Short Hops and More

There’s never any shortage of baseball books coming out. There are two that were written recently that I’m especially interested in.

The first is The Extra 2% by Jonah Keri. This is a book about the Tampa Bay Rays, and their attempt to compete by maximizing every miniscule advantage they can find. As kind of a Rays fan (they were my grandfather’s favorite team) and a fan of the underdog, this sounds like a great premise to a book from a truly talented sportswriter.

The second book is called The Beauty of Short Hops by Sheldon and Allen Hirsch. While I haven’t read this book yet, the subtitle and promotional materials indicate that this book is an enemy of the “Moneyball approach” to baseball. Even before I consider my personal feelings about statistics and their role in objective analysis of sport, I’m immediately turned off by rhetoric like this. Why on earth would the authors take such a confrontational approach? I mean, we’re not talking challenging the conventional wisdom or providing another viewpoint here. In the synopsis on the book’s website, it talks about the

“…hijacking of baseball by sabermetrics…”

Isn’t this a bit of an overstatement? I mean, sure, the field has gained traction with casual observers to some extent. But has the scouting establishment been ostracized, marginalized, or ridiculed? Are less people watching baseball and more just reading box scores and Excel spreadsheets?

There’s an argument made in the materials surrounding Short Hops that the element of random chance makes baseball more compelling. This is true, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with it. Everyone who watches baseball wants to see the once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The unassisted triple play. The miracle home run. The crazy hop that changes the course of a game or a season.

But at the same time, to imply that random chance is what makes baseball compelling is ridiculous. If the game was just random chance, there would be no greatness, no narrative, and no baseline on which to judge the miraculous.

Worst of all, the authors have made the un-informed argument that the “Moneyball approach” is to focus on statistics rather than…well, I’m not precisely sure what the opposition is. I guess it is not-statistics. When in fact, though Moneyball talked a great deal about the use of objectivity and statistical analysis, the true narrative of Moneyball was about utilizing undervalued resources. Getting on base was an undervalued skill, so the A’s took advantage. Spending more time and energy on identifying homegrown players was the only way to stay competitive with a low payroll, so the A’s took advantage.

Teams have always used a statistical approach. Do you think that the New York Yankees acquired Reggie Jackson because he put up good statistics (namely home runs), or for some other reason. Sabermetrics has been more about changing the conversation about which statistics say more. Instead of using batting average or RBI or pitcher wins to determine a player’s skill and value, now people might use wOBA or xFIP or rWAR.

In the end, the information around Short Hops smacks of an ignorant and short-sighted view of baseball. I’ll certainly read the book before forming a complete opinion, but as it stands now, the book appears to be a simple baiting of the opposition by authors who are pre-disposed against a group of baseball fans with a different perspective. And it’s disappointing. I’d be much more inclined to enjoy a book like this if it were a simple celebration of the random occurrences and spontaneous moments in a sport that I love, rather than an indictment of a way of looking at the game.

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