Review: Power Ball

power ballIt is more or less a coincidence that I am following up a Bill James book with a Rob Neyer book.  Neyer is a James protege and a really good writer in his own right.  Truly enjoyed his book about going to every game at Fenway Park for a season, for example.

I picked up his new book, Power Ball, right around polar vortex time so I could read about something associated with summer.  As an English major, we were taught about framing tales, in which a story existed within a bigger story.  Hamlet and the Canterbury Tales are good examples.  Well, in this case, the framing tale is a very close following of one game–between Houston and Oakland.

This is not an original idea.  Daniel Okrent wrote a similar book called Nine Innings…and Neyer references it many times during this writing.  I will say that the Neyer book is pretty thin on paying off the concept of it being about one game…entire innings get summarized in just a paragraph.

That’s fine, though.  Because what you do get is a state-of-the-union address for baseball, except not provided by the Commissioner but by an outside party willing to point things out.

Neyer dives DEEP into modern baseball–launch angle, scouting, analysis, tanking, drafting, pitching…all of it.  It is an education, even if you think you’re a fan.

The most important takeaway is that the game is not in great shape.  Yes, TV money keeps coming in because all these sports networks need something to show in the summer.  But ratings and attendance are much softer.

Why?  Well, he notes a couple things I will call out.

First, because of the salaries, teams have a philosophy that they either want to win 90 or lose 90.  When teams are trading and slashing salaries, it gives the local fan little reason to watch a team that is either trying to lose or indifferent to winning.  Baseball doesn’t help by using the trade deadline to generate interest.  I saw an MLB Network segment on opening day last year that was “Buyers and Sellers.”

The other issue is the pace of play.  Baseball has focused on the time of games, which Neyer contends is a kind of target of convenience.  It’s relatively easy to fix.  But the larger problem, he suggests, is the lack of action during the game.  I would agree.

Who cares if you cut 8 minutes off a game time–and you can’t, anyway?  Most of the people left in the 7th inning.  What is killing baseball is the “two outcome” philosophy, which is a home run or a strikeout.  Less stuff happens.  There’s way fewer balls in play, fewer good catches, less baserunning, fewer close plays, stolen bases etc.  (Neyer provides evidence for all this).

Just as an example, I remember Adam Dunn coming up to bat for the Reds with two outs and a runners on base in a decisive situation.  Crowd cheering, people clapping.  Exciting.  Except he took six straight pitches, struck out, and walked back to the dugout.  Perhaps what the analytics said to do…but not what the fan wants to see.

When people like Neyer and John Thorn, baseball’s OFFICIAL HISTORIAN, see it this way, it seems like people would be interested.

There’s no irony lost on the fact that James and Neyer were at the vanguard of the intellectual revolution that lies behind most of these changes.  Neyer does offer a prescription…which involve pretty radical changes to the rules, but nothing out of scale based on baseball’s history.

This book is good, even given its flimsy frame.  If you care about baseball, it is “mind candy,” as advertised.

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