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.

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(Blogathon ’16) The Author of @OldHossRadbourn: Three Catches

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

I would have enjoyed seeing Game 6 of the 1947 World Series.  It was yet another Dodgers/Yankees affair, when both the event and the outcome seemed inevitable.  It had been a hell of a Series, including a stunner in Game 4: the Yanks’ Bill Bevens pitched a ten-walk no-hitter into the ninth when, with two outs and two runners on in a 2-1 game, Cookie Lavagetto smacked a game-winning double to right — the last hit of his career! — that Tommy Henrich could not reach. Game to the Dodgers.

By Game 6 the Yanks were up 3 games to 2 with Allie Reynolds, in his first year in the Bronx, on the mound. He had nothing, and was done in the third.  Relief ace Joe Page also got lit, though the Yankees slowly crept back. Down 8-5 in the 6th, Joe DiMaggio came up to bat with 2 on and 2 out. He crushed Joe Hatten’s pitch to left center. Left fielder Al Gionfriddo raced toward the visitors’ bullpen, over 400 feet from home plate, and managed to jjuusstt make the catch. DiMaggio, sure he’d just lost at least a double, did something extremely rare: he showed emotion, and kicked a patch of dirt between first and second. Inning over.  The Yankees would go on to lose 8-6.

This catch has been on my mind after a recent bit of baseball reading.  What stands out after looking at three works — Roger Kahn’s The Era 1947-1957; David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49; and Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, — is how differently they portray this one catch, DiMaggio’s reaction, and the man himself.

I have mixed feelings about Kahn.  I’m the father of a special needs son, and reading his description in The Boys of Summer of Carl Erskine raising a “Mongoloid” is a nice reminder that, despite Kahn’s desire, the glory days of the past have no place in my present.  But, goddammit, the man can tell a story.  He describes the catch over several pages, focusing on Gionfriddo’s reaction, including (according to Gionfriddo) comments made by DiMaggio about the man who stole his hit: “…[he] never gave up and he made the greatest catch that anybody ever made in the whole history of baseball.”

It’s not hard to imagine DiMaggio, even then aware of his aura, describe the catch this way.  Only the greatest catch of all time denies the Yankee Clipper his glory.  DiMaggio would return to this topic years later: asked to evaluate Willie Mays’ catch off Vic Wertz in the ‘54 Series (a catch, one scribe noted, that would “have left any other park than the Polo Grounds, including Yellowstone”), DiMaggio invoked his past, telling Kahn “…Mays had plenty of room. Running back, all he had to worry about was the ball. On my drive, Gionfriddo had to worry about the ball and those iron gates. He had to worry about running out of room, about getting hurt. With all that, I say he made the greater catch.”

DiMaggio, as Kahn portrays him, is aware of his image, proud of it, and ceaselessly builds on it. Not so in Cramer, who describes the catch as follows:

As DiMaggio rounded first, he could see the outfielder Al Gionfriddo dancing a spirited tarantella — unsure where to run, which way to turn, how to get under the ball. Joe was digging for second base when Gionfriddo, in an act of God, stumbled under the ball, stuck his glove over the wire fence and — Cazzo! Figlio di putana! — stole the home run away from DiMaggio.

This . . . well, this is different.  It’s not a good catch.  It’s a lucky grab by a fool who stumbled to just the right place to become a part of history.  The tone here is also different.  Cramer’s DiMaggio is a miserable figure, aloof and alone, proud only of his legacy, and a prisoner of it.  After the game, in the locker room, came the following:

“The Catch” might not have burned Joe up, if Gionfriddo hadn’t been out of position, clueless in that outfield, and a busher in the first place . . . after the game, he didn’t answer questions, and told the photographers: no pictures. The next day, when one cameraman asked Joe to autograph a picture of that home run theft, DiMaggio snarled him away: “Whyn’cha get the other guy? He made the catch.”

Two takes, two tones.  There’s overlap, sure, but Cramer’s DiMaggio comes across again and again as just a colossal son of a bitch.  This version of DiMaggio will not compliment the bush-league Gionfriddo on his catch. It’s unlikely he saw it as superior to Mays’.

And then there’s Halberstam, who has a pretty significant deviation:

During the 1947 World Series, in a rare burst of emotion, he kicked the ground near second base after a Brooklyn player named Al Gionfriddo made a spectacular catch, robbing him of a three-run home run. The net day while he was dressing, a photographer who had taken a picture of him kicking the ground asked him to sign a blowup of it. At first DiMaggio demurred and suggested that the photographer get Gionfriddo’s signature. “He’s the guy who made the play,” DiMaggio said. But the photographer persisted, and so reluctantly DiMaggio signed it. Then he turned to a small group of reporters sitting by him. “Don’t write this in the paper,” he said. “but the truth is, if he had been playing me right, he would have made it look easy.”

Again a different take.  This is a bad catch once again – DiMaggio would have effortlessly made it – but this time, you’ll note, he signs the photo.  This DiMaggio is graceful.  Halberstam is writing about a man in his early thirties, but it’s hard not to see the silver-haired, immaculately dressed gentleman of DiMaggio’s later years leaning over to reporters with a conspiratorial wink and telling them how he really felt about that catch.  The legend is strong here.

Does any of this matter?  I don’t know.  We have one catch, three stories, and three somewhat different men featured in each.  I am reminded, however, of what is so fascinating and frustrating about history: at the end of the day, I have no idea what DiMaggio thought about that catch.  I know what our authors thought of it, and of the man himself.  Cramer gives us a DiMaggio fierce in his misanthropy, alone with nothing except the memory of his greatness.  I’m not sure Kahn or Halberstam get us closer to the truth.  Kahn, like all old men, wants us to remember an era better than our own, when giants walked the land.  So, too does Halberstam, though he understands baseball – as Bill James reminds us – perhaps the least of these three authors.   In the end we’re left with three sources describing a catch made under an October sky, a man so shrouded by a legacy that his thoughts are lost, the mentalités of three historians imposed upon the past, and the recession of an event from history to myth.

The Author of @OldHossRadbourn is the individual behind the @OldHossRadbourn Twitter account.

This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

(Blogathon ’16) Ron Kaplan- Read All About It: Blogs That Will Keep You Up on Baseball Books

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

It’s been often said that baseball is one of the most literary of sports. I think it’s safe to say without the benefit of, you know, actual facts, that there have been more books on the national pastime than any other sport.

I launched my Baseball Bookshelf with the idea of providing a wide array of news about the genre, including original pieces plus links to reviews; interviews with creators, not just of words, but art, music, film; and other pertinent items.

But lest you think this is the only game in town, here are some other great places to find out what’s good in the world of baseball lit:

  • John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, often writes about books on his blog, Our Game, especially those that deal with the early years.
  • The Society for American Baseball Research has lots of information about books. Sadly, their Bibliography Committee is no longer around, but the newsletters are still somewhere on the site, which can be a bit intimidating to navigate. Some pages of their site can be accessed for free; others are members-only. But it’s well worth the $65 fee since SABR includes several wonderful titles each year as part of its premiums. The most recent: An assessment of baseball through the hit animated TV series, The Simpsons.
  • The National Pastime Museum recently concluded its series on “The Baseball Book That Changed My Life,” with essays from an assortment of authors and scholars.
  • Spitball: The Literary Magazine has lots of news and reviews about books.
  • Gregg Kersey posts his original reviews about baseball books.
  • James Bailey’s site is still up and although he doesn’t add to it as often as in past years, you can still find a good chunk of material.
  • Baseballbookreview.com is another defunct site that can still be an asset.
  • The Baseball Almanac includes several dozen reviews on this page.

Of course, you can simply do a web search for “baseball book reviews,” but these are among the sites that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Ron Kaplan runs Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf and the author of 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die. A signed copy will be given to one lucky donor to the GoFundMe page.

This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer were not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

(Blogathon ’16!) The Sliding Scale of Fictional Baseball Realism

This post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page.

Earlier today, in my look at Touch, I mentioned that you can make a 0-10 scale of baseball realism in works of fiction, with zero being baseball-in-name-only and ten being actual footage of a game.

Well, I’m going to expand upon that:

0: Baseball In Name Only

In this category, it’s not really baseball at all. They may call it baseball, but it certainly isn’t the actual sport that we know. The Moe Cronin version of baseball fits here.

1: Utterly Absurd

In this category, while it’s clearly meant to be baseball, the rules of the game and the laws of physics have clearly taken a vacation. Some classic cartoons fall into this category.

2: Very Absurd, but still with some realism

In this category, the work might have cartoonish physics and occurrences, but it still is grounded in reality enough to have the rules of baseball still be mostly the same. In theory, a baseball movie where the rules are not consistent or are wildly different but where everything else is played straight could also qualify here. Classic cartoons that aren’t “utterly absurd” usually fall in this category.

3: Absurd, but mostly consistent

Works in this category are clearly absurd and cartoonish, but are at least consistent: the laws of physics may not be what they are in the real world, but they don’t suddenly change mid-game, nor do the rules suddenly change simply because the story demands it. Most “cartoon” baseball video games, like Backyard Baseball and the Mario Baseball series, fit in this category.

4: Many absurd elements

While clearly meant to be a realistic world that has our baseball’s rules and our laws of physics, the amount of absurd, cartoonish or unrealistic elements in the work make it more strange than realistic. Consider Mr. Go, for example, which has two baseball-playing gorillas, a little girl acting as a first-base coach and a finale that involves the baseball coming undone into a million pieces, which sort of overwhelms what would probably otherwise be a 6 if, say, it only had one gorilla.

5: Equal Mix of Realism and Fantasy

A work that sort of teeters between being realistic and being bizarre. This is more of a transitional spot on the scale, as it’s rare that anything ever stays at 5, inevitably going to 4 or 6 instead.

6: Realistic, but with one or two “big lies”

This is mostly realistic but it has one or two big elements (or the equivalent of one or two big elements made up of lots of smaller elements) that keep it from being something that you can honestly expect to ever happen in the real world. Sidd Finch could fit here, as could most of the movies in which a kid becomes a big league skipper or ballplayer.

7: Realistic, but highly unlikely

There’s nothing in this work that couldn’t happen, but it’s highly unlikely and any real event like this would probably instantly become one of the most notable things in baseball history. You could argue that Major League fits here, sort of.

8: Near total-realism

While some rules might be bent or not enforced on a strict basis, and some things might happen that are unlikely (although not nearly as unlikely as things that fall at seven on the scale), this is pretty realistic. Casey At The Bat, the classic poem, could be considered as this, with only the ability of everybody to seemingly hear everything keeping it from being a nine.

9: Utter realism

The only things that are not realistic in works of this category are omnipresent techniques like camerawork and editing for time, or stylish touches added in to indicate, say, that a player is angry. Bull Durham could, in theory, fit in this category, as could most (but not all) fairly true-to-history biopics and most realistic baseball video games.

10: Actual Baseball Footage used/Documentary

If you are watching an actual baseball game, or watching a documentary that uses baseball footage and does so without changing things for dramatic effect, you are watching a 10.

 

Feel free to consider where on the sliding scale your favorite piece of baseball fiction would fall!

6 PM: First References

This post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page.

 

(Blogathon ’16) Three Mini-Book Reviews

This post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page.

And now, short reviews of three baseball-related books I’ve read somewhat recently:

Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure that Took Baseball Around the Globe – And Made It America’s Game, by Mark Lamster: Fun book on the Spalding world tour of 1888-89, set alongside the backdrop of the emergence of America as a world power, Spalding’s entrepreneurial and publicity-seeking abilities, and early labor tensions in baseball. Informative and entertaining about an interesting topic that isn’t wide known, and also provides several examples of Cap Anson being such an asshole you want to find a time machine in order to go back and throttle him. Seriously, Cap Anson was just the worst.

Yes, It’s Hot in Here: Adventures in the Weird, Wooly World of Sports Mascots, by AJ Mass: Written by a former Mr. Met turned ESPN fantasy sports writer, this book is a funny look at the world of mascots, and includes disputes with the Famous Chicken, the Mets’ front office being clueless, and looks at the many different people who don the mascot costumes. Not exactly hard-hitting and deep, but it doesn’t need to be.

Nuclear Powered Baseball: Articles inspired by The Simpsons episode “Homer at the Bat”, edited by Emily Hawks and Bill Nowlin: This e-book from SABR reprints biographies and articles about the classic “Homer at the Bat” episode, as well as a faux-“bioproject” entry for Homer Simpson himself, a listing of baseball players referenced on the show, and Joe Posnanski’s article on “MoneyBART”, the episode of The Simpsons about sabermetrics. Available free to SABR members (but available for sale to non-members), I don’t know if I’d pay money for it, but it’s definitely a fun tribute to one of the greatest baseball episodes in TV history.

At 1 PM: A short break to let you know what is available as giveaways if you donate to the Blogathon.

This post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page.

“Mudville Madness” by Jonathan Weeks (with some fact-checking by me) is now out

Some of you may remember when I reviewed Celler Dwellers by Jonathan Weeks.  Well, Jonathan Weeks saw it, and actually wrote me asking if I wanted to help proof-read his next book.

Well, that book is now out:

Mudville Madness is about the weird things that have happened in baseball, going in chronological order as Weeks goes through brawls, strange plays, and countless other unusual incidents in baseball history. While I cannot give my honest opinion on it, given the fact I helped fact-check it, I can say that it is available now in bookstores and online at places like Amazon.