration to read, and the chapters are long. But it gains momentum from there, and became a good look at some areas that don't get much examination on a regular basis. If you spend more than a couple of times a year in such facilities, you'll enjoy this.

Four stars

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