Friday, January 23, 2009

'Mind Game': Baseball Saga and Stats

Part of the problem for any fan of the new analysis of baseball is that it's dorky. There's math involved. A lot of it. Picking up any book on sabermetrics (a term inspired by SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research) or clicking on an article from Baseball Prospectus (BP) feels a lot like one of those dreams where you think you're going to make a You Sandwich between Kate Winslet and Rachel Weisz and — as you push the doors open to what you know will be a Sexeteria with an indoor champagne pool and high-def recording devices to prove that, yes, this happened — you instead stumble into a room where someone's administering a mandatory Advanced Calculus SAT II exam.

Also, you're naked and your penis is missing, and you're holding a TI-81 calculator that, regardless of what input you give it, keeps coming up, "DUDE YOUR PENIS IS MISSING," and, "LOL."

Despite my robust and even intimidating masculinity, I feel like this all the time when I turn the page or scroll down the BP site to discover another one of those statistical charts that looks like Arsenio's autograph at the beginning of his show, superimposed on another Arsenio autograph, and another, and all curiously dotted a lot like his name had twenty-seven I's in it. I should be about to have fun, but all I've got is this very intelligent stuff I don't get. It's dispiriting. It makes you feel like a moron, like there's a whole other level of the book slipping past you.

I had this same feeling about half the time when I was reading Baseball Between the Numbers, which I reviewed here. In that book, the good people at BP try to explain the hidden dimensions of the game and how most of the received wisdom baseball's imparted to us is wrong. The book opens the reader to whole new dimensions of the game and deeper arguments about it, but much of its meat and potatoes comes from math — and, worse, math that compares abstract data across eras and styles of the game. Regrettably, no matter how great some readers' interest, that aspect of the book presents something of an insurmountable obstacle to understanding.

Many people probably turn to a book like Baseball Between the Numbers because they read a book by Michael Lewis called Moneyball and want a deeper understanding. What made Moneyball such compelling and informative reading was both Lewis' gift for imparting complex market strategies into simple language but also his storytelling. The book provided such a fun introduction to the world of sabermetrics because it sprinkled those lessons throughout the profiles of several athletes. Going from that to BP's writing can seem like going from a history of the invention of the automobile to a BMW owner's manual badly translated from the German.

Mind Game,another book from the BP writers, succeeds because it bridges the gap between Lewis' style and their statistical wonkery and does so in a very clever and accessible way.

Unless you're mostly dead or hate baseball, you're probably aware that the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, after an 86-year champsionship drought. This was a franchise that suffered through so much incompetence and bad luck that people attributed a curse to its misfortunes. In 2003, the Sox lost a heartbreaking American League Championship Series Game 7 to their archenemies, the New York Yankees, in extra innings. Had they prevailed, had Pedro Martinez not been left in the game too long by odiously stupid manager Grady Fucking Little, they might have gone to the World Series and won. But, perhaps because they were the Red Sox, they lost in the worst and most crushing way possible — a freak home run from a mediocre player, in extra innings, after giving the game away due to more managerial incompetence.

Then, in 2004, they had a new manager and new players. They brawled with the Yankees early in the season, then sneaked into the post-season as the Wild Card team. Early in the postseason, their ace pitcher, brought in to win a championship, suddenly couldn't walk or pitch because of a detached ankle tendon. In the Championship Series, they then lost three straight games to the Yankees. No team had ever gone down 0-3 and come back to win. But the Sox did. Their ace pitcher had a cadaver's tendon sutured to his ankle and pitched a Game 6 gem. The team inexplicably gelled at the crucial moment. They not only became the first team in history to come back from 0-3 to win 4-3, they swept their World Series competition. They won seven games in a row to take home the first championship in nearly nine decades, in the process handing their arch-rivals the most stunning and improbable defeat in the game's history. At the time, respected and savvy baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian called it, "The greatest story baseball ever told." Wisely, the team behind Mind Game explain their sabermetric concepts by re-telling it.

There was nothing wrong with BP's math in Baseball Between the Numbers, except for the fact that it was math. That made the book what it was. What makes Mind Game immeasurably better is that the math is still there, but it's subservient to narrative. If you like baseball, which is why you'd be reading the book in the first place, you know the story well enough to follow along in pursuit of analysis. If you don't vaguely remember the story or don't like baseball much, you can still read the book for the redemptive underdog story elements. Either way, as it unfolds, you learn the sabermetric underpinnings that helped create the story in the first place and that define much of modern baseball.

Mind Game breaks the Sox saga down chronologically. First, it dismisses the "curse" nonsense and gives a brutal history of both racism and mismanagement in the team's front office. Next, it recaps the emotional agonies of previous seasons, concluding with the brutal 2003 loss. Finally, it follows the 2004 team virtually month by month. For an outsider, this is great, because the story unfolds as it happened. Most importantly, the BP writers take each step during the course of the season to highlight the sabermetric elements that most contributed to that part of the season. Because the analysis emerges in service to the narrative, the reader's experience is deepened and given context, rather than being ripped away to examine abstractions that compare data from different eras that don't seem to have any apparent correlation.

Best of all, the book is pretty funny. If you know baseball, many parts of it are outright hilarious. But even if you don't, something about the narrative structure seems to give the supposedly stuffy statistics guys free reign to deliver asides that will make even the sports neophyte smile. For instance:
The Blue Jays were in a perpetual rebuilding program that had all the hallmarks of one of those graft-ridden rural highway projects that are never completed.... As for the Devil Rays, back in 1998 the team had hopped off the franchise incarnation wheel at a point somewhere between Sisyphus Stadium and Slough of Despond Park. (p. 48)

The Red Sox perceived Damon's defensive value.. which was heightened in their particular case by the presence of a visitor from outer space named Manny Ramirez in left field. Ramirez's range was limited by his tendency to treat every fly ball as if it were a unique, previously unencountered situation. (p. 110)
It feels like a fun book because the contributors seem to be having fun with it, and a faithful reader can't help but pick up on that. The BP guys know the nuts and bolts, but they get to delight in telling about them their way, with quantifiable data and an unforgiving examination of the record.

The story is baseball, but it has to be. The point is mathematical, but it also has to be. The book splits the difference between the two in a winning and engrossing way. It can be read as a story, as a primer in sabermetrics and also as a pointed text about baseball statistics. It succeeds most in providing a spectrum of narrative and data with which readers can engage as passively or as analytically as they choose.

Rating: 5
Highly recommended for baseball or sabermetrics fans. Highly recommended for readers coming off Moneyball and wondering what to read next. Not recommended for the absolute baseball hater or the absolute statistical wonk, as those fringe interests will not be served. A great gift for someone who likes baseball or who likes statistics applied to a manageable narrative. The only people who won't like this book are people who already subscribe to some form of absolutism related to statistics or baseball that prevents them from enjoying it. In that case, you probably already know their prejudices enough to know why this book would not be a good idea.

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Et tu, Mr. Destructo? is a politics, sports and media blog whose purpose is to tell jokes or be really right about things. All of us have real jobs and don't need the hassle that telling jokes here might occasion, which is why some contributors find it more tasteful to pretend to be dead mass murderers.