A few years ago, when any Halos Heaven comment section or article started to veer into heavy, advanced analytical territory or discussion, I’d usually keep scrolling or I’d tune out. I had dabbled a bit in that stuff, but I just didn’t really understand a lot of the sabermetrics and that particular way of looking at the game of baseball. A couple years ago, that all changed.
That’s because I became boss at this here site, and I realized that while I was extremely adept at writing passionate, raucous or rousing screeds from the regular fan’s voice, I needed some work in the numbers department. I basically just went to Fangraphs and started going through their glossary of terms; some stuff, after awhile, really stuck with me and clicked. Some of it still confounded me to no end, though.
Learning to see the game of baseball in this new (and continually developing) light is a process, though, not an event. It would take time, and sure enough, the more I wrote about stuff like wRC+ or DRS, the more it was clicking. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s definitely given me a new perspective when watching our beloved Halos.
Ok, now that we have that out of the way, let me just flat out say what I’ve been thinking the past couple days: I wish Keith Law’s new book, Smart Baseball, had been available a couple years ago, because it would have greatly accelerated this learning process, almost laying out these ideas TOO easily.
Yes, I have read Law’s new book, and I loved it. I went in with hesitation, though. Keith Law knows a ton about baseball, but he is also a man with many, many opinions and if a team, fan, player, etc. disagrees with his opinions, he has never been afraid to fire a snarky shot or two across their bow (or he’ll just straight up drag you on Twitter in front of all his many followers).
Hey, he’s a baseball personality, on top of being head ESPN baseball writer, and he got where he is, in part, due to that strong, confident, but sometimes abrasive, attitude. The thing is, he usually knows what he is talking about, so I went into this book not knowing exactly what to expect.
Was this going to be a stern lecture about how most people are doing baseball wrong, with some pointing and mocking, or was it going to be a hand-holding through the analytics world, for people that still get confused when they see WAR on an MLB game chyron?
The answer, I’m happy to report, is a little bit of both. In Smart Baseball, Law breaks down the concepts behind advanced stats in the simplest terms possible, even when the subject matter gets really complicated.
Law isn’t afraid to point out things in baseball that are absolutely in need of changing (like chiding MLB, and anybody else, who still holds batting average and the “batting title” with utmost regard), but he does a great job in showing the reader why baseball’s executives, teams, managers, and most importantly, the fans, need to ditch some of these traditional ways of quantifying a players value, and step into this new reality.
It’s broken into three aptly-named parts: Smrt Baseball, Smart Baseball and Smarter Baseball. From the opening chapter, the information and ideas come at you fast, but the real-world examples given (like Dee Gordon’s “batting title” last year, even though he was not the best batter, by far) gave me endless light-bulb-over-head moments throughout my reading.
He tells you why the old stats are completely wrong in their attempts to suss out who’s the best at hitting, pitching and fielding. Then, you get to the part where it becomes a little bit like a primer, like how wOBA and WRC (and other advanced stats) are actually what we need to be looking at when it comes to hitting, not just the relic known as batting average. Finally, in the last section of the book, he talks about where we (and MLB) go from here; how Statscast is changing EVERYTHING, how scouting is a different process altogether these days, and more.
I was finally “getting” it. I admit, I jumped on the sabermetric train mainly because every other writer or smart baseball mind was doing the same. I just took it for granted that these new stats and ways to measure a player’s talent worked, and were correct, but now I know WHY those stats are used, why they needed to come and replace the old dinosaurs, like RBI, in order to engage the 21st century audience.
Now, here’s the one caveat I’ll give on Law’s book: It’s not for the hardcore stat-head guy who has been on top of these advancements for the last decade or so. There are some great passages and baseball stories told that may be of interest to the learned, sabermetric master; that same type of person would also probably find the last part of Smart Baseball, where the future of these analytics is discussed, to be illuminating.
The rest, though, might end up being stuff that they’ve known and applied to the game long before this book was released. So to the fan that is a bonafide sabermetrician already, I can’t say you’ll get the same enlightenment and enjoyment out of Smart Baseball that I did, but that said, if Mitchel Lichtman says it’s a nice read, then maybe you should give it a look anyway:
Just starting reading Smart Baseball by @keithlaw. So far pretty good. Not earth-shattering for the advanced reader but well-written...— Mitchel Lichtman (@mitchellichtman) April 25, 2017
Lichtman has been in the saber game for a long, long time, and he’s right on the money here. If you’re an advanced reader, you may still get a kick out of it. For the rest of us, it is an excellent read that, for me, has shed an unbelievable amount of light on the game of baseball and advanced stats.
I wish everybody would read this book, but especially the stodgy, stubborn BBWAA members who are still looking at archaic stats at the end of the year, and then using them to deny Mike Trout an MVP award. Trout is discussed a handful of times, notably where Law explains why hardcore fans were upset that Trout didn’t win MVP in 2015 and 2012, and if you weren’t angry enough back in those years when voting was released, then it’ll be sure to rile you up. It’s stuff like that where Law shows you how crazy some of these awards are, when writers are voting using criteria that don’t matter at all.
Really, though, nothing but good could come from baseball writers, fans, players and front office execs reading Smart Baseball. Maybe then we’d have a better chance of MLB writers and fans cannonballing into the advanced analytical waters of the future, rather than coyly dipping their toes. These stats and numbers need not be daunting or intimidating; those numbers, and tools like Statcast, are here not to scare you away, but to make you realize just how amazing baseball can be, if you’re looking at it the correct way...the SMART way.
Smart Baseball delivers exactly what it says on the tin, and I’d be willing to bet it’s going to be added to the pantheon of Must Read Baseball Books in the years to come.