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.


Unknown said...

Nice review--and, yes, I caught the Berra reference. Now I'll have to read the book.

Unknown said...

Quite a review Gabriel. Clearly this one has to be on my short list.

BTW, my son and I were at that 8-6 Red Sox-Astros game last Wednesday, and it was quite the battle. It seemed like the game ended at close to 1:00 AM Houston time, so I'm guessing it was closer to 2:00 AM on the east coast. Or maybe it was 1:00 AM when I got home. I was so exhausted I think time had stopped.

Both catches were breath-taking, and Benintendi's was heart-breaking for us, as was Altuve's lost homerun. When will fans learn to back UP from a ball being chased by an outfielder, instead of reaching towards the ball? Arrrggghhh ...

Thanks for the tantalizing review!

Mark W.