Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Steven Goldman: Baseball Prospectus, Extra innings"

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If you haven't noticed, live in a bubble, and haven't been reading themacinator, it's the baseball offseason, also known as hibernation, or the Worst Season of the Year. I have, until recently, not found a cure for no-baseball-itis. That was until I discovered Nerdy Baseball Books like "Baseball Prospectus: Extra Innings." This hard-to-put-down book answers many questions and attempts to answer many others with complicated numbers- sabermetrics- in an accessible way. Sabermerics, editor Steven Goldman explains, "is concerned with the pursuit of fact," but the mainstream media hasn't caught up yet, and "is often hostile to sabermetrics because facts impinge upon their ability to pass of myth as knowledge and claim it as fact."

The Baseball Prospectus guys deal with this right away in their discussion of steroids. I'll admit, I haven't quite swallowed their argument that perhaps there was more to it than just steroids: historical swings in home run rates, new ballparks and changes to the ball might also have led to juiced numbers. I'm old-fashioned and not a fan of cheating, but the sabermetric breakdown is pretty convincing, as is the follow up layout of which steroid-era players should and shouldn't make the Hall of Fame. For example: Barry Bonds, yes- one of the best players of all time in terms of WARP (wins above replacement player), Sammy Sosa, no- he rates well below other right fielders and really is known for his homeruns that came at the peak of the steroid era. It's a fascinating and thought-provoking argument.

The book also deals with scouting and development, including a journey through a hypothetical prospect's career. Robert Elias's "The Empire Strikes Out" touched on scouting in a race/economics way and peaked my interest in MLB's (ab)use of the Caribbean, Central and South America as talent breeding/poaching grounds. Jason Parks guides readers through what it is and how it works, and I have no reason not to believe the guy, just because he doesn't talk much about the ethical implications. Combining his work and Elias's, along with some more reading I plan to do should keep me busy for more of the off-season. I will say that Parks gives some credence when he speaks of Latin America like this: "The region is stacked with natural athletes... The talent is superior, from a physical standpoint, to our domestic product: the athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster than talent found in other markets, and available earlier." Have you heard the one about Africans being better at basketball? Sabermetrics seem to go out the window for a minute when racist arguments are available. Fortunately this kind of thinking doesn't pop up much, and this book is as readable as a baseball book gets. I mean, how can you say no to a book with a chapter called "Is it Possible to Accurately Measure Fielding without Shoving a GPS Device Up Derek Jeter's Ass?" In fact, "Extra Innings" takes aim at Jeter pretty much every time they can, which is fine with me. The book also talks a lot about the A's, without glorifying them- another bonus point for a local girl. Read it, preferably in the offseason.