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.

(Blogathon ’16) Dan Szymborski: Doughy Nerd Gets A Job

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.

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis

Latin is still taught in schools, though as an everyday language has been dead for more than a millennium. The above phrase, of obscure origin and even of obscure construction — some claim the source was Ovid but a direct quote is not to be found — can loosely be translated as “the times are changed and we are changed in the times.” We still encounter Latin in science and law, and the reflection of it in the Romance languages, stemming from the so-called vulgar Latin.

What does this have to do with baseball? In the last 20 years, the language of baseball has changed and as a result, the people involved in baseball have also been changed. The rise of sabermetrics in baseball as a mainstream “thing” has been the largest cultural sea change in baseball that we’ve seen this generation. And for me personally, it turned into a career, something I certainly didn’t expect at the start of this timeframe.

Like pretty much everyone who followed baseball closely at the time, I was not amused, bemused, or even cemused by baseball’s labor friction in the early 1990s that culminated in the 1994 players’ strike. At the time of the start of the strike was a 16-year-old kid at the time, I had just gotten my driver’s license (literally five days prior) and my first car, a 1988 Ford Tempo with this unbelievably weird automatic seatbelt and an alternator that would die a couple of times a year. A friend of mine’s family had season tickets to O’s games and I had the prospect of getting to spend a lot of time hanging out at the then relatively new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. That baseball suddenly went away was a blow to me and the other millions of baseball-mad fans and I was in search of an outlet.

In 1994, I had a subscription to Baseball Weekly and a dial-up internet connection and no real replacement for my lack of baseball. The internet at that time wasn’t overflowing with comparable baseball resources either. Those were the days we actually said the phrase “World Wide Web” non-ironically. For baseball on the internet, we had a sparse amount of resources, such as standings on Nando.net and the home pages linked to in John Skilton’s Baseball Links. Even ESPN’s website was just a shadow of its future self at this point, known simply as the rather prosaic ESPNet.SportsZone.com.

So I happened onto this thing called a “newsgroup” at the time and found something called “rec.sport.baseball.” Baseball might have been on strike, but there was a whole community of people still arguing about baseball as if the world hadn’t stopped. Passionate people too; only a few of my friends growing up really cared about the sport. I was overwhelmed at the time by the breadth of knowledge that these people had. So much so that I only read the newsgroup and the other alt.* baseball newsgroups for awhile before I had the courage to express my own opinions.

I had always been into the statistical side of baseball. Always fascinated with numbers, my grandfather had bought me the Elias Baseball Analysts and the Baseball Abstracts by Bill James every year. My own baseball career faded out quite quickly, I was a perfectly competent baseball player as a nine-year-old, but obviously was never going to play in the majors. From the time I was five to the time I was a teenager, my baseball highlight was having a pitch of mine getting crushed by future minor league outfielder Justin Singleton. I think. I didn’t even know his first name at the time, the other kids just called him “Ken Singleton’s son” and to this day, I’m not even sure that was Justin Singleton, though the ages and location match up, as I discovered much later.

So as a kid, I didn’t dream of becoming Cal Ripken or Eddie Murray, I dreamed of becoming Bill James or Peter Gammons, whose writing was the first thing I would jump to in Sports Illustrated every week.

So hanging out on usenet in the mid-to-late 90s (the newsgroup thing I’m referring to earlier), I developed my writing style and most importantly, my ability to make and defend an argument. Usenet was a brutal place, full of snark and sarcasm and all sorts of venom if you lost an argument. For one person I fought with, a fellow who insisted that Ed Sprague would always be a better player than Aramis Ramirez, I wrote insulting haiku in response to his insults. I became more active in the sabermetric community at that point and many of the participants are names that you likely still recognize today. Baseball Prospectus got its origin from usenet and writers like Keith Law and Christina Kahrl were already doing some Grade A wordslinging. Sean Forman from Baseball-Reference. Sean Lahman of the Lahman database. Voros McCracken of DIPS fame. Doug Pappas and Greg Spira, both writers that left us too early and too sadly. David Cameron of FanGraphs. Grant Brisbee of SBNation. Even some writers that you wouldn’t generally associate with baseball today, like Josh Kraushaar (National Journal), Jonathan Bernstein (Bloomberg), and Peter Spiegel (Financial Times).

It was a heady group and in baseball, we were all outsiders. We combined all the tactlessness of the internet with the surety that were absolutely right and everyone who disagreed with us was an idiot. We dripped with contempt for media, and the term “mediots” got thrown about fairly regularly.

As time went on and sabermetrics became a bigger thing in baseball and blogs starting coming into existence, usenet faded away and died. But by then, many of the ideas that we had espoused so fervently had made their way into baseball. Michael Lewis’s very popular Moneyball had become the first book really talking about sabermetrics that had truly reached the mainstream and the rate of adoption of sabermetrics in baseball had increased significantly. It may be weird to younger readers today that grew up seeing things like Wins Above Replacement and OPS+, but 20 years ago, the utility of even basic stats such as OBP and SLG was a controversial thing in baseball fan circles.

Sabermetricians changed baseball and baseball media, but the rest of the truth is that baseball and baseball media also changed sabermetrics. Some of the truths we so strongly believed in were more complex than we thought at the time. And as writers with a numbers background spread into baseball, we also came to be empathetic with the rest of media. We hadn’t appreciated the difficulty of suddenly telling stories about baseball in an entirely new way to an audience that didn’t necessarily want to hear baseball stories in an entirely new way. These journalists that, to us, were mostly simply bylines, became our acquaintances, or colleagues, and our friends. While I’m still quite snarky at times — and let’s not even get to the Murray Chass stuff — I know I have a greater appreciation for differing viewpoints than I used to. Now, I still always am sure I’m right, but hey, writers gonna writer.

I wrote my first piece for ESPN in 2010. Looking back on it, it wasn’t very good. I had no journalism background of note, mainly being known for my snippy two sentence quotes on Baseball Think Factory and my work in the sabermetrics community, both inside and outside of baseball. I’m honestly surprised they kept paying me money after the first one. But I got better.

Suddenly, I had a new challenge, becoming a real journalist, not just the numbers-dork who made jerkass one-liners. And doing so gave me additional respect for everyone else in journalism who had to sweat out a story. It was far harder in practice than at a distance. My ambition to be a sabermetrics guy who could write eventually became to be a writer who could do sabermetric work.

I would never have admitted it, but being a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America was actually quite important to me. While I could obtain media credentials when I needed them, one thing I’ve always craved, since starting the journey into journalism, was belonging. I desired that affirmation that I was an actual, real writer, not just some numbers-dork moonlighting until I could snag a front office job. This month, I was accepted as a member to the Cincinnati chapter.

Looking at the world of baseball analysis is very different in 2016 than it was in 1996. At one point, I knew practically everyone who worked in the field. Now baseball teams have entire analytics departments devoted to crunching baseball information, stocked with people who are younger than me, with a dizzying array of doctorates. I find myself in a curious situation in which at 37, I’ve become one of the elder statesmen of sabermetrics, a dinosaur in a field where most analytics guys can write R programs in their sleep. If I tell people that I’m using STATISTICA and even Excel (there are a lot of cool plugins!), they look at me as if I’m telling a story about the time I caught Spanish Flu in 1919. So is the way of the world.

I never grew up to be Bill James or Peter Gammons. Just Dan Szymborski, which isn’t really that bad.

Dan writes about baseball and eSports for ESPN.com and is the developer of the ZiPS projection system as seen on FanGraphs and in various other internet pipes. He can found at @DSzymborski on Twitter and you can email him at DSzymborskI@gmail.com.

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.