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.

REVIEW: Strat-O-Matic Baseball Daily a great idea with room for improvement

The Baseball Continuum is on vacation, but here’s a bit to help hold you over.

The idea behind Strat-O-Matic Baseball Daily is simple: it’s a computer simulation of the famed Strat-O-Matic tabletop game, but the cards change day-by-day to reflect what’s going on in the real world. For example, if a player is on a hot streak, his card will change to make it more likely (for example) that he will hit a home run and less likely that he will strike out. Similarly, if the team’s ace has been getting shelled, his card will be changed to increase the odds that he’ll be having a bad day.

It’s a good idea, and it definitely has some good points and will no doubt get better in the future, but as it stands right now, it is not as good as it could be. The main reason for this lies in the interface and ease of use- it just isn’t quite up to the standards of the current generations of other baseball simulators that exist right now like Out Of The Park Baseball.

For one thing, it takes awhile to set up. You need to get online to download everything, which isn’t a problem, but you the thing is that everything is separate from each other. There’s the main game, but the Baseball Daily portion is separate from that. And other parts are also separate. There are a lot of games that do similar things to this these days, but it just felt clunky for some reason here. Perhaps it is all in the presentation.

For another, the controls and menus in the game feel like they are 10 to 20 years out of date. Again, it’s hard to really describe this, it’s more a case of feel, but compared to other games in the genre it feels like you need to click through more screens, fiddle with more settings, and the like.

However… once you do get it up and running to your satisfaction, it does exactly what it goes out to do and changes the roster day by day as you move forward and does the same with the player cards. Oh, yes, I’ve seen some complaints on their message boards and elsewhere that sometimes the updates aren’t correct, but for the most part, it definitely changes correctly. Players enter and exit your roster during the season as they did in the real world, and their cards also change accordingly. If you want to see if you could do better in the season than your favorite team’s actual manager, this is where you can do it with the exact same rosters available to them.

And, really, how cool is that?

So, while I can’t suggest it to everyone right now, I can say to keep an eye on it in future years as the game no doubt is refined and improved further.

Note: I was provided a free copy of the game.

A Short Book Review: “Breaking Ground: How Jackie Robinson Changed Brooklyn”, by Alan Lelchuk

Note: I was provided a review copy of this book by it’s publisher.

In “Breaking Ground: How Jackie Robinson Changed Brooklyn”, author and teacher Alan Lelchuk tells the familiar story of Jackie Robinson from a different perspective: that of the people of Brooklyn, especially his family, including his parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia. It’s a short book, more of an extended essay of 117 pages, and it’s an overall mixed bag.

First, the good. It is a unique look at Jackie’s time in Brooklyn told by somebody who was growing up there as it happened. While obviously colored by nostalgia and the passage of time, Lelchuk’s stories of how the diverse people of Brooklyn identified with Robinson are poignant. After all, many of them had suffered discrimination and persecution, and now their team had a similar outsider who was suffering from discrimination. There are also good stories about the effect Robinson had elsewhere in America, but it’s mainly about Brooklyn. You can really tell how much Jackie meant to them and Lelchuk.

However, this is far from a perfect book. At times, Lelchuk turns on the schmaltz a little too high or enters into “back in my day” ramblings, and still other times the English scholar kicks in a bit too much as he enters into comparisons of Robinson to fictional characters and other notable figures. It’s a bit too thick, given the subject matter, but thankfully they aren’t too numerous. Still, at times, it feels as if he is just filling space to make it long enough to justify being a book instead of an unusual long article.

Those cons are enough to keep this from being far from a must-purchase. Instead, it’s likely just for the Jackie Robinson completists out there. It’s not a bad book, but it most definitely isn’t for everyone.

OOTP Baseball 2017 Review

Note: I was provided a early review copy of the game.

First, let’s cut to the chase: Out of the Park Baseball is back in it’s 2017-titled installment, and it has maintained it’s strengths, improved in it’s weaker areas, licenses from both MLB and the MLBPA, and more data and options than ever. If you are wondering if it’s worth getting now over previous versions, the answer is: yes, yes it is. And if you are wondering if it’s a good OOTP to start with, I say: yes, yes it is. It’s not perfect, but nothing is.

Now, this review mostly focuses on what’s new. What I said in my three previous reviews still, for the most part, holds up.

But, man, what is added is substantial. Previous years may have added a bit here and there, or introduced features that, while good in theory, were somewhat unfinished in practice. And while that “never finished” feeling still is in effect in some areas of OOTP 17, this year’s installment is one of the most polished leap forwards in the series.

Take, for example, the 3D view. In previous years, the 3D view was sometimes more trouble than it was worth, and sometimes would wonk up the system. But now…

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 11.39.23 AMAs you can see, you can now see little peg-people representing the players. And they will move to represent the plays that happen. For example, if a batter walks, you’ll see their little peg move down to first, and if there’s a ball hit to left, you’ll see a little ball go to left and see the left-fielder chase it down. It’s not exactly high-technology, but it gets the point across. Even better, it doesn’t seem to affect how smoothly the game runs, although of course that will depend a bit on your computer. I love this, it adds a bit of “as it’s happening” flare to games that wasn’t there before, and turns what to me was something of a boondoggle way of viewing the field into something I’ll probably use regularly.

Also in that picture, you can see a bit of another great new feature: historical exhibition play! I covered this a bit during one of my “30 Teams, 30 Posts” installments, but I’ll cover it again a bit here. Basically, you can have any MLB team in history play any other MLB team in history. You could do this before, but it was very time-intensive. Now, it’s as simple as selecting a team and choosing your wanted setting and/or rosters. It’s both a good way to see interesting match-ups and also a good introduction to OOTP for people who haven’t played it before and don’t want to jump straight into the longer modes.

That doesn’t mean that the longer modes haven’t received updates. They have. In addition to the usual upgrading of rosters to their current state, is also the addition of historical minor leagues! Want to see what might have happened if Michael Jordan had continued his baseball career? You can!

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 10.06.07 PMWhile those are the big changes, there are also some small changes that, together, add a lot. For example, there are now computer-written recaps for games you play and/or simulate. Is it something that completely changes the game? No. But they are nice to have.

Really, if I have any issues with this year’s installment, it’s how the Steam version of it only supports the workshop for mods. In previous years, you could use a in-game system to download new logos and rosters from the internet easily, this time it only can connect to the Steam Workshop. While OOTP Developments has said that most if not all mods will eventually come to the Workshop, right now only two are there, meaning to get some mods you have to go poking around the internet for the files and install them manually. Annoying, but not a deal-breaker by any means. Hopefully it improves soon, though, as OOTP and Steam’s Workshop would seem to be made for each other.

But, really, other than that and maybe the occasional bug that will always rear up in a game of this scale and complexity, Out of the Park Baseball 2017 is quite possibly the greatest baseball simulator of all time. At least… until next year, when those mad geniuses will probably top it again!

 

 

 

REVIEW: OOTP 2016 improves the series even more

Last year, I said that that year’s incarnation of Out Of The Park Baseball had improvements and new features that weren’t perfect, but opened the way for endless possibilities in the future.

And while there still is room for improvement, the future is most definitely now, as almost every improvement or new feature from last season has been further improved, even more features have been added, and an official MLB license has made the game easier to set-up than ever.

The Good:

  •  Same old, Same old. The core of OOTP is still in place, and that’s a good thing. It’s still about building baseball teams and managing (or general-managing) baseball teams– or simply simulating them if you would like. The settings, options, etc. are the same. And this is a good thing, because they are great. Look up my previous reviews to see screens and comments on those.
  • Logos and Rosters are there from the start, and those that aren’t are easily modded in. With the acquisition of the MLB license, most of the MLB and other logos are now built-in, making it a lot easier to load them up and use them, as opposed to previously, where you had to mod them in. And, don’t worry, it’s easy to mod in those that aren’t there.
  • The 3D stadiums work better now! The 3D stadiums were something of a work-in-progress last year and you often had to do a lot of work to get them working correctly as far as placement of players and ball locations. Now, most MLB stadiums are already installed!
  • Rosters! International! The international and independent leagues have never been better, as more real-life stadiums and rosters are there than ever before. Basically every professional baseball league of prominence- even the super-duper-low Pecos League- is in there. It’s what makes the International Baseball Competition possible, since OOTP provides all of the players, managers and most of the stadiums right out of the box.
  • Better role-playing, clubhouse and front office functions. Remember the Angels’ “30 Teams, 30 Posts” post? Remember this: That’s new this year. You can be given orders from the owner, and you’ll hear from folks in the clubhouse about the chemistry amongst the team. A nice addition that I hadn’t thought of before.
  • Lots of other little changes and improvements, so many that I haven’t run into all of them yet!

The Bad:

  • Lack of (realistic) Winter Leagues. It’s kind of a bummer we can’t have the Caribbean World Series or anything like that our players could take part in during the off-season.
  • No built-in WBC features
  • It doesn’t give you real-world money

Score: 9.7 out of 10.

 

 

 

Full Disclosure: I received a review copy from Out Of The Park Developments for this review.

2014 Rochester Red Wings in Review, Part 2: Five Things We Learned

Apologies for being late, but here are five things we learned from the 2014 Rochester Red Wings season:

1. It is possible to throw a No-Hitter in two different states and two different months

2. Geography is Destiny

3. As always, the fate of a Minor League Team is in large part outside of it’s control

Make no mistake, the purpose of AAA baseball teams is, and always will be, to provide a place for future MLB players to get ready for The Show. Winning is of only secondary importance, and, with rare exception, no AAA team will go the season with all of their key pieces untouched. What’s more, there are still the other hazards that haunt every baseball club: injuries, slumps, players that just don’t work out or underperform.

This year’s Red Wings were a perfect example of that. The Red Wings played 144 games this season. Only six position players were in at least 100 of them, only four were in at least 120 of them, and only two (Eric Farris, who’s “get to know your Wings” scoreboard segment was by far the best, and Aussie infielder James Beresford) were in at least 130 of them. Danny Santana, who many thought would be in Rochester for a good chunk of the season, ended up only playing 24 games, while Darin Mastroianni was lost to first the Majors and then to the Blue Jays through waivers after just four games. Chris Parmelee, the leading power threat through the first month of the season, was also gone early. The vaunted opening-day rotation of Alex Meyer, Trevor May, Yohan Pino, Logan Darnell and Kris Johnson saw all but Meyer spend at least some time in Minnesota, and the loss of May and Pino down the stretch especially hurt. If Rochester had all five of them all season, I see almost no way that they miss the playoffs, but, again, those are the breaks that come with being a AAA franchise.

And, of course, there were injuries, both in the majors (which led to certain players getting called up to replace the injured Twins) and down in the minors. The loss of Meyer to injury early in the third-to-last game of the season may well have doomed the Red Wings, as it forced them to burn Mark Hamburger, who was expected to pitch a must-win game against Pawtuckett the next day. Instead, the Red Wings had to have Jose Berrios, a 20-year-old (albeit one of the top prospects in the system) pitch that game, where he was beaten up on in a loss that ended the Wings’ playoff chances.

Health problems below AAA also put a wrench in the Wings’ season. At the start of the year, it was considered possible that top prospects Miguel Sano and (although more of a longshot) Byron Buxton could join by the end of the year. Sano got hurt and missed the whole season, and Buxton got a concussion in his first game in AA (although by that point it was clear he was probably not going to end up in Rochester by the end of the year).

Speaking of prospects, I think it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that Rochester will ever see Kennys Vargas, who has gone .314 in 140 AB for the Twins since getting the call-up from AA. Prospects jumping from AA to MLB is less frequent in Minnesota’s system than it is in some others, but it does happen: Joe Mauer would never have played in Rochester if not for a injury so early in his rookie season in MLB, for example.

4. Of course, the above thing also can go the other way.

After the first month of the season, I don’t think anybody expected that Chris Colabello would be back in Rochester. He’d done great early in the year, after all, even winning AL Player of the Week at one point. Then he crashed back to earth and ended up spending more games in Rochester this season (61) than he would in Minneapolis (59). He did not receive a call-up at the end of the year and it’s almost certain that his time with Minnesota- and maybe even affiliated baseball in general- is at an end. But what must have been a horrible disappointment for Colabello was good news for the Red Wings, as he ended up leading the team in HRs. In his two seasons with the Red Wings, Colabello ended up batting .319 in 551 ABs, with 34 HRs and 114 RBIs. His OPS of .966 was spectacular. He will be missed, but hopefully he gets another shot at a permanent place in the Majors.

Similarly, Chris Herrmann was originally with the Twins to start the year, but ended up playing sizable time in Rochester, where he became one of the Wings’ best hitters. He’s now in Minnesota again as a September call-up.

The same sort of thing will no doubt happen next year, just as it happens every year.

5. The Mario-Coin Sound Is An Excellent Sound Effect For Scoring A Run

This season, when the Red Wings scored a run, the sound from Super Mario Brothers when you got a coin would play. They aren’t the only team that does it- I believe the Cleveland Indians do the same, and the Twins use the 1-Up Sound from SMB. It’s great, funny, and is also a good reminder that ultimately baseball is a game.

In fact, it even inspired me to try my hand at some artwork:

marioredwingsThat’s Mario in a Rochester Red Wings jersey. I’m not entirely sure why I made it, but I find it funny and I’m glad I made it. Let’s just hope they don’t change the sound effect next year, otherwise this will just be ridiculous.

 

So, the 2014 season is over in Rochester. It’s far too early to guess what the 2015 season may bring: Will Gene Glynn return as manager? Will some players be lost to free agency or by making the jump to the big leagues? Will next year by the year that Sano and/or Buxton make the jump to AAA?

Only time will tell.

 

Bizarre Baseball Culture (Book Review): “Brittle Innings” by Michael Bishop

In Bizarre Baseball Culture, I take a look at some of the more unusual places where baseball has reared it’s head in pop culture and fiction.

1816 was the so-called “Year Without a Summer”, as a series of events (including the ash from a very large volcanic eruption in Indonesia) caused temperatures around the world to plunge. Against this backdrop, a small group of English writers and poets had their summer vacation at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva ruined by record cold and wet weather. Stuck inside the Swiss manor, one of their members, Lord Byron, suggested they try their hand at writing ghost stories. One of them, a young woman named Mary Shelley, came up with an idea that would eventually become Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. It differed from other scary stories in one major aspect: instead of having the monster come from magic or religion, it was about a monster created by mankind, by science. In fact, some say that it invented science fiction as a genre.

So, perhaps it isn’t surprising that eventually Bizarre Baseball Culture would come across the Frankenstein Monster, but it is surprising that it comes in Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop, as opposed to a baseball episode of The Munsters or some sort of obscure comic. Because, you see, Brittle Innings, published in 1994, is an honest-to-goodness classy novel written for adults that doesn’t even advertise the fact that it’s unusual, and it’s premise is simple: what if Mary Shelley had merely been an editor of the tale of Frankenstein and his monster, and what if the Monster survived, moved to America, and took up baseball?

Okay, maybe that premise isn’t that simple. Depends on your definition of “simple”, I guess. Still, go below the jump for more:

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