Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: Smart Baseball (2017)

By Keith Law

"Smart Baseball" is sort of like a college textbook, except for the fact that there aren't many classes in most universities on baseball analysis.

Translation: For the most part, it gets a bit more difficult to read as you go along.

Even so, you'll probably come out a bit smarter once you are done reading it.

Keith Law is the professor of sorts for the book, and he's well qualified to lead the discussion. Law is a former writer for Baseball Prospectus. He worked in the front office of the Blue Jays for a while - heck, he was the entire analytics department - before moving on to ESPN. Law's columns there have been smart and interesting.

In his first book, Law takes us through the revolution in baseball statistics. If you've been paying attention for the last several years, you know that all sorts of different numbers are now "out there." Suddenly such terms of "spin rate" and "launch velocity" are popping up on television broadcasts.

This book is divided into three sections. Part One is going to be the most interesting for most readers. Here Law goes through some common statistics that pop up in baseball, and shows why they aren't too useful. Batting average doesn't account for walks, pitching wins has too many external factors influencing them, saves hardly tell the story of relief pitching, fielding percentage scratches at the surface of telling how good a particular player is, and RBIs are skewed toward good teams because they generate more opportunities (in other words, a good player on a bad team won't drive home many runners, because there are fewer runners to drive in). It's all very logical and well done.

From there, we move into the new wave of baseball numbers, relatively speaking. On-base percentage has been around for quite a while, but no one seemed to pay attention to it until, oh, maybe 15-20 years ago. From there, we get into such numbers as slugging percentage and OPS, Fielding Independent Pitching and Win Probability Added, and UZR/dRS fielding ratings. I'm not going to tell you I understood some of them too well, because I didn't.

Luckily, things get a little easier in Part Three. Law looks at Hall of Fame debates through the new numbers, tells what a scout does in this new age, and opens a door to a vast data-collection project in Major League Baseball that will be a huge tool for further analysis. You'll come away thinking, why is Jack Morris on the inside of the Hall of Fame and Lou Whitaker on the outside?

Law is a good teacher, and he explains this stuff well. Still, it's easy to wonder if we've gotten to the point where we're leaving some people behind. Some of these statistical tools are great for evaluation over the long haul, and teams can use them to try improve their rosters. But fielding zone ratings aren't going to pop up on scoreboards during your next visit to the baseball park. Yes, the game can be enjoyed at all sorts of levels, but sometimes the discussions here can be more centered on the long term than short term. If I'm watching a game featuring a starting pitcher with an ERA of 3.00, I have a rough idea that he's pretty good. The team may want more information than that, but I'm quite satisfied with that much data while I'm having a hot dog and drink.

The Revolution really is here, and "Smart Baseball" will help you understand what's happening. But if you prefer to stay "blissfully ignorant" of the new statistical tools used at the game's highest level, that's fine too - there's room enough for everyone. And it's not like batting average and RBIs will disappear anytime soon.

Four stars

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: The Immaculate Inning (2018)

By Joe Cox

"The Immaculate Inning" as a concept is something that seems relatively new in baseball, at least by that name. It happens when a pitcher throws nine strikes and no balls in an inning, meaning that no fielder even touched the ball during the course of sending the batting team down in order. I'm not sure I heard the term used in this way until a few years ago.

Now it's fairly common when it happens, which isn't too often. Maybe the book, "The Immaculate Inning" will help give it a bit of a boost in popularity.

Author Joe Cox essentially has written a book of lists without the actual lists. He has compiled some achievements that take place in a given game, season or career that are not quite unique but very unusual. It's something of  a crash course on the personal side of the game, since the feats are done by players and not teams.

Having perhaps confused you with those last couple of sentences, let's explain the format of the book. Cox has picked out 30 different items for examination. They include such items as 20 strikeouts in a game, hitting for the cycle, "super slams" (walk-off grand slam homers when down three runs), Triple Crowns as a batter or pitcher, 30-game winners, 50-save seasons, etc. Most of the choices are solid enough, although I could have done without "Position Players Pitching" (uncountable at this point) and "Surviving Shenanigans to Win a League Batting Title" (a little arbitrary concerning the definition of shenanigans).

Let's take 50-homer seasons as an example. The text has how many times it has beendone in baseball history (45 through 2017), the most recent time (Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge last year), standout and surprise names on the list, and the chances of additions in the future (in this case, quite good considering the homer-happy environment). Then Cox tells the personal stories of those on the list, usually in about four or so sections. In this case, we have Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, Cecil and Prince Fielder, and Stanton and Judge.

Based on the back of the book, there's little doubt that Cox did his homework here. He went through a lot of books, websites, newspapers, etc. to collect information for this book. Cox definitely gets major points for that. He even interviewed a half-dozen players about their achievement; too bad some of the 19th century performers weren't around to comment.

OK, does this all work? That I'm not so sure about.

It's a difficult assignment to make some of this material interesting. There's some play-by-play of games from long ago, and it's easy to get the idea of what happened pretty quickly. The life stories of well-known players are rather well-known so it's tough to be drawn in, although some new tidbits for some may emerge along the way there. For example, I had no idea that Ken Griffey Jr. tried to commit suicide as a teen by swallowing a couple of hundred aspirin tablets.

It's also a surprise that each category doesn't have a full list of those who are in "the club" at the end of each chapter. Some lists would be a little lengthy, but it would have helped to see all the names in most cases.

"The Immaculate Inning," then is a tough needle to thread. Readers need a strong interest in baseball to even pick it up, but those same readers might not learn that much along the way. Those who are in the sweet spot will learn some historical background on the game, but their numbers won't be great.

Two stars

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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review: The Arena (2017)

By Rafi Kohan

Arenas and stadiums fill an interesting role in our society. They bring people with a common interest together. What else does that?

What's more, when people walk through the gates, they anticipate having a good time. It might be a sporting event, or a concert, or some other function, but there's always a chance they'll have a memory that will last for a lifetime.

Rafi Kohan decided to take a good-sized look at the subject - and perhaps he discovered along the way just how good-sized a book like this needed to be. He explores a variety of issues dealing with our arenas and stadiums in "The Arena," and does it with a good combination of smarts and good humor.

Obviously, some of the subjects could have been turned into books on their own. The most obvious in that category is what's involved in building the arena or stadium in the first place. Hundreds of millions of dollars go into construction of our sports palaces, and quite a bit of comes from public sources.

Is it a good investment? Economists and certain activists will tell you no, that it doesn't generate that much money for those who could use it - instead benefiting owners and players, who are usually doing pretty well as it is. Maybe that money should be going to where it is needed more, or where it might have a larger direct impact. You can do a lot with a billion dollars. On the other hand, such facilities do improve the quality of life in a particular area, and serve as free advertising for a community. That can help lure new people and industries to town. We do need and enjoy our gathering places.

After getting through the areas of building new structures and maintaining old ones (Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wrigley Field in Chicago), Kohan moves on to a variety of related subjects. Some work better than others. The ticket-scalping business has changed over the years, as their resale has become legal and in some cases encouraged if done through approved sources. The story is a little on the confusing side. The Superdome's role in Hurricane Katrina is quite a tale, as you probably know, but it's tough to say if it fits into this book smoothly.

But about a third of the way through, Kohan moves into areas that are more suited for this format. What's involved with maintaining fields in baseball and football? What do teams do about bad fan behavior? What did the Jerry Sandusky scandal do to the bonds that tied Penn State fans together? What's involved in trying to make sure that fans have fun at a game, win or lose? What's involved in keeping the place tidy, or changing it around from event (hockey game) to concert hall?

The last two chapters are particularly thought-provoking. Our professional sports teams have embraced the military in recent years, with reunions and introductions and discounts, and so forth. The armed forces are popular, and teams no doubt think it is good to link themselves with patriotism. But there are many forms of patriotism and service to the country, and those other versions are usually ignored at our games. Kohan doesn't spent long on this area, but you'll certain think about it the next time there is a brief ceremony at your next game.

The author concludes with a visit to the Silverdome, which hosted many events including the Super Bowl during its relatively short lifespan. Eventually it was allowed to sit and crumble, becoming a symbol for the issues of decay that struck parts of the Midwest in recent years. But every city faces such decisions concerning our public facilities, and the sports versions' span of usefulness seems to be shrinking by the day. I might have been tempted to open the book with the story of the Cowboys' stadium and end it with the Silverdome, if only because the contrast would be so dramatic. But, that's just me.

As a book, "The Arena" is not going to be for every taste. The first part takes some concentration to read, and the chapters are long. But it gains momentum from there, and became a good look at some areas that don't get much examination on a regular basis. If you spend more than a couple of times a year in such facilities, you'll enjoy this.

Four stars

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2018

Edited by Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayer

The list of items that I buy faithfully every year probably is pretty small. I guess ant traps qualify. Holiday cards. Auto insurance. Magazine renewals.

Then there are books. Every fall, I order the latest Best American Sports Writing book. And every late spring, I get Baseball Prospectus. This year's copy of the latter just arrived in time for the start of spring training, and after finishing it I'm ready for exhibition games to begin.

I'm sure the staff of Baseball Prospectus, which also has a website, exhales a bit when the book comes out. There's a ton of work that must go into this, even in the age of computers, and it's remarkable that it comes out so quickly. No, J.D. Martinez isn't listed with the Red Sox, but the staff worked hard to get it as up to date as possible.

What's old? The format, for those who have never picked it up, remains the same. Every team gets a chapter of about 16-18 pages. The first three pages have an essay of some sort, surrounded by some charts and graphs about a few standard areas (farm system rankings, park dimensions, etc.) Then we're off on a review of every significant player in the organization. They are roughly laid out four to a page, so each player gets a good-sized paragraph and a long stat line. I should mention that, as usual, the type goes all the way across the 8.5-inch page, which can be a little daunting after a while. The layout does allow more information to be printed, though. After more than 500 pages of such team breakdowns, the back end is highlighted by a list of the top prospects in the game and an index.

The usual precaution - don't feel as if you have to read every player description. I usually skip over the minor league players from teams other than my personal favorites. But you're free to go back to it during the course of the season if something of interest comes up. 

What's new? The most obvious addition is that players from leagues in Japan and South Korea have gotten the Baseball Prospectus "treatment" this year. It's impressive that the information has been collected, although I'm not sure how many readers will plow through it. Many American readers probably will wait until a player is poised to jump over the ocean for baseball employments. But it's there if you need it.

Baseball Prospectus first caught my attention because of its writing style. The various authors, and there are bunches of them, always have been given wide latitude to come up with fun and different ways of coming up with descriptions of players. That's not easy to do, and my unscientific viewpoint is that fewer people approached it this year in such a way as opposed to past years' books.

Overall, it felt as if this year's ratings were more serious. That cut down my enjoyment level of the 2018 edition by a shade. It seemed like every middle reliever in organized baseball - and there are a bunch of them - gets the same sort of review. However, there are exceptions. The writers of the Texas Rangers were the best example of that. Others may disagree that the attempts at humor work, but there's a lot of material to go through - let's have some giggles along the way.

Most of the complaints on this year center on the fact that the price on the Kindle edition of the book went up by quite a bit. I don't buy many books that way, but the list price is the print edition did go up a couple of dollars. That happens, but it's still worth the purchase price.

After finishing the 2018 edition, you'll feel ready for the upcoming season to start - even if all of the free agents haven't signed yet. Then keep Baseball Prospectus 2018 handy for when you watch a game on television during the upcoming season.

Five stars

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: Alou (2018)

By Felipe Alou with Peter Kerasotis

The name "Alou" isn't quite specific when it comes to a baseball book.

Which one is it about? Felipe Alou, who was a very solid player throughout the 1960s and then became a successful manager? How about his brother Matty, merely a former batting champion? Or another brother Jesus, who had a good-sized career too? Finally, there's Moises, Felipe's son who had several fine seasons in the majors.

The answer of the question, if you didn't look at the byline or the photo, is Felipe. He's come out with his second autobiography, "Alou." The first one was written back in the 1960s, so it's fair to say this baseball lifer has an update coming to him.

Let's get one point straight here. Felipe's mother had a maiden name of Alou, while his father was a Rojas. The mother's name came last in the Dominican Republic, where the family resided, so Felipe was an Alou as a baseball player. A relative, Mel Rojas, avoided that little problem, and eventually was a pitcher on one of Felipe's managed teams in Montreal.

You might not think of Felipe Alou as a pioneer, but he truly fits that description. Alou was one of the the first major league players to come from Latin America, which is quite an achievement. Adding to the luster of that statement was that he grew up quite poor in a small town in the D.R. The living space was about the size of a typical bedroom by American standards, and some of it had a dirt floor. There wasn't much money for fun and games, so Felipe had to improvise. He was good at the baseball part of it, but thought he would become a doctor. However, when the Giants waved a little bonus money at him, the family could not afford to turn it down.

The best part of the book concerns Alou's struggles in the early years of his career. He was first sent to Louisiana, where in the late 1950s it was more important to segregate the team than it was to win. Alou was sent to Florida from there, and took out his frustrations on opposing batters. Baseball readers know the drill - separate houses, less-than-equal opportunity to play, etc. But it still hurts to read such material, even from a distance of 60 years.

Alou had more such problems once he got to San Francisco. Manager Bill Rigney never gave him a chance either. When Alou looked around the Giants' roster, he saw it overflowing with talent in the early 1960s. Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey were just coming into their own, and Alou's brothers were following him to the majors as well. Oh, some guy named Willie Mays was patrolling center field, and it's fair to say no one was going to get playing time at his expense.

Somebody had to go, and Felipe went to Milwaukee - which eventually headed to Atlanta. Alou was good there too, as he received some MVP votes and was a part of some good but not Braves teams. Injuries eventually slowed him down to the point where he bounced around a few teams and retired in the mid-1970s. Some of the statistical comparisons are made to rank him with Amos Otis, Chet Lemon and Dusty Baker, and those work pretty well.

Even so, he never would have had a second book had his baseball career not had a second act. Alou worked his way up the ladder as a minor league manager and major league coach. Just when you thought he'd be out of chances, he landed the Montreal Expos' job in 1992. There he guided the most unlucky team in history by some standards. The Expos of 1994 were a great squad, apparently headed for a championship when labor troubles stopped the season in early August. There was no World Series that year, no chance to prove how good the team was. Montreal broke up the squad over the winter, leaving us wondering. Alou is wondering himself - that team might still be in Montreal had it not been for that labor dispute.

Alou managed the Expos through 2001, took a year off, and went back to the Giants as skipper at the age of 68 in 2003. The Giants had two good years and two bad ones, and finally he was done. Here he has some stories about some of his players, such as Pedro Martinez and Barry Bonds. You can tell that he earned the respect of his players, treating them like men but was no pushover. In a different set of circumstances, Alou probably is in the Hall of Fame - but he had to play the hand he was dealt.

Those circumstances will prevent some casual baseball fans in America from reading this. There aren't many stories of great triumphs. Still, "Alou" ought to be a big hit in baseball-crazed sections of Latin America. He has an inspirational story to present, and he has tales of such Latin baseball heroes as Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal - not to mention the rest of the family - as well. Those who specialize in Latin baseball or in Expos history should give this an extra star. But it's a comfortable read for the rest of us.

Three stars

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: 99 (2016)

By Wayne Gretzky with Kirstie McLellan Day

Hockey fans could have guessed who wrote this book just by the title.

After all, no one else in the game ever will be associated with the No. 99 in the future - unless you are one of the handful of people who remember a couple of other 99s who played in the NHL - such as Rick Dudley and Wilf Paiement.

Wayne Gretzky is the 99 in question here. He's written a book that's a combination of facts and memories called "99." It came out in the fall of 2016, which was the start of the - you guessed it - 99th season in NHL history.

I'm not sure I need to say much about Gretzky here. He's the greatest scorer in hockey history, of course. He might be the greatest player in hockey history, although arguments could be made for Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. Come to think of it, Gretzky might argue for Howe himself.

But Gretzky might have had the biggest impact on the sport. When he arrived, the NHL was stumbling along. It was nearly bankrupt after a costly war with the World Hockey Association, and it still had an image problem left over from the days where fighting was a regular event at games - and thus was not taken seriously by large segments of the sports-minded public.

Gretzky arrived in the NHL in 1979 after a short stay in the WHA, and had a spectacular career. Not only could the league not ask for a better player, but it couldn't ask for a better spokesman and role model. Wayne was right out of central casting.

Gretzky wrote his autobiography about a quarter-century before this book, which fills something of a curious niche. It's something of a short, anecdotal history of the NHL mixed with his personal viewpoints. The book goes through a variety of topics early on, with Gretzky's views and stories mixed in a bit with historical background.

That's truly the odd part of the book. It's difficult to think of Gretzky going to the library to work on finding stories for the volume. The acknowledgments credit co-author Kirstie McLellan Day as well as a researcher, writer and fact-checker among others.  It works reasonably well although obviously a bit superficial, as there are better places to get a detailed hockey history lesson. But Gretzky's name still can attract attention, so if he can lure some readers in - great.

Once we get past Howie Morenz and Sprague Cleghorn (a name I can't type often enough) as well as the 1940s through 1960s, we land in what you could call the modern era of hockey. The second half of the book belongs to Gretzky and his tales about the great moments of hockey that he experienced. Some of that centers on the international competitions, including the 1972 series with the Soviets and some Canada Cups and Olympics. (The 1980 American win in Lake Placid is included.) Gretzky also has some stories about the Oilers' great dynasty in the 1980s.

Gretzky doesn't reveal too much about his life story after the point where he was traded to Los Angeles, which is a little disappointing. That includes the time when he coached in Phoenix. Gretzky also doesn't settle any scores here, taking the diplomatic approach. That includes, for example, his treatment of Bruce McNall, who went to jail for conspiracy and fraud and who drove the Kings to bankruptcy. Even so, Gretzky's anecdotes generally work well in this format, as the nearly 400 pages go by relatively quickly.

"99" isn't a ground-breaking book by any means, but it is a pleasant one and accomplishes its goal. It would be a good read for young people who want to learn a little of hockey's history, or for Gretzky's many fans who want some inside stuff on his fabulous career.

Four stars

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review: Court Justice (2018)

By Ed O'Bannon with Michael McCann

Ed O'Bannon may be remembered as a basketball player who did more for the sport off the court than on it - and he was very good on it.

O'Bannon is still fondly remembered in the Los Angeles area for leading UCLA to a national championship in 1995. It's the Bruins' only such win since John Wooden grabbed 10 of them in the sport's greatest dynasty.

After an NBA and European ball career, O'Bannon settled in as a staff member at a car dealership outside of Las Vegas. One of his friends pointed out that the friend's child was playing a video game - and O'Bannon's image was part of the game since the '95 UCLA team could be used as one of the teams. O'Bannon was excited at first, but then he wondered how the game could use his image with his permission or without compensation.

That led to a lawsuit, which turned into a class action filing on behalf of past and present NCAA athletes. His name will always be attached to the action, which eventually led to a clear legal victory in the case and some changes in the way the NCAA does business. Now O'Bannon gets to tell the story of the case, as well as what happened in the rest of his life, in "Court Justice."

O'Bannon won his initial case and then won an appeal that changed the terms of the damages somewhat, although the overall impact for the moment is somewhat limited for some complicated reasons. Still, athletes are receiving funds connected from video-game sales, and you can bet that more battles are coming now that the NCAA is subject to anti-trust laws in this area.

This is an interesting story that will be remembered down the road, but it's tough to say that O'Bannon is the best person to tell it. He was told going in that the case would go on for years (it did) and he wouldn't see much compensation (he didn't), but went ahead with it anyway because he wanted to right a wrong. More power to him for that. But while O'Bannon obviously learned a lot about the legalities involved, it's clear that he was something of an on-looker. O'Bannon brings along Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann for help here, and the implications of the case are discussed. But it's really difficult to turn anti-trust cases into "beach reading."

O'Bannon does make some contributions along the way, though. His personal story is instructive in some areas. For example, the NCAA has a rule that says student-athletes are supposed to spend only 20 hours per week on their sport. It's a nice idea, but unrealistic. In these days of teams in the same conference being spread out across the country, it's difficult to stick to anything close to that 20-hour guideline - which means that the job of student and the job of athlete are both full-time jobs. That's why students are essentially told to take less-than-demanding majors so that they have adequate time for sports. It happened to O'Bannon's sister.

O'Bannon's own story has some merits too. He came out of UCLA as a lottery pick by the New Jersey Nets, which did major improvements to his bank account. But he bounced around the NBA, never finding the right spot for a couple of years. O'Bannon ended up in Europe, where he played for several more years, but certainly his career didn't followed the forecast.

O'Bannon and McCann finish with a dozen ideas to improve the system. The subjects are covered at length and worth the consideration of someone in authority. The thoughts on the drafting of college players by professional leagues are particularly interesting. It would be interesting to know what might happen if NBA and NFL changed its rules to follow the NHL mode for eligibility. In hockey, when a player is drafted at 18, he can still go to college and play there while the team retains his rights. In basketball and hockey, once players declare their eligibility for the draft, they become the equivalent of radioactive to colleges and can't return even if they aren't drafted. That's quite a waste of talent, considering several players wash out quickly. 

Sometimes it's difficult to fans to consider the big-picture issues in sports, because they are complex with several interfering factors. "Court Justice" is naturally one-sided in its arguments, and it's frequently on the dry side. That makes it hardly for everyone, but it's relatively quick and gets to the point. Those seeking information on the landmark case will find it educational.

Three stars

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