Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Review: Extra Innings

From time to time, I like to review relevant baseball books on this site. Today, I'm going to let someone else do the reviewing.  James Bailey, professional book reviewer and author of the excellent baseball novel The Greatest show on Dirt, shares his review of Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers from the Team at Baseball Prospectus. A more complete bio for Mr. Bailey can be found after the review.   

Review of Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers from the Team at Baseball Prospectus

By James Bailey 

There’s more to sabermetrics than FIP and WARP and BABIP. These statistics that have been filtering into the baseball lexicon over the past decade are really just tools that allow fans and serious students of the game to answer questions and settle debates. Each new breakthrough introduces opportunities for further study. For while Wins may be a stat on the wane, winning is chief in the heart of all fans, of both old-school and stathead persuasion.

With teams, particularly those working under smaller budgets, seeking any advantage, organizations have embraced these non-traditional statistics as a means to identify new approaches in the post-Moneyball world. This, of course, makes the folks at Baseball Prospectus happy, because if there’s anything they love more than a new stat, it’s asking thought-provoking questions that force people to rethink long-held beliefs about what works and what doesn’t.

Six years ago, Baseball Prospectus unleashed a volume called Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. They tackled questions then like what’s the matter with RBI and other long-familiar stats, why are pitchers so unpredictable, and did Derek Jeter deserve to win the Gold Glove.

They’re back at it again, with a new book called Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers. The theme this time is how best to construct a winning team. This go-round, topics include such puzzlers as is a good fielder worth as much as a good hitter, what’s the best way to build a bullpen, and why are strikeouts so prevalent today (and how do they affect the game).

Before they get to those, Jay Jaffe, a BP writer and voting member of the BBWAA, takes an in-depth look back at the steroids era and how juicing really impacted the game. His conclusion, there’s more to the formula than simply steroids + ballplayers = more runs. There were a number of other factors to consider, including smaller stadiums, livelier baseballs, expansion, and an ever-shifting strike zone. While acknowledging steroids played a role in the super-sized accomplishments of sluggers like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, Jaffe breaks down their numbers, as well as those of their contemporaries, and concludes the boost they got from their pharmacist was likely not as great as most fans believe. He also examines the Hall of Fame case for each, utilizing a tool he calls the Jaffe WARP Score (JAWS). His hyperbole-free two cents: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are in, McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro are not.

In Part 2, the BP team gets down to the real business of building a roster, kicking things off with an excellent chapter by Jason Parks breaking down the tools scouts look for when evaluating pitchers and position players and how the 20-to-80 scale works. You might not be ready to seek and sign talent after reading it, but you’ll at least be better able to understand those who do. And you might even spot something that makes you feel a little smarter next time you’re watching a game.

Rany Jazayerli, one of BP’s co-founders way back in 1996, weighs in with one of the most fascinating chapters in the book, in which he studies the correlation between age of a high school position player and his future success. By looking back over three decades worth of draft data (1965-1996), he found that younger high school hitters were undervalued commodities on draft day, with 17-year-olds having more projectable growth left than 18-year-olds. The advantage for younger high school pitchers was significantly smaller, to the point where it’s debatable whether one actually exists at all. For college hitters and pitchers, Jazayerli found a tendency for younger players to produce better results, though it wasn’t as pronounced as for the high school hitters. This is a chapter you hope the scouting director of your favorite team read thoroughly before the draft earlier this month.

Some of the other highlights of the book include the chapters on building a bullpen and deploying it (two separate topics); a breakdown on how hitting and fielding values compare, and which a club might benefit from adding on a tight budget; and what we’ve learned thus far from the PITCHf/x data that only a few years ago seemed revolutionary but is now readily available. Jaffe, BP’s resident Hall-of-Fame expert, also checks in once more with a detailed look at Jack Morris’s case for Cooperstown. The former Tiger/Twin/Blue Jay (let’s not mention Indian) has been something of a lightning rod as a pitcher who racked up 254 wins despite middling numbers in a host of other categories. Jaffe again brings a reasoned approach to the argument, backing up his assertions with a number of statistical comparisons to pitchers already enshrined. His conclusion: read the book, I can’t give them all away.

Curiously, for all the advice the book has on how to build a team, one of the weaker chapters is the one on how to evaluate general managers. Though it cites statistics such as marginal payroll dollars per marginal win (M$/MW) and market value over replacement player (MORP), it notes limitations for both and concludes “it’s unlikely there will ever be a single, objective, all-encompassing statistic” that will be useful in comparing GMs. Without formulas to massage, we’re instead given a 12-page Q&A analysis of Theo Epstein, as an example of how to break down a GM. The chapter sums up by speculating we may have reached the era of parity among GMs. This seems unlikely. There will always be good and bad GMs, just as there will always be good and bad shortstops.

The chapter on whether Stephen Strasburg’s 2010 elbow ligament injury could have been prevented comes down even more squarely on the fence. “The answer as to whether Strasburg’s injury could have been predicted, and thus prevented is, unfortunately, yes and no.” Thanks for that decisive answer. Can I have the 30 minutes I spent reading that chapter back?

Overall, this is a satisfying and thought-stoking release, with much of it coming from a different angle than you might be accustomed to given the heavy dependence in most sabermetric resources on statistics and formulas. Certainly they are here aplenty, but they play more of a supporting role, as tools to build cases and back up arguments. The book wraps up with a status update on a number of questions that were raised at the turn of the century and by posing a handful of new ones to ponder over the next decade. In other words, a jumping off point for the BP team’s next book.

James Bailey reviews books on his site, Bailey’s Baseball Book Reviews  He is a regular contributor to Baseball America, for whom he covered minor league baseball for six years. His novel The Greatest Show on Dirt, about working for the Durham Bulls in old Durham Athletic Park in the early 1990s, is now available on Amazon.

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