Note: I was provided an early review copy of the book by the publisher.
Anybody who has watched MLB Network (or ESPN before that) is likely familiar with Brian Kenny. And if you are familiar with Brian Kenny or any of the shows he hosts on MLB Network, you know that he is one of the biggest champions of new-school thinking at the network, often butting heads (in a friendly way) not only with ex-players and old-school writers, but sometimes even other new-school sabermetricians and thinkers who just aren’t as radical as he is.
His crusades and pet peeves are familiar to anyone who has seen his shows on MLB Network: the win needs to be killed as a statistic, the Triple Crown and batting title are overrated, the way that pitchers are used makes no sense for the modern game, and, of course, the sacrifice bunt is used way too damn much and statistically hurts your team’s chance of victory (he has the probability charts to prove it!). His book, Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, is about those… and more. It’s part history, part autobiography, part manifesto, and part behind-the-scenes peek, and it’s a good book that I’d recommend to people regardless of where they lie on the spectrum of baseball analysis.
The reason for this is because the book is not so much about the nitty-gritty parts of sabermetrics and new-school thinking, so much as it is about the why (both as to why the status quo has survived so long and why a change may be in order) and the how (as in, how sabermetric analysis has grown over the years). In essence, it’s a mixture of inertia, tradition, and the fear of failure (and, attached to that, the need to pass failure to others if something does go wrong). Tradition and inertia have slowed new ways of baseball analysis and strategy almost since the start of the game. For example, things like the win and error are relics of when pitchers went the entire game and gloves were either non-existent or bare-bones. However, since they were important in those early days, they stayed important as time has gone on. Even though everyone today knows that the win is a deeply flawed stat (at one point in the book Kenny recalls Clayton Kershaw saying it should be de-emphasized) and that the best fielder isn’t necessarily the one with the most errors but instead the one who gets to balls that others wouldn’t, baseball as we know it continues to emphasize them.
While such a topic could easily have tumbled into the written equivalent of rambling, Kenny keeps everything very organized and with a good flow. Each chapter covers one or two topics. One, for example, focuses entirely on the quest to “kill” the win. Another is about the flaws of the Save stat. Still others focus on things like the Hall of Fame, various MVP votes, bullpen usage, the Astros “Decision Sciences” division, and the like. Along the way, he weaves in pieces of his own history and experience. The usual suspects such as Billy Beane and Bill James all put in appearances, but so do some unexpected sources of baseball unorthodoxy… like Tommy Lasorda of all people, who agrees with Kenny’s assertion that many managers are afraid to try new things so that they can protect their jobs if something goes wrong, and points to his many Rookie of the Year winners as proof that success can come by not being afraid to go against the herd.
While I will admit I do not agree with all of his conclusions and assertions (the idea of having a closer serve as a starter to avoid the first inning jitters makes sense on paper given that the first inning is when the most runs are scored, but it makes me wonder if it would merely delay the first-inning runs into the second or third inning), it definitely provides a good look into the revolution that has hit baseball this century. So, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Brian Kenny’s Ahead of the Curve at your nearest bookstore, e-book store, or library.