Trucks, Rob. The
Catcher. 2005, Emmis Books.
Kaese, Harold.The Boston Braves. 2004, Northeastern University Press.
It is said that the greatest compliment for a written work may be that you are disappointed to finish reading it, and indeed this is the case with Rob Trucksí The Catcher. The Catcher, quite simply, is about catching. Catcher stories, catcher lore, catcher equipment, a fascinating day in the life of Rockies catcher Charles Johnson-catching is the story, told from Hall of Famers and lesser lights alike. Truly one of the most important positions on the diamond, catching gets its due here in a book that is truly far too short. It is hard to imagine what was cut from such a volume, as the book could be easily twice as long. Even given its abbreviated length, The Catcher is worth a look by any serious baseball fan.
Another, longer book that delivers on its promise is The Boston Braves. Written shortly after the teamís departure for Milwaukee, Harold Kaese writes of the teamís history in the colorful parlance of the era (the 1950s), describing every season in the life of the team. Focusing in great detail, of course, on the pennant and championship seasons of the 1890s, 1914, and 1948, Kaese also makes the drudgery of the dreadful seasons readable and interesting as well. The Boston Braves is an excellent team history, and serves as an excellent addition to a complete baseball library.
The Bad Guys Won. 2004, HarperCollins.
Gutkind, Lee. The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have To Stand! 1975, Dial Press.
It is said that sportswriters in the 1920s would watch Mrs. Babe Ruth chase her husband through the dining car of a train brandishing a steak knife without allowing their poker game to be interrupted. The thought of writing about such incidents clearly never crossed the mind of scribes of that era, as the tales have only emerged in recent years. Clearly such prohibitions, especially after Jim Boutonís epochal memoir Ball Four, have long since been extingushed. A new book about the 1986 World Champion New York Mets has emerged, nearly 20 years after the event, while a much older book deals with a less scandalous tale, the story of Doug Harveyís umpiring crew during the 1974 National League season.
The baseball fan scarcely thinks of umpires-like a bass player in a rock and roll band, they are necessary, but only noticed when absent or less than competent. Gutkindís book follows Harveyís men in blue through an otherwise unremarkable season as they deal with travel, injury, loneliness, and the pressure on the head of Art Williams, who was the National Leagueís first black umpire. Williamsí umpiring is suspect in the eyes of the other members of the unit, but his status leads to the idea that he will be treated differently than similar white umpires. This, along with some vulgar and sexual talk between the men in blue, makes The Best Seat in Baseball far from a mild work, but an interesting one even so.
There is no shortage of the vulgar in Pearlmanís The Bad Guys Won. Pearlman, who wrote the infamous article about Braves reliever John Rocker that helped (along with ineffective pitching) effectively end his career, writes of the Mets in all their brawling and boozing brilliance. The 1986 Mets featured two of the most maddening players of the modern era, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, whose vast reserves of talent were consumed in drug and alcohol abuse. The team also featured Bobby Ojeda, burning with thoughts of revenge, smooth Ron Darling, professional Keith Hernandez and ever cheerful Hall of Famer Gary Carter.
Pearlmanís book has baseball content, certainly-but the baseball almost forms a backdrop for the boozing, carousing, fighting on and off the playing field, and other misbehavior. There can be no doubt that many of these Mets were wild eyed troublemakers, as many of their sordid tales have been amply documented in other books, as well as in police records. But Pearlman, after pausing to recount game action, seems to throw in every half remembered anecdote that a player will furnish, regardless of their truthfulness. The reader has no way to tell, of course, but Pearlman seems to discard the journalistic duties of an earlier time in favor of mere collection of data without checking its veracity.
There is a fine line to be drawn, of course-mere recounts of games and boxscores would be dreadful to read. However, merely asserting that ďPlayer A told me this and Player B told me thatĒ leaves the reader no closer to the truth and the journalist open to manipulation by aged warriors looking to put a gloss on their public image. Nearly 40 years after its publication, Ball Four still stands up well, as Boutonís first person reportage of the baseball life makes other similar books look weak in comparison. Part of the reason for Boutonís success is simple-he writes what he knows to be true, and leaves speculation to others. More sports journalists would do well to follow that simple credo. --Michael Webb
3 Nights In August. Houghton Mifflin,
Felber, Bill. The Book on the Book. Thomas Dunne, 2005.
The sabermetric revolution can be said to begin with Bill James, who has probably done more than anyone to popularize the study of baseball statistics during his long writing career. With the 2004 triumph of the Boston Red Sox, with Bill James acting as an advisor, and the long term, low budget success of Billy Beane in Oakland, featured in Michael Lewisí Moneyball, the dispute about the value of sabermetrics would seem to be over.
But ESPN personalities, ascerbic newspaper columnists, and authors still carp about the new breed of baseball management. As Bissinger notes in his preface, ďIn the fallout of [Moneyball], baseball front offices are increasingly being populated by thirty-somethings whose most salient qualifications are MBA degrees and who come equipped with a clinical ruthlessness: [t]he skills of players donít even have to be observed but instead can be diagnosed by adept statistical analysis through a computer.Ē Despite the misunderstanding of sabermetrics expressed, the theme of these complaints is the same-these pointy headed math majors never played the game, so they donít know nothing.
The truth is that nothing about sabermetrics excludes scouting, coaching, and observation. Sabermetrics is nothing less than the systematic study of baseball statistics, period. As Felber neatly puts it in his own preface, ďThe limitation of much of statistical analysis-including much of what follows in this book-is that it is necessarily founded on that which can be measured. It must inevitably exclude from consideration that which cannot be measured but which exists notwithstanding.Ē Sabermetrics does not claim to know everything, but it does claim to attempt, rationally and systematically, to try to know something, instead of simply assuming something is true because it has always been believed, or because Ted Williams or Al Kaline said it was true. The part of analysis that seems to bother many former players is the notion that some fans will no longer take every word they utter as gospel truth.
ESPNís Joe Morgan is a great player, a Hall of Famer by any definition I can conceive of. He faced many of the best players of all time, and won World Series championships and played in All Star games, and has a world of experience I can never approach. All I posit, as a baseball fan and amateur sabermetrician, is that something is not true simply because Morgan, or John Kruk, or Rob Dibble, or even Bill James, says itís true. It is true if and only if it can be proven. The study of statistics, regardless of the brickbats hurled by critics, does not replace opinion, story, and anecdote-it adds to it, deepening the fanís knowledge and love of the game.
Current (as of this writing) Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is a perfect example of the proper mix of current knowledge and old school wisdom. One of the first managers to embrace computers and statistics, LaRussa has become one of the great managers of all time, winning a World Series crown with Oakland, and taking Chicago and St. Louis teams to the postseason as well. Bissinger and LaRussa chose a 3 game series at Busch Stadium between the Cubs and the Cardinals as the subject of their book, and what resulted is a marvelous retelling of the events of this August series during the 2003 pennant race.
Bissinger, as he did in his previous work , Friday Night Lights, writes engaging, hypnotic prose. The level of detail is just right-certain at bats are given detailed, pitch by pitch sequences, while others are dealt with more sketchily. As with Daniel Okrentís marvelous Nine Innings, the narrative of the game will pause to tell a detailed story about the frustrations of working with JD Drew or Kerry Robinson, or the reclamation project of Cal Eldred. Overall, despite misgivings about his view of baseball statistical study, Bissinger has penned a wonderful, completely readable book about games and players that is well worth the time.
Felberís book is one LaRussa might enjoy, a much more statistically based look at the game. While his credentials as a historian are beyond question, and the thought of a Rob Neyer/Bill James style look at the game caused me to pick up the book sight unseen, in the end, Felberís book winds up disappointing. He has insights about general managers that are interesting and unique, and his book is not without value, but he makes logical errors and misstatements that cloud many of his findings.
Early in his book, he mentions that he is going to use Pete Palmerís Batter/Fielder/Pitcher Wins as his player valuation tool, pausing to note the reasons why he does not use Bill Jamesí Win Shares. This decision, he explains in a few short paragraphs, is because, ďin Win Shares we have a system that uses as its foundation a sweeping and statistically unsupportable generalization about how to ration value, that argues against the significance of zero, and that recognizes Win Shares but not Loss Shares.Ē In short, he is wrong on all three counts.
First of all, as James explains neatly in his own book, Win Shares starts with the most statistically solid number of them all-team wins. James even admits that he uses the multiple of three Win Shares per Win because of its utility-it gets him where he wants to go. James never states that Win Shares is perfect, only that is better than what has gone before. Starting with team wins and dividing responsibilities for them is completely supportable-a team with 80 wins gets more Win Shares than a team with 60 wins because, well, they won more games!
James argues against the significance of zero for very sound reasons-as he so vociferously points out, value in baseball is not based on zero-value in baseball is based on being better than the best freely available talent. (To use Felberís example, Jeff Cirillo was pretty bad during his 2003 season-but he was still better than the alternative choices. If he werenít, Cirillo would have been out of a job.) As James points out in Win Shares, teams do not start a season with 81 wins, they start it at zero, and begin to add wins when they play well enough to earn them.
And James recognizes Loss Shares, but sees no way to calculate them. Felberís claim that ball games are lost as well as won may be true, but is entirely beside the point of Win Shares, which is about apportioning credit for wins. And as great teams prove, games may be given away by poor play, but the opponent still has to be good enough to take the win from them.
Felber uses examples in his Win Shares criticism, but they fall short of the mark. First, he identifies Jeff Cirillo and Willie Bloomquist of the 2003 Seattle Mariners. Cirillo played poorly at third for most of the season, and Bloomquist played slightly better for some of the rest. Felber complains that Cirillo and Bloomquist are identical in Win Shares, and that Manny Motaís fine part time performance in 1977 is underweighed by Jamesí system. Felberís criticisms miss the mark, however- because the whole point of Win Shares is to measure what happened. The fact is that Cirilloís performance was what it was-and Win Shares does not claim that Cirillo performed identically to Bloomquist in his career, or in 2002, or in any other way than their contributions to 2003 Mariners games. Yes, Bloomquist was slightly better in the games he played, but HE ONLY PLAYED IN THOSE GAMES. He didnít play in those games that Cirillo started. Perhaps he would have done better than Cirillo, perhaps not, but to attach extra value to Bloomquist because the numbers of his short stint are slightly better than Cirilloís is to invent value where none exists.
Similarly, Motaís short season in 1977 is marvelous-an OPS over 1.000 in 50 plate appearances. Marvelous, certainly, but Felber complains that Motaís season is weighed as equal to lesser lights such as Lance Rautzhan and Glenn Burke. To be sure, more people have heard of Manny Mota than have heard of Rautzhan or Burke. But Rautzhan pitched in 25 games in 1977, and Glenn Burke played in 83 games in 1977. Manny Mota played in 49 games in 1977, with 50 plate appearances. No matter how good Manny Mota was in those 50 plate appearances, they were only 50 plate appearances. Glenn Burke and Rautzhan had many more chances to affect Dodger games because of their greater number of chances at the plate or on the mound. To say that Mota had as much impact as they did on Dodger wins seems wrong, but is ultimately correct because of the paucity of chances Mota got. Would the Dodgers have won more with Mota playing more often? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But valuing Mota a great deal higher than Rautzhan or Burke is mistaking quantity and quality.
Someone had to play third base for Seattle, or the outfield for Los Angeles, 162 times in those seasons. The replacement for a Jeff Cirillo or a Glenn Burke if they are not playing is not no one-it is another player. Someone made Seattle win the games that they won in 2003, and it only makes sense to apportion the credit to those who played. Saying that Bloomquist or Mota should have played more is an interesting question-but itís not Win Shares. The fact is they didnít play, and Felberís criticism falls on deaf ears. Felberís book has much to recommend it-the section evaluating general managers particularly. And the shelf with these type of deep stat work on it is a small one. But his tenuous logic in places and faulty reasoning makes it, in the end, a frustrating read. One of the most important steps involved in growing a field like baseball research is being able to separate wheat from chaff. Allowing work like Felberís, with facile comparisons and throwaway logic, to stand unchallenged would make this task even tougher. --Michael Webb