Monday, October 22, 2018

Another Thinking Man's Guide

Power Ball, just published by Harper ($27.99 and worth it), is the latest book by Rob Neyer, former long-time columnist and a man who spends an awful lot of time thinking about baseball. About every aspect of baseball. Even better, he figures things out and shares them with the rest of us in books like this one.

In its basic structure, Power Ball echoes Dan Okrent's 1980s book Nine Innings. Both are batter by batter accounts of a single game which becomes emblematic of baseball in the big picture. Okrent's book dealt more with the players and the situations with that game itself, while Neyer uses game events as leaping-off points for fascinating cogitations on the game in general. In that respect, this book is closer in tone and focus to Leonard Koppett's The Thinking Man's Guide To Baseball, first published in 1966 and revised over the years.

I grew up reading Koppett's columns in the New York Times, and he became my favorite baseball writer until I discovered Roger Angell. I learned so much from Koppett's articles, which combined anecdotes and observations with a kind of statistical analysis he invented as he went along. What he did best was take numbers and put them into context. The sequence went: 1) here's something you haven't noticed; 2) here's something I found out about it; 3) see how the numbers actually tell us something!

That's pretty much what Neyer does in Power Ball, which for my money puts him in the same league as Koppett. Neyer is an Iron Chef of baseball analysis, a puckish Wolfgang who mixes a rich stew of baseball flavors. Each "chapter" covers a half-inning of an Astros-A's game from late in the 2017 season. It could be any game. Though he tells us plenty about the players involved, how they got where they are, and how they performed in this game, it is his historical perspectives that form the meatiest part of this feast.

One reason this is such juicy stuff is that Neyer has access to the best ingredients. Not only has he observed a lot by watching, but when he doesn't know the answer, he knows who does, or at least who has taken the closest look and is making the best stab at an answer. He'll throw in a helpful fact from someone's private study, followed by a pronouncement from management, a blog somewhere that contradicts it, more evidence from someone we'd never get near but who told him all about it, and a cogent quote that puts it all into focus. Every segment (every bite) has a distinctive flavor that rewards an increasing appetite.

Consider the Home Sixth, when Neyer goes from discussing the effect of climate change on ballpark longevity to the history of catchers framing pitches in a span two pages, with no effort, finishing that off with a dash of truffle oil in the form of my favorite quote in the book. It comes from online analyst Ben Lindbergh, about the significance of catchers getting extra strike calls: "Baseball is often described as a chess match between batter and pitcher. But it's more like a chess match between batter and pitcher in which, once in a while, the catcher grabs the board and moves someone's piece."

If this approach seems episodic more than systematic, think again. Neyer covers a lot of ground in short amounts of space because he knows just the right detail, the most telling corrective, the most useful perspective, the expert opinion, and he gets right to them. His style is that of an engaging fellow watching a game with you, addressing you conversationally, but seldom beating a point to death, just helping you understand what you've been looking at all these years without seeing it so clearly.

Every page is thought-provoking, taking nothing for granted and advocating a common-sense approach to the future of baseball (not to mention the future of Baseball -- Neyer makes a distinction between the game on the field and the organized business). Only three times did I find myself strongly disagreeing with his contentions: that even the best umpires miss 10% of ball-strike calls, a figure I don't think has been approached since the retirement of Eric Gregg; that Jack Morris was elected to the Hall of Fame on the strength of one great performance, and short-changing Marvin Miller on the credit he deserves for working hard on player safety issues, especially in his early years as union head.

And that's it for things that made me flinch -- over the course of nearly 300 pages. Many, many more things delighted and enlightened me, but above all was the satisfaction of having someone along for the baseball feast, pointing things out and letting me know what the people who can actually do something about the game think about it. That last item is tricky, because it turns out that although Neyer clearly discerns the things that should and could be fixed, he is pretty convinced that Baseball doesn't think that much is broken, not enough to need actual fixing.

His prescription, delivered in an Epilogue, is one of common sense and sanity, which unfortunately, these days, is more a matter of theory than practice. Whatever Baseball does, it should be aimed primarily at providing a game that is more appealing to fans. This would actually turn out to be a new approach, but I agree with him that it ought to be worth trying.

For instance, the terrific ninth-inning catches which climaxed the recent Red Sox-Astros 8-6 game occurred after 1 AM Eastern time, meaning that few New England die-hards saw it, much less the younger fans who might talk about those two catches a half-century later, after a lifetime of fandom. Start the games early enough for people to watch them! But Baseball will do that only if the television overlords approve. Good luck.

Meanwhile, get this book, read it, and savor it. Not just thinking baseball fans, but Baseball, ought to read Power Ball.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Century-Old Strategy Befuddles Fox Newcomers

I should have known better than to watch Game 5 of the NLCS with the sound on. The partnership of Joe Buck and John Smoltz has seemed like the uneasy alliance between two drunks at opposite ends of the bar, one gruff and grumbling, the other grinning and idiotic.

Listening to John Smoltz during last night's interminable Game 4--13 innings which took five hours and 15 minutes to play--was to behold the process of a nervous breakdown. After hours of enduring some kind of Chinese uppercut-swing torture, after marveling at the growing ratio of strikeouts to base hits, he finally cracked in the last inning. "We've seen 13 hits in 13 innings!" he blurted, like a man who just wasted hours looking for firewood in the desert because someone told him it was there to be found.

In fact, people on the East Coast who were willing and able to stay up until 2:30 AM to watch the turgid affair play out saw quite an accumulation of numbers, though four suffice to sum up Smoltz's torture: 315 minutes, 381 pitches, 15 base hits, 32 strikeouts. No doubt he realizes that if he were in his prime today, he'd have a shot at Nolan Ryan's record. He rightly lamented the Brewers' failure to move a runner from second to third with nobody, begging them to bunt, and the failure to advance the runner cost them dearly.

I felt embarrassed for Smoltz's public breakdown, which lasted an incredulous hour or two, so I hadn't planned to listen to today's game. (Joe Buck? What's my beef with him? Apart from general principles, he pissed me off this week when he said of Bob Uecker, "He won the Ford C. Frick Award, which means he was inducted into the Hall of Fame." Joe, you ignorant slut! Like your father, Uecker is not "a Hall of Famer," and you either know better and don't care about the truth, or you're a public idiot.)

But there I was in that wild bottom half of the first inning, when Craig Counsell sent a shockwave through the broadcast booth by removing starting pitcher Wade Miley after one hitter (a walk). Buck and Smoltz identified the strategy soon enough. The Dodgers had started mostly right-handed hitters, so after the southpaw Miley walked the leadoff hitter (one of two lefties in the lineup), out he went, replaced by right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who would get to face all those right-handed hitters.

I was able to listen to only a few minutes of the ensuing discussion before I was forced to cave in the tv screen with a copy of my Neft-Cohen-Deutsch book about the World Series. The absurdity of their analysis reached the stage where Buck wondered whether there might be some kind of rule needed to require a certain duration by a starting pitcher. This was some kind of bizarre 21st-century aberration, another sign of the times, and they should keep an eye on it.

Eventually their researcher found one other post-season game in which the starter faced only one batter, but that was because of an injury. What all of them missed--and what would have given their discussion some basis in reality--was that this strategy has been used before in the post-season. The idea of replacing your starter with an opposite-handed pitcher in order to mess with the other manager's starting lineup was unveiled. . .ready?. . .in 1924.

The twerps at Fox Sports missed it because in 1924, the starting pitcher faced two hitters before leaving. Why two? Because the second batter was a switch-hitter. It happened, by the way, in Game 7 of the World Series, when the idea is to "pull out all the stops" in the effort to win the title. On October 10, 1924, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, the Senators hosted the New York Giants. For John McGraw's New Yorkers, it was their fourth World Series in a row. For the Senators, it was a first in the franchise's 24-year history, and more than that was seen as a belated showcase for 37-year-old idol Walter Johnson.

The Giants didn't cooperate, beating Johnson in two starts, but the Senators evened the Series in Game 6 when manager/second baseman Bucky Harris drove in both runs in a 2-1 victory. With Johnson unavailable for a Game 7 start (one day of rest), Harris' logical choice for starter was 16-game winner George Mogridge, who had won Game 4. Instead, he went with right-hander Warren "Curly" Ogden, whose major league resume consisted of 11 wins. It seemed to be a case of trying a rested pitcher (he hadn't seen Series action yet) at the end of a long, arduous Series.

But it wasn't that at all. Harris did the same thing Counsell did. After Ogden struck out Fred Lindstrom and walked Frankie Frisch, out he went, and in came the southpaw, Mogridge, now looking at four lefties in the next five hitters. Harris hoped that McGraw would jettison some of those lefties, since he still had Johnson as his ace in the hole.

McGraw didn't bite, with mixed results. The main one was that Mogridge took a 1-0 lead (on a Harris home run--the "Boy Wonder" did everything!) to the sixth inning, having allowed just three hits. But two lefties--Ross Youngs and George Kelly--got on base, so McGraw finally made a substitution, replacing Bill Terry with Irish Meusel, who singled in a run as the Giants went ahead, 3-1. As I write this, Brandon Woodruff has closely duplicated Mogridge's performance.

In this age, when we seem doomed to watch history repeat its worst, I may be a bit of a grinch to begrudge Joe Buck the innocence to think baseball is a phenomenon of his lifetime only, but Joe. . .This has happened before, and for the same reason. Take a look at baseball history and see how beautifully its symmetry endures.

                                                     LATER THAT SAME EVENING

The game is over, so I can finish putting Counsell's bold move in its final perspective. In an eerie parallel, both Mogridge and Woodruff made it safely from the first inning to the sixth before weakening a bit. Both ended the sixth inning trailing 3-1, suddenly subject to being the losing pitcher.

Mogridge was saved by Bucky Harris, who again came through with the big hit, a bases-loaded single that sent the game into extra innings. Harris unveiled his secret weapon, Walter Johnson, in the ninth inning. Four shutout innings later, Johnson became a World Series champion when a bad-hop hit drove in the winning run.

Woodruff could not escape his fate, largely since he had the misfortune of facing Clayton Kershaw on the night when Kershaw lived up to his credentials. In another piece of 21st-century baseball managerial maneuvering, Dave Roberts used four pitchers to preserve a 5-1 lead over the final two innings, removing Kershaw after letting him bat in the seventh (he walked to start a two-run rally).

I'm sure Joe Buck and John Smoltz had an opinion about Roberts' strategy. But I'll be damned if I care what it was.