The Book on The Book: A Landmark Inquiry into Which Strategies in the Modern Game Actually Work

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9780312332648: The Book on The Book: A Landmark Inquiry into Which Strategies in the Modern Game Actually Work

Diehard fanatics will enjoy this comprehensive collection of groundbreaking baseball strategies, analyses, statistics, and studies
Baseball fans all across America will delight in this fascinating analysis of strategies and statistics. This unique approach to understanding the "tried and true" methodologies of the game of baseball examines conventional elements like the steal, hit and run, and line up construction. The Book on the Book offers an exciting critique of baseball by placing an actual dollar value on player performance and rating managers based on their on-field moves to determine who are the smartest tacticians.

No corner of the ballpark is left unturned as author Bill Felber explores the various methods of team-building, on-field values of players, the role and influence of the general manager in team success, and the importance of park effects. In a more controversial section, new tactical approaches to the use of the pitching staff contradict the more generally accepted practices.

In the vein of the late Leonard Koppett and Bill James, Felber uses mathematical and statistical principles to evaluate the wisdom of standard baseball strategies. Illustrations and a refreshingly engaging style make The Book on the Book the new textbook of baseball analysis.

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About the Author:

BILL FELBER is executive editor of The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury. A native of Chicago's south side, he graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in journalism and has worked in that field for more than three decades. He is a member of the board of directors and treasurer of Associated Press Managing Editors. A baseball historian and researcher for 20 years, he has authored studies for Total Baseball and other publications on numerous on-field and off-field aspects of the game.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Book on the Book
PART ITHE GAME ON THE FIELDPREFACE TO PART IWhen Albert Spalding wrote one of the first histories of baseball in 1911, he deliberately sidestepped any discussion of strategies. Said Spalding, "The opinions of up-to-date, scientific experts so widely and so honestly vary as to what really constitute important methods that there is no intelligent hope of bringing them together."If he were alive today, Al Spalding couldn't get away with that dodge for two reasons. First, virtually every fan has an opinion on strategies, and fans are not at all shy about sharing their wisdom. But second and more relevant to Spalding's point, today we often do have the tools to determine which strategies work and which don't. We can tell through computer analyses precisely how frequently a stolen base must be successful in order to help the offense. We can develop statistical models to determine how much money is too much to pay Alex Rodriguez. We can determine exactly--if only in retrospect--how large a budget any team must have in order to be competitive in the pennant race.In other words, we can gauge what works and what doesn't.Spalding's reticence notwithstanding, the merits (or demerits) of particular strategies have always fascinated fans, players, and owners alike. Spalding himself was not immune from this reality; witness a comment from the 1885 edition of his Official Baseball Guide regarding baserunning:Each season's experience only shows more and more the fact that good baserunning is one of the most important essentialsof success in winning games ... Any soft-brained heavyweight can occasionally hit a ball for a home run, but it requires a shrewd, intelligent player, with his wits about him, to make a successful baserunner. Indeed, baserunning is the most difficult work a player has to do in a game.The importance of baserunning was one of the principal tenets of the original "Book"--by which is generally meant the common understandings that have governed baseball strategies. "The Book" became fixed in the minds of the game's cognoscenti over a period of decades, although in fact it has undergone a constant process of reform and revision. Over time, entire chapters governing on-field play--on topics as diverse as the wisdom of the sacrifice, playing for the long ball, the arrangement of a lineup, expectations for the starter, the use of relief pitching--have been written, erased, and rewritten. Just as managers of the 1950s would have viewed strategies of earlier generations as dated, some of their assumptions seem unfathomable today.Those changes may be driven by alterations in rules or playing conditions, such as improvements in the manufacturing of the baseball around 1910 that made for a harder product capable of being driven farther. They may also occur due to external demand: When Babe Ruth proved that fans loved a slugger (and would pay to see one), the long ball became a marketing device as well as a strategic tool. And as often as not, the on-field "Book" is rewritten due to simple copycatism. If one manager tries a new strategy and enjoys success, it is a virtual certainty that within a short time the idea will be widely pilfered, whether the pilferage actually makes strategic sense or not. For evidence, just look into the nearest bullpen.It is one thing to say that strategies have changed through the years--driven by wisdom, popular tastes, rules, legal judgments, or other factors--and another to assert that the changes have represented constant improvement. "The Book" as it is commonly understood todayrepresents nothing more than the collective judgment of the game's managers and general managers. The very fact that it has undergone constant revision strongly argues that "The Book," in the sense of representing the statistically ideal way of logically playing the game, has never been "written." And if that is the case, why would one deduce that "The Book" is "written" today, that strategic knowledge has reached its apotheosis, or that improvement has even necessarily taken place in a straight line?What we do know is that, more than ever, we are equipped to assess "The Book," to judge its legitimacies and weaknesses, and determine the extent to which big league teams do (or ought to) govern themselves by it. Which is joyous news to long-suffering fans of numerous perennially hapless teams: Maybe those bums of ours can't win, but at least we can figure out why not. 
A side note: Because the data do not exist for it to do so, neither this book nor any other explores one potentially vital aspect of modern "strategy" (if strategy it be), and that is the impact of performance-enhancing drugs. To the extent it is a factor, that factor is miasmic. We know from 2003 testing results that between 5 and 7 percent of players were using some type of improper, if not always illegal, performance enhancement. We don't know for how long, nor do we know the extent to which (if any) that use has affected the game.But simply because research into the impact of performance enhancements is not presently possible, we should not proceed as if those enhancements do not exist. In retrospect, the evidence of the impact of their use seems clear. For years experts have mumbled that there is "something different" about the modern game--generally this occurs in the context of the growth of offense during the most recent decade--and they have done so seemingly against all logical evidence. The flailing toward a theory at times sounds almost comical. Expansion? But why should expansion dilute only the pitching, while actually improving batting? Greater racial diversity? Oh, so what you'resaying is that minorities can hit but not pitch? Fitness regimes? As if pitchers don't work out. Each of those pseudo-theories tumbles one by one, and what remains is the one surreptitiously spoken theory that cannot be disproven because it cannot be factually addressed: juice. For the good of the game, let us hope that theory as well is eventually undermined by evidence.1THE COMPONENTS OF PLAYER VALUEEven before the result was announced, conventional wisdom conferred the 1998 National League Most Valuable Player Award on Sammy Sosa rather than Mark McGwire.The argument for Sosa and against McGwire could be heard that fall on the evening sports shows and read in the national newspapers. USA Today's National League columnist justified his selection of Sosa on the basis that McGwire's accomplishments--which, it should be noted, include setting the all-time record for home runs--came on behalf of a non-contender. In his mind this posed the question, "Valuable to what?" The previous night, an ESPN analyst backed Sosa's candidacy for the same reason precisely one breath before naming Ken Griffey, Jr. the American League's MVP. Griffey's Mariners finished nine games below .500 and in third place in the four-team AL West that season.Another ESPN commentator said he would vote for McGwire as Player of the Year, but not MVP. This is the smarmy new parsing. In baseball there is no such thing as player of the year. But what of it? ESPN pays its on-air personalities to be advocative and entertaining; commentators are not required to be reality-based.The cavalier dismissal of McGwire based on his team's nonstanding--which, by the way, received nearly unanimous ratification when the official vote was announced--logically reduces as follows: he's not the MVP because Ron Gant, Donovan Osborne, Jeff Brantley, and Kent Bottenfield stunk.Yet in that befuddling reasoning, the vote also frames a fascinating and broader question: What precisely is value? As the baseball experts saw it in 1998, Sosa had value because his team won; McGwire lacked value because his team didn't.The way we define "value" is the linchpin of much of "The Book" about baseball strategy for the simple reason that strategies are inevitably focused toward maximizing "value." Yet in the modern game, value analysis is often subjective and thus prone to error. Sports commentators commit this error as do team executives. As we consider the relevance of the modern baseball "Book," one of our foundations has to be an understanding as to what constitutes "value." In forming that understanding, we have to be careful that our trendy definitions don't confuse the ends with the means.THE FORMULA FOR SUCCESSOne of the singular beauties of baseball is that the components of success can be quantified. Relating the value of a basketball player to scoring average is too one-dimensional; football rotisserie leaguers don't even try to assess the value of a pulling guard. It's hard to reduce to a numerical formula the components that make a great professor, a great lawyer or, for that matter, a great book. The measure of a corporation's success can be stated on a bottom line, but can one devise a formula accurately presenting the relative contributions of all the corporation's accountants, salespeople, engineers, production line workers, and officers to that bottom line?This can be done in baseball because we have a very measurable result--namely a victory--which is created by means of a second entirely measurable occurrence, that being runs.Thanks to the intervention of computers, we know--and I do not use the word "know" loosely--that in the modern game the average base hit produces forty-six one-hundredths of a run; the average double produces eight-tenths of a run, etc. Conversely, we know that the average out reduces production by one-quarter of a run.All that being the case, and setting aside only the intangibles and uncountables, determining the MVP at season's end is a deceptively simple task. Count the singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, steals, and outs made by each player, apply the proper run-producing value of each event, add proper fielding and baserunning quotients, and you can define any player's value in the appropriate context of games won. (The same process works essentially in reverse, by the way, for pitchers--with equal validity.)The Most Valuable Player Award is a frequent backdrop for value-related arguments. Sometimes it takes the McGwire-Sosa context. At other times, the debate focuses on whether a pitcher should be eligible to win the award. None has since Dennis Eckersley won with Oakland in 1992. In the case of pitchers, the disqualifier tends to be twofold: First, they have their own award, the Cy Young; and second, they don't play every day. Of the first, little need be said in refutation beyond that it is plainly silly. So what if pitchers have their own award? In the NHL, defensemen have their own award ... did that stop hockey writers from voting for Bobby Orr for MVP all those seasons?The second argument, that pitchers' value is diminished because they are not everyday players, is superficially more appealing. Yet given a tinge of thought, that argument, too, quickly collapses. The essence of baseball is the pitcher-batter matchup, and it is not a vast oversimplification to say that the fellow who wins the greatest number of those matchups over the course of a six-month season is the most valuable player. There are, of course, degrees of "winning" and "losing" such matchups: While both a walk and a home run qualify as "wins" for the batter, one carries a substantial number of bonus points. But we can adjust for those variations.It is certainly true that an everyday position player has the opportunity to impact four or five times as many games as, for example, a starting pitcher. At the same time, a starting pitcher's impact on the game in which he appears is several times more significant than the impact of any individual position player. This is so for an obvious reason.In the typical game, a position player gets four or perhaps five opportunities to "win" or "lose" a pitcher-hitter matchup--and by doing so, influences the game's outcome. In a stretch of five games, that might amount to participation in between twenty and twenty-five such confrontations.A starting pitcher would only pitch one of those five games, but he would be involved in every one of the pitcher-hitter confrontations for the duration of his tenure in that game. Pedro Martinez may have only made 29 starts in 2000, but he pitched 217 innings, averaging seven and one-half innings per start. Since we know that Martinez allowed 160 base runners by either a hit or a walk, we can state the proposition in another and more precise way: Martinez influenced 811 pitcher-hitter confrontations in 2000, and he won 80 percent of them. The average American League pitcher won 65 percent; Martinez's edge over the field was 15 percent.Jason Giambi, the writers' choice for the 2000 MVP Award, certainly had a fine season. But Giambi was a part of only 647 pitcher-hitter confrontations--influencing the outcome of games 164 fewer times than Martinez. He did win 47 percent of those matchups, 12 percent more than the 35 percent league-wide average for batters. But still, his advantage was less substantial than Martinez's advantage(A side note: Seen in this context, the 1992 MVP Award to Eckersley--or to any relief pitcher--is plainly silly. In 1992, Eckersley won 77 percent of his pitcher-hitter confrontations ... but he only engaged in 313 of them. More on the frivolousness of considering relievers as MVP candidates in a subsequent chapter.)Our cursory examination of Martinez versus Giambi has not thus far taken into consideration the supplementary factors we cited above. Giambi, for example, hit 43 home runs; Martinez allowed just 17. Giambi drew 137 bases on balls; Martinez issued just 37. Giambi piled up 73 extra base hits; Martinez allowed 36.We can't accurately weigh those numbers in our minds, but statistical analysis can. In fact that's precisely what Pete Palmer's BatterFielder Base Stealer Wins and Pitcher Wins1 does: Weigh all those factors and reduce them to a comprehensible sentence. When you do that, this is the result. In 2000, Pedro Martinez improved the Red Sox by a factor of 8.4 victories, the highest total in the American League. Rodriguez actually stood second, improving the Mariners by 6.8 victories. Giambi was the league's third most valuable player, improving Oakland by 5.2 victories.SPINNING THE TRUTHThe point of this exercise isn't solely to criticize the thought processes most voters apply in considering their MVP selections--although that alone would be a constructive exercise--but to underscore the true concept of value. Recognition of the rough equilibrium between the importance of pitching and hitting--as expressed in the MVP voting--would be a step in that direction. A second step, illustrated by the debate between the credentials of Sosa and McGwire in the 1998 NL race (or the mirror debate involving A-Rod and Miguel Tejada in 2002), would involve recognition of the importance (or lack of same) of winning in the context of individual awards.Because baseball is a team game, not an individual one, it is impossible to fairly overlay team performance onto matters of individual accomplishment. No single player is good enough to merit that sort of accolade. The Sosa versus McGwire scrum illustrates the failure ofsuch logic. Sosa's 1998 achievements added up to a Batter Fielder Base Stealer Wins of 5.0. To put it another way, a team comprised of 24 completely average players plus Sammy Sosa should (pending the intervention of luck) have finished the season five games above ...

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