by Sam Walker.
My first thought was, ho-hum, another bestselling
book aimed at us stat-heads. Bill James isn’t writing as much these days (or for a long time, it seems) and keeping
his insights mostly to his Red Sox. That’s not to say James’ books on the Hall of Fame, Managers, and Pitchers
aren’t treasures, they just aren’t full of the sabremetric revelations we grew to expect from him. His co-author
on the pitchers book Rob Neyer has continued along that vein of fun historical reads with his books on Blunders and Line-ups.
There are a bunch of analytical writers on the internet making serious sabremetric reports and books. Many of them are found
at Baseball Prospectus, Hardball Times, Baseball Think Factory, (and one guy at Scoresheetwiz, wink, wink). However, three books in particular about baseball numbers crunchers themselves have come out in
recent years and I believe all three ventured into the national best selling non-fiction lists.
was the first best-selling book from this group. The most exciting thing about the book was that it legitimized us. Moneyball has been required reading for board members and CEOs. Making best use of the market may be a classic
business practice, but reading about a baseball team using it for player evaluation makes it for fun for business men to think
they are applying a baseball principle to their work. In any case, due to Billy Beane’s success with his open high regard
for statistics as exposed by Moneyball, the trail has been blazed for other teams
to engage stat men openly. Stats or not, hearing some of the inside player personnel discussions of a real major league team
was interesting in itself. However, there was too much repetition for my taste. It seemed as though author Michael Lewis would
forget what he wrote three chapters earlier – or it was written for people who forget what they read three chapters
earlier – or for people who speed read without much retention.
Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics is a straightforward history class on baseball statistics.
Thank you, Alan Schwarz. It was better written than Moneyball, but obviously didn’t
have nearly as much impact. I appreciated the history lessons going back to the first box scores. The chapter on Mike Gimbel
was a particularly interesting tale which cast a dark shadow on any stat oriented outsider trying to get into baseball. Whether
you are trying to get in baseball or not, it revealed George Lindsay’s useful unsung odds table of “the average total runs scored after each of the 24 possible situations” – of runners
on base and a particular number of outs. Most of its history centered around lonely but unshakably determined men using statistics
to bring to us insight and the richer stories baseball statistics can tell – and games we can play. It brings us right
up to the powerfully technical world of mlb.com.
Then a year ago came Fantasyland. Obviously, it is about Fantasy Baseball – more specifically it traces the history of Rotisserie
baseball (some of which was covered in The Numbers Game) and the author Sam Walker’s
rookie season as a member of Ron Shandler’s Tout Wars League – the country’s most observed Rotisserie league
of famous fantasy league experts. I devout my life (to the detriment of my family) to my Scoresheet Leagues, but I thought
there are few subjects more boring than someone else’s fantasy league. Well, not if you hear how Sam Walker pursued
it. No angle was too extreme. This was an hilarious romp. If Walker is an expert at anything, it is his comic timing.
Between the outrageous scouting escapades,
strategy meetings with his staff of two, and the actual draft and trade negotiations, much of the book is devoted to the personalities
and contrasting styles of the different Trout managers. Some of those managers (Ron Shandler, Lawr Michaels, and Trace Wood)
are playing with the Barton brothers in AL Fanalytical. Others play Scoresheet in the BP Kings League (Jeff Erickson, Joe
Sheehan, and Walker himself). Many other real life characters make memorable appearances: John Benson, Billy Beane, various
major leaguers. Walker brings to life Shandler’s brief
pathetic encounter with Bill James before Shandler was famous. Despite it’s extreme brevity, it was incredibly insightful.
Walker also gives us his take on the Mike Gimbel story.
Just to give you a taste, I’ll relay
once incident when Walker buys a radar gun and brings it to
Spring Training. Although, he doesn’t even know how to use it at first, he discovers it attracts scouts and the star
of Ken Burns’ famous documentary on baseball:
Between innings, as
I’m standing in the aisle behind home plate, there’s a tap on my shoulder. It’s former Negro Leagues star
Buck O’Neil, who’s still sharp and spry at ninety-two. He’s seen my radar gun and come down to ask me what
the reading was on Brian Anderson’s changeup. I tell him. We laugh.
and I are sharing a bag of peanuts. He’s telling me what it sounded like when the great Josh Gibson hit a home run.
Not the roar of the crowd, but the mighty howl of his bat. “Never heard that sound since,” he says.
Note to self: if I ever go to a spring training
game, bring a radar gun.
This year, if anyone wants a serious book
for a statistical minded baseball fan, this book looks like the one to get: http://www.insidethebook.com/ (The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom
Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin). I haven’t read it, yet, but hopefully by this time next year I’ll
have a review of it in scoresheetwiz.