Smart Baseball (Review)

If I had to choose which major sport to enjoy over all the others, it would be baseball, hands down.  That said, I’m not a “sports nut” about the game, I just enjoy watching it.  I don’t get overly involved in team or player statistics beyond the basic box scores. I’m not at all a sabermetrician.

For the uninitiated, sabermetrics is the measuring of baseball in-game activity. It’s the analysis of the game, especially involving statistics. The term is derived from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research, SABR.

I picked up a copy of Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, The New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball by Keith Law, specifically so I could bone up on the latest thinking about stats.

Major League Baseball fans are familiar with Keith Law. He’s an analyst for ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight”. He’s knowledgeable about every aspect of the game’s analysis. He’s also a senior baseball writer for the network.  Law was a contributing writer for “Baseball Prospectus” in the late 1990s. He also worked in the front office of the Toronto Blue Jays. Smart Baseball is his first book.

Even though I’ve been a loyal, yet casual fan of the San Francisco Giants for as long as I can remember, my interest in sabermetrics is fairly recent. It began with the team’s sustained drive during the 2010 season when it became apparent that they would make it to the World Series. After they won that series and the ones in 2012 and 2014, statistics seemed much more important to me.

There are some elementary problems with baseball statistics that become apparent to even the casual fan after awhile. While statistics can give a basic overview of a game, they are not nuanced.

For example, there is the assigning of wins or losses to pitchers.  It’s glaringly obvious that crediting the outcome of an entire game is far beyond his personal control. Any particular pitcher might pitch the most amazing game of his career yet chalk up a loss because his teammates let him down by committing errors.  On the other hand, the pitcher might toss a lousy game yet get credited with a win because his teammates did an outstanding job behind the plate. In other words, a winning pitcher doesn’t necessarily mean a player who pitches well. With two teams at play, there are just too many variables.

Law’s book is a joy to read.  It’s a good introduction to sabermetrics.  It is filled with real life examples about the shortcomings of the traditional stats and how organized baseball’s new statistics are helping to clarify the progression of each game. Law does this without going into the tedious arithmetic that goes into them.

Smart Baseball should appeal to people like me, who have a limited grasp of sabermetrics and yet give important information to veteran fans who immerse themselves in statistics.

The book is divided into thirds. The first portion is titled “Smrt Baseball” [not a spelling error] These chapters review and criticize the basic stats. Here we find pitcher wins, RBIs, saves, and fielding percentages. This first third is where Law is at his most critical and persuasive.

Defense is covered in depth in the second third of Smart Baseball. The author explains the problems sabermetricians face in attributing credit or blame for hit balls. Here is where Law’s analytical and writing skills work together to illustrate these difficulties to the lay reader.

The final third of the book addresses voting for the “Hall of Fame” as well as how stats affect scouting. Even though this is the shortest section of the book, it does have solid writing for devoted players and fans. I like Law’s explanation about how stats meld into scouting for prospective players and how new statistics are changing this aspect of the game.

Smart Baseball is a good overall primer of sabermetrics and of current game concepts. Baseball statistics are demystified and thoughtfully criticized. The book made me think about the game from a different point of view. The next time I watch the Giants play, I’ll observe the win or loss with a deeper perspective.

If you love baseball, you’ll find a lot to love about Smart Baseball.

{ Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball  by Keith Law; 304 pages, published April 2017 by William Morrow; ISBN: 978-0-06-249022-3 }

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes legendary Yogi Berra.  “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Books, cultural highlights, sports and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Smart Baseball (Review)

  1. hanspostcard says:

    I am about half way through the book right now. Finding it an easy- and quick read. I’ve always been into baseball statistics and have read and studied a lot over the years. This book reinforces a lot of what I’ve learned over the years. When I was young I like everyone thought that batting average for example was a lot more important of a stat than it turns out to be. I enjoy the examples he gives in the book- just read the chapter on fielding percentage and how Law proves that fielding percentage and errors made can be misleading. Looking forward to finishing the book.

    • swabby429 says:

      Keith Law has a lot of crediblility and communication skills. I like what he has to say.

      • hanspostcard says:

        I am a member of a number of baseball chat groups and it is amazing the number of older fans who do not want to hear this stuff. They want to keep believing what they were taught to believe back when they were growing up. They won’t even listen- of course that isn’t saying every fan over 45- or 50 is like this but many fans are stuck in their ways. I agree- I think Law explains himself very well-

      • swabby429 says:

        Well, baseball fans, and the game itself is very tradition based. Probably more so than the other professional sports in the US. Thankfully, there’s new blood and new thinking that should keep the sport viable and relevant into the future.

      • hanspostcard says:

        Indeed. It takes a long time for minds to change.

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