Archive for the ‘Books’ category

Book of the Month: Beyond Batting Average

03/28/2010

For the first time, I’d like to talk about a book I know solely because I follow its author online. Lee Panas blogs at Tiger Tales, a blog devoted, as the title implies, to the happenings of the Detroit Tigers. It is definitely one of the best single-team blogs around, as it includes good discussion of the current team with interesting work on the team historically. For our purposes, though, Panas has interests beyond the narrow confines of the Detroit Tigers. He has recently published a sabermetric primer called Beyond Batting Average: Statistics for the 21st Century. I picked up the electronic version recently to review here, so let me give the book its due.

The book does three things: It gives a history of the development of baseball statistics, lays out newer statistics in detail, and gives recommendations for the best statistics to use in player evaluation. Let us consider each in turn. The history of statistics that Panas gives is necessarily brief. It is not a primary focus of the book, and for that reason it is primarily confined to Chapter 1. However, each ensuing chapter gives some information on the history of stats dealing with the chapters topic. Given my own historical bent, I would have liked to see more of this. Given the book’s primary focus as a primer on newer statistics, it is unsurprising this area was not explored in more depth.

Next, Panas lays out newer statistics in detail. It is at this that the book truly excels. Want to know what OPS, WAR, UZR, qERA, FIP, or other statistics are? Panas’ gives some of the most succinct and clear explanations that I have seen. He is not bogged down in the exact mathematical derivations of each statistic, and instead he focuses on the originator, formula, and clarifying examples. Each example does a good job in illustrating the stats strengths and weaknesses. As someone already interested in statistics and particularly in using statistics to compare players, I found this portion of the book invaluable.

Finally, Panas gives recommendations for the best statistics to evaluate players. He emphasizes several things in these stats: repeatability, comprehensiveness, and sources. Repeatability refers to statistics that correlate highly from year to year. Why is on-base average better than batting average? For one reason, it is more predictive of a player’s performance next season. Comprehensiveness describes statistics that evaluate each area of a player’s full performance. Stats like WAR focus on players’ hitting and fielding contributions, instead of focusing narrowly on just one element of play. Sources focuses on where statistics derive their data. Panas considers fielding stats based on play-by-play data better than rivals with less specific sources. He gives more weight to stats that adjust for park, era, etc. than stats that don’t. I think Panas’ three grounds for recommendations make a great deal of sense. They have the advantage of forcing the analyst to look at what biases are built into each statistics and therefore add some humility into our evaluations.

Overall, Panas wrote a short and accessible introduction to sabermetric statistics. If you want to learn more about the most advanced statistics on the market right now, it is tough to find a better source.

Baseball Fiction

03/04/2010

For the Book of the Month in March, I was thinking about writing on some piece of baseball fiction.  Here I ran into a problem.  What should I write about?  Baseball has generated two particularly famous pieces of literature, The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.  Both of those are famous in large measure because of the movies ever so loosely based on the books. Beyond those two, though, what other fiction is there about baseball?

Given the position of sports in American life, I find it strange how little well-known or great fiction it has produced. I can list a series of first-rate sports movies, particularly about baseball and boxing. It seems natural that a visual medium like sports would translate so well to film. Surely it could make good books, too. Outside of the two mentioned above, the other baseball books I can think of are juveniles, things like Dean Hughes‘ and Mike Lupica‘s various baseball series. That is part of the problem.  Sports books are juvenile of necessity, and that keeps the genre from progressing.

Let me focus on the second part of the site’s moniker for a second and leave sports behind. Academics have a rigid hierarchy of things considered valuable and things that are not. If you move into the world of history, good history covers narrow topics and is rarely read. Bad history is the sort of popular work read by millions. In politics, my chosen field, popular work that explain political facts in simple terms for an audience of laymen is denigrated, considered worthless in comparison to the 10,000 study of voting behavior using the same 10 variables that have been used since 1960. I would hope that world of literature takes a slightly broader look at its field of study, but I am sure to be disappointed. Books about sports are, because of the subject matter, not serious fiction and therefore unworthy of being read and discussed. Books ignored by academics can still be popular, but it is tough for them to last. Academics, by their ability to force people to read books they would otherwise ignore, can keep authors and books alive for generations. They have not done that with literature about sports.

The academic explanation is, I fear, a bit too simple. Surely if writers of baseball fiction wrote better books, it would be more likely to attract an academic eye. So let me throw the question open to the audience: What good fiction is there about baseball? What baseball fiction should be more widely read.

Book Review: The Book of Basketball

01/24/2010

Following on the Elgin Baylor post, I recently finished Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. Though it is not Book of the Month time, I thought I’d toss up a review. The next few days, the posts will probably reflect some thoughts sparked by Simmons. But first, the book.

The closest comparison to The Book of Basketball is Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract. James covered the history of baseball, then he did detailed player rankings both by position and overall. Simmons, similarly, gives an introduction to the history of basketball through 1984, then he follows by ranking the top 96 players of all time. Along the way, Simmons mixes a couple of separate essays, including one of the better in-depth treatments of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. The book revolves around one theme and one idea. To get Simmons’ point, we need to delve into each for a bit.

According to Simmons, by way of Isiah Thomas, the key to basketball is players dedicating everything to winning basketball games. Individual statistics must be subsumed in order to pursue the ultimate goal of winning championships. Players’ greatness, then, is measured by how well they pursue team success. Who are the greatest players ever? They are the players who won. Simmons is not completely captive to the notion that the players with the most titles are the best, but he comes pretty close. This view, which I find ridiculous in baseball and football, makes some sense in basketball. Basketball players play every aspect of the game, and each member is 20% of his team. In football, you are one of 11 and play only half the game. In baseball, you are one of 9, and if you are a pitcher you pitch every five days. In basketball, one great player can have a bigger impact on his team than any other sport.

Second, Simmons aspires to transform the Basketball Hall of Fame. He sets up a pyramid of great players, ranking them in 4 levels before progressing to the Pantheon, the 12 greatest players ever. This system is similar to that used in our last book of the month, Stat One. I liked it then, and I like it now. Simmons can accurately get at the distinction between legitimately great players. Sure Gail Goodrich (#88, Level 1) was great, but he was not nearly the player Bob McAdoo (#61, Level 2) was. Kevin McHale (#35, Level 3) cannot stack his career up against John Havlicek (#13, Level 1). Finally, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (#3, Pantheon) was qualitatively better than the players in the lower categories. The Pyramid gives Simmons an excellent and thought-provoking way of organizing his rankings.

How is the execution? Given the two key points, the commitment to winning and the Pyramid, Simmons writes an interesting book. I would not recommend reading it all at once. After a while, his style, heavy as it is on jokes and pop culture allusions, can be taxing. In smaller doses, the book is particularly enjoyable. It has weaknesses, of course, including too strong a belief that modern basketball players are better than those who went before, but it also has strengths, including a passion for the game of basketball that matchless. I’ve already written appreciatively of Simmons’ respect for Elgin Baylor, and he also shares my belief that Hakeem Olajuwon was the best center since Abdul-Jabbar. His rankings, though, are lopsided. His pantheon (top 12) includes 6 centers (Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Mose Malone), while it has 4 guards (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson) but only 2 forwards (Larry Bird and Tim Duncan). It is possible that forwards are not really that important, but it seems unlikely that 40% of a basketball team is so dramatically worse than the rest in the all-time rankings. I think the list would make more sense if he elevated Baylor (#14) and Julius Erving (#16) and dropped O’Neal and Malone, but those debates are the joy of the book.

I would highly recommend The Book of Basketball to anyone who likes basketball or is interested in the history of the game. The book is by no means perfect, but it is interesting enough to be worth a read.  he debates are fun, and Simmons make a legitimate contribution to them.

Book of the Month: Stat One

01/04/2010

In talking about Stat One by Craig Messmer, I am really talking about an entire genre of books. Particularly in baseball, there is an entire class of books in which an author invents a superstat and proceeds to rank the greatest players ever to play the game. Most famous of these, because it also does so many other things, is Bill James’ The New Historical Baseball Abstract, in which Win Shares are integral to his player ratings. Stat One is representative of the genre at large, so I’d like to give it a bit of consideration here in January.

Messmer’s book came out in 2008, and his statistical invention fit into a long line of statistics based on the number of bases advanced divided by the number of outs made. Messmer’s version is called Offensive Production and Efficiency Average (P/E), and it varies from earlier stats like Tom Boswell’s total average because of its production measure. To compute it, you take [2(Net Runs) + Complete Bases]/Plate Appearances. Net Runs = Runs Scored + RBI – Home Runs. Complete Bases = Total Bases +BB + HBP + SB – Caught Stealing. Net Runs are Messmer’s production factor, complete bases are the measure of efficiency. As his complete bases factor tends to be about twice as large as the net runs factor, Messmer doubles net runs in order to make them roughly equal in his P/E average. At this point, we already have a serious flaw. The only justification of the doubling is to make the numbers look more even. It has no real logical grounding or any basis in the way baseball works. It simply makes the stat look better.

From laying out his stat, Messmer moves on to ranking the best players at each position. But he does not rank them by his stat. His stat, which is so boldly claimed to be stat one, is only a small part of his overall ranking. If Messmer does not trust his stat’s results, why should anyone else? Regardless, Messmer does interestingly break players down into 5 categories. The Category 5’s are the best ever to play, the Category 4’s are Hall of Famers a slight cut below. The Category 3’s are the Hall of Fame dividing line: Some make the Hall, some don’t, and the difference between the two probably has more to do with the voters than the players. Category 2’s played a while but were nothing special, and Category 1’s are the classic players just called up for a cup of coffee. This basic system I like. I think it captures a good way of looking at players. I wish he had better justifications of who fit in each category, but that does not challenge the basic insight.

Finally, what is the payoff? The best player ever is Babe Ruth. Shocking, I know, but it helps give the stat some grounding in the real world. Interestingly, Joe DiMaggio comes in third, just behind Lou Gehrig. This is one of the classic examples of Messmer ignoring his own stat. His stat places Ted Williams third and DiMaggio sixth. For some reason, Messmer argues for the opposite. If you happen to see his top 25 as ranked by his stat, they are almost all from high offense eras like the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1990’s. Without any corrections for era, park, league, etc., his stat gives more misleading information than it should. Nevertheless, if you enjoy debates about the best players ever, Stat One is an entertaining read. Messmer writes well enough to hold a reader’s attention, and his work should spark some further thought. As part of its genre, it is distinctly one of the best.

Book of the Month: The Draft

12/02/2009

Today I want to look at a book that for the most part flew under the radar. It received a review in Sports Illustrated after it came out in 2006, but it never reached bestseller status. The Draft by Pete Williams is an interesting book that more people should take a look at.

The Draft focuses in closely on the 2005 draft, telling the story from as many different sources and angles as possible. The book chapters alternate, some focusing on the NFL front office of the Atlanta Falcons, some dealing with specific draft entrants, and others covering the world of agents. The author dedicated a year to following these groups, and it gives a unique perspective. First, Williams reminds you how fluid draft status can be. In covering Chris Canty, a defensive end from Virginia, he was covering a likely first round draft pick. Then Canty blew out his knee in October, and he wrapped up by getting hit in the eye with a beer bottle in January. Because of this, Canty dropped to the Dallas Cowboys in the 4th Round. That cannot be predicted the summer before the draft.

Second, Williams gives the draft a sense of history. He meticulously describes the creation of the draft in the 1930’s, with its origins in ensuring competitive balance and lowering players’ salaries (by decreasing competition over signing them.) He details where the draft combine came from, the nature of college’s pro days, the origins of player-agent relations, and the origin of $10,000 pre-combine training regimens. This puts the draft in its proper context. As the book makes clear, the draft is not simply a two-day event in April. It is the culmination of a more than year-long process of scouting, evaluation, training, planning, and effort. That year-long process, in turn, is the culmination of a decade-long process that created what is now a multi-million viewer television extravaganza on ESPN.

What does the book do poorly? If you are interested only in the world of first round draft picks, they get short shrift here. Williams gives some attention to Auburn running backs Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, but they are distinctly away from the book’s focus. The book can also be repetitive. If you read an historical anecdote once, expect to see it again in a couple of chapters. Nevertheless, I would recommend the book for its wealth of information about all of the aspects of the draft process.

Finally, a bit of trivia. Who invented the 40-yard dash? Paul Brown. The innovator who invented the guard shuttle as a method of calling plays from the sideline figured that 40 yards was the max players would be expected to run on a normal play. Given that he began coaching in the world of single-platoon football, all of Brown’s players had to cover punts. On a punt, he expected players to have to run approximately 40 yards. The rest is history.

Book of the Month: The Blind Side

11/12/2009

Given the movie that will be released a week from tomorrow, I would like to take a look at the book that started it all, The Blind Side by Michael Lewis.  To start with some ground clearing, The Blind Side is a better book than Moneyball, which I looked at last month.  Michael Oher is more personally compelling than Billy Beane;  it is easier to root for the poor kid who overcame everything than the fabulously gifted athlete who made a comeback after wasting his talents.

I am sure the book will be very different from the movie. The book, though about Oher primarily, is about much more as well. Part of Lewis’ interest in Oher comes from Oher’s football position, left tackle. For some reason, someone who never played organized football before the 11th Grade became one of the hottest college prospects in the nation. Why? To get at that question, Lewis brings in the context of Lawrence Taylor, the West Coast offense, and, as the subtitle states, “the evolution of the game.” Left tackles went from being simply one part of the offensive line to the second highest paid position on an NFL team. Because of LT’s ability to disrupt offenses that were suddenly passing more, the ability of a lineman to stop the other teams top pass rusher, and in turn protect his quarterback’s blind side, became ever more highly compensated. Oher stepped into the culmination of this evolution.

Given the focus of this site, it is easy to dwell on the specifically football-related aspects of this story. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading because of the story of Michael Oher. He is personally compelling, as are the people that surround him. Going from essentially homeless from ages 7-15 to first round draft pick is a story begging to be made into a movie. Lewis, who was a family friend, got the ball rolling by putting the story on paper. Hopefully, the upcoming movie will successfully bring this story to a wider audience.

The Fall of Dynasties: A Joint Book Review

11/10/2009

How do dynasties fall apart?  At some point, dominant teams stop winning, and it can be for a variety of reasons.  To get a handle on how this might happen, I want to look at two books that address the topic:  October 1964 by David Halberstam and The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty by Buster Olney.

Halberstam addressed the end of the Yankees greatest run of dominance. From 1947-1964 (18 seasons), the Yankees made 15 World Series and won 10. They follow this up, though, with 11 years of futility before getting swept in the 1976 World Series. Why did the Yankees fall apart? As Millsy of the blog Prince of Slides mentions in previous comments, the start of the draft is not a sufficient explanation. As Halberstam notes, the fluke is the Yankees making the 1964 World Series, not their collapse the next year. By 1964 the Yankees are a team that is either past their prime (Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford) or too young to know how they will turn out (Jim Bouton, Al Downing, Mel Stottlemyre, Joe Peppitone). Given this, the old players continued to get old, and the young players, except for Stottlemyre, did not pan out. This highlights the chief problem of the Yankees; they did not have a good baseball organization. They had not stocked up on young players, and the few young players they had grabbed were not good enough. The collapse of the Yankee dynasty, then, is a collapse of Yankee scouting, particularly a failure by the Yankees to move aggressively for young African-American players.

The story in 2001 has some similarities. The 2001 team had serious age problems, as Paul O’Neill, David Justice, and Scott Brosius were soon to retire; Tino Martinez and Chuck Knoblauch were reaching the end of their effectiveness; and Orlando Hernandez was slightly older than Joe Torre. Again, the preceding years give some clues. The 2000 World Champions had only won 87 regular season games, only two more than the immortal 1987 Twins. The 2001 Yankees, it appears, were running on fumes. They had 5 players still in their primes (Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Alfonso Soriano, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera), and the only young regular was Soriano at 25. Of those 5, they would lose two in short order. At the same time, as Olney chronicles, the “sleeping giants” of the AL East would awake, as the Red Sox finally began to deploy their vast resources wisely. The 2001 team cursed with mismanagement, though in a different form than its 2001 predecessor. George Steinbrenner was always prone to impulsive behavior, leading to things as crazy as trading for a finished Raul Mondesi in 2002. Finally, the Yankees in this era did not do a good job developing young talent. Their best first round pick from 1993 (Derek Jeter) to 2004 (Phil Hughes, who still might develop into greatness) was Eric Milton, who they traded to the Twins. With this in-house drafting, they were completely dependent on the vagaries of free agency. It took until 2009 to overcome these problems.

Will the 2009 develop into a dynasty, or will it go the way of 1964 and 2001? It is hard to know now. Failures of scouting and player development are not readily ascertainable until years later. One thing these two collapses teach us is to watch Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Melky Cabrera. Young Yankee players are the key to having a successful future. Jeter, Posada, and even Rivera will decline; age is inevitable. Will the young players be good enough to replace them? That is the great uncertainty.