BOOK REVIEW: “Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution”, by Brian Kenny

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.

Continuum Classic: The clever baseball reference in the “Parks and Recreation” book

In honor of last night’s excellent finale to Parks and Recreation, a classic post from September 19, 2013, on the clever baseball reference in the Parks and Recreation book:

 

In 2009, Parks and Recreation first aired. A spiritual spin-off (but not an actual spin-off) of The Office, it follows the life of the Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and the rest of the staff of the Parks and Recreation Department in the fictional, Springfield-like city of Pawnee, Indiana.

In 2011, Knope released a book on Pawnee in the show, entitled Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America. NBC released the book in the real world.

In 2013, as part of a Netflix/Hulu binge to get caught up on Parks and Recreation before the next season starts, I also read Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America. I got it from the library (thankfully, my local library is not run by Ron Swanson’s second ex-wife Tammi). In doing so, I was able to catch a clever baseball reference in it during a section on Pawnee’s school board- which is filled with people who have lots of A’s at the start of their names in order to be at the top of the ballot, helping them win simply through the laziness of the voters of Pawnee. I’ve put the page up below the jump*, can you spot it?

*(Please don’t sue me, NBC!) Continue reading

The clever baseball reference in the “Parks and Recreation” book

In 2009, Parks and Recreation first aired. A spiritual spin-off (but not an actual spin-off) of The Office, it follows the life of the Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and the rest of the staff of the Parks and Recreation Department in the fictional, Springfield-like city of Pawnee, Indiana.

In 2011, Knope released a book on Pawnee in the show, entitled Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America. NBC released the book in the real world.

In 2013, as part of a Netflix/Hulu binge to get caught up on Parks and Recreation before the next season starts, I also read Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America. I got it from the library (thankfully, my local library is not run by Ron Swanson’s second ex-wife Tammi). In doing so, I was able to catch a clever baseball reference in it during a section on Pawnee’s school board- which is filled with people who have lots of A’s at the start of their names in order to be at the top of the ballot, helping them win simply through the laziness of the voters of Pawnee. I’ve put the page up below the jump*, can you spot it?

*(Please don’t sue me, NBC!)

Continue reading

A Quick Book Review: “Cellar Dwellers” by Jonathan Weeks

So, I finally broke down and started reading eBooks. I dunno how I’ll do with it, since I so much like the feel of the paper page and reading things on a computer always seems to lead me to getting distracted a lot, but, hey, it’ll let me read some books I otherwise wouldn’t have read, such as this one: Cellar Dwellers, by Jonathan Weeks

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As the name suggests, this book is about the crummiest teams in baseball history, ranging from the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys to the 2003 Tigers. Each chapters is about a team, and gives some background on how the team became so crummy, some bright spots (for example, a 21-year-old Walter Johnson went 13-25 on the 1909 Senators despite a 2.22 ERA) and particularly bad players, while also spreading in some color about how baseball was at the time.

Overall, it’s a good breezy read, full of little anecdotes (some of which may be apocryphal, given old-time baseball writers love of exaggeration) and horrific statistics that further show how bad some of the teams covered were. There is even a bit at the end that features “dishonorable mentions”.

However, there are some sins of omission, with some of my favorite stories or bad teams not making the cut. For example, Weeks does not include Eddie Kolb of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who was a clerk and semi-pro player who was hired from a local tobacco shop to pitch the final game of the season. Seriously, that really happened, and I was kind of disappointed it wasn’t included.

That is a small quibble, however. Overall, while hardly a groundbreaking work by any means, I’d recommend Cellar Dwellers to anybody looking for a quick read about bad teams.

This book was reviewed using an eBook from my local library’s website.

Now available for purchase: Joe Connor’s “World in a Ballpark”

The Baseball Continuum is proud to offer for purchase the World Baseball Classic guide, World in a Ballpark: Baseball Goes Global, written by published international baseball writer Joe Connor. Connor is a world-traveling freelance writer who has written about baseball in more than 30 countries. His work has appeared on ESPN.com, NBCSports.com, MLB.com and other respected outlets. Connor has, since 2001, written a series of travel guides about baseball on many topics, including international baseball such as the World Baseball Classic and the Caribbean Series. World in a Ballpark focuses on baseball in countries all around the world, including all 16 participants in the 2013 WBC. It is available for purchase below.

World in a Ballpark: Baseball Goes Global

A 275-page guide detailing what’s happening on the ground across the globe, with scouting reports on the growth of baseball across six continents and in more than 100 countries. $24.99, PDF file will be e-mailed to you.

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The guide is also available for purchase on the “Joe Connor’s WBC Guide” tab at the top of the page.