Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 28, 2018

Book Review: Nine Innings In The Postmodern Era

As this is written, the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are getting ready to play Game 5 of the 2018 World Series at Dodger Stadium. With Boston holding a three games to one advantage, the final out of the longest season may be just a few hours away, perhaps already recorded by the time many readers turn their attention to this post. If not, then the moment will come in Fenway Park on Tuesday or Wednesday.

With the first days of Spring Training in Florida and Arizona a distant memory, the curtain is coming down on another season of the Great Game. Or Baseball, as Rob Neyer prefers in his new book “Power Ball,” which On Sports and Life highly recommends. Not baseball, with a small “b,” but Baseball. Neyer’s capitalization, like the two-word term used in this space, distinguishes the game at its highest professional level from the underlying sport. The latter finds its origins not with Abner Doubleday but with eighteenth century stick and ball games played in England. In its evolved form baseball is played around the globe, from sandlots to side streets to schools and colleges and in countless minor league parks and numerous professional leagues on other continents.

The Great Game, Neyer’s Baseball, is the epitome of the sport, thirty Major League Baseball franchises playing a 162-game schedule leading to a multi-round tournament that culminates with the World Series. The current state of that level of the game is the subject of considerable debate. While Neyer’s book won’t end the discussion (sports fans love nothing more than a good argument), it makes a worthy contribution to it, with the added benefit of being a compelling read.

Neyer began his career working with Bill James and then STATS, LLC, before writing for ESPN, SB Nation, and later Fox Sports. Earlier this year he became commissioner of the West Coast League, the premier west coast summer college league. Given his start, it’s no surprise that he’s committed to the use of advanced analytics, even while understanding the significant changes brought on by increased reliance on sabermetrics. For Neyer the most dramatic change, as his title suggests, is the heightened importance of power; not just in the form of increased slugging, but also power on the mound with pitchers throwing ever harder, and power in the front office with general managers sifting through more data while making personnel decisions.

The book’s subtitle is “Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game,” and Neyer builds his analysis around a detailed description of a late season contest in September 2017 between the visiting Houston Astros, well on their way to the playoffs, and the home Oakland Athletics, stuck in last place in the AL West. Some fans may recognize the construct, famously used by Arnold Hano with “A Day in the Bleachers” more than six decades ago, and by Dan Okrent in “Nine Innings” in 1985. Neyer pays homage to both Hano and Okrent, as well as to Michael Lewis, whose seminal “Moneyball” introduced most fans to the concept and growing use of advanced analytics and set the stage for an entire new lexicon of statistics that have rendered familiar numbers like batting average, ERA, and a pitcher’s win-loss record increasingly obsolete. He suggests that if “Moneyball” described what was then the modern game, the current reliance on reams of data has taken the Great Game into its postmodern era, one made possible not just by stat nerds capable of making sense of the new numbers, but also by enhanced technology able to capture the data in real-time.

At the same time, and this is a welcome development coming from a committed sabermetrician, Neyer is dismissive of the growing use of statistics without context. He reports not just on the game between the Astros and A’s, but also on the television coverage by the two team’s media outlets. Both sets of announcers’ report on the launch angle and exit velocity of every well-struck ball, and Neyer rightly questions the value of such information for the average fan. What does an angle of 23.6 degrees, or a velocity of 98.7 miles per hour mean, and if the numbers can’t be given useful meaning, why bother mentioning them?

Neyer uses the unfolding game to highlight the major features of the postmodern game, from defensive shifts to uppercut swings to pitch counts and specialized relievers. But he also goes beyond the importance of analytics to discuss other ways in which Baseball is, and sometimes isn’t changing. In the latter category he notes the absence of even a single openly gay player, the halting and inadequate efforts by MLB to grow the game in the inner city, and the yawning pay gap. No, his concern on that last point isn’t about the difference between the $35 million Clayton Kershaw made this season compared to the league minimum of $545,000 paid to the Yankees’ breakout rookie Gleyber Torres, but rather the gap between Torres’s paychecks and those of most minor leaguers.

He also notes the concern of many fans and pundits over the decline in on-field action, as postmodern Baseball increasingly becomes a game of Two True Outcomes – home runs and strikeouts – neither of which results in a batted ball in play. Here Neyer has a warning for his fellow writers, suggesting that too many members of the baseball media see the game as a two-sided coin, with players on one side and owners on the other. But “they forget,” Neyer writes, “about the millions of fans who pay for all these nice things.” Attendance fell about four percent this year from 2017 and is down more than ten percent over the last decade. Those are the numbers that Neyer believes will ultimately get the attention of the Great Game’s decision-makers. When that happens, he lists several possible changes they might consider, from changes in the strike zone to smaller gloves for fielders to calling balls and strikes by technology rather than a fallible human eye.

At heart Neyer remains a fan of Baseball, and thus is confident that the Great Game will survive, as it has through myriad other challenges over its long history. That confidence is grounded in the simple truth that no amount of analytics can ever negate the randomness of a single at-bat. Like in the bottom of the 9th of a meaningless September 2017 game between a team that would shortly be crowned champion, and one mired in the cellar of its division. That was when Astros closer Ken Giles was called upon to preserve an 8-7 lead. While on the mound Giles threw four pitches at 99 MPH, and one at 100, the five fastest pitches in the entire game. Oakland batters recorded three hits in the inning, none of which were among the twenty hardest-hit balls of the contest. Home run by an unheralded rookie to tie the score. Single to right. Walk. RBI single to left center, and a walk-off win for the underdog A’s. That randomness is, and always will be, Baseball.

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