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Reviews: Writing the Unwritten
2006-03-21 12:21
by Will Carroll
Notes:
Scott Long is now blogging at NSFWsports.com.
Will Carroll can still be found at Baseball Prospectus.

One of the best things about having a radio show is getting on publishers' lists. I seldom do written reviews, but there are two books that I feel are worth commenting on: Baseball Between the Numbers by the writers of Baseball Prospectus and The Book by Mitchel Lichtman, Tom Tango, and Andy Dolphin.

Okay, stop -- there's already a conflict here, right? BP puts out a book and I'm sure to give it a good review. Not so fast, my friend. I had almost nothing to do with this book and have no financial stake in it at all.

Let's start with BBTN. It's a very solid book, organized to be read in chunks. I think the structure of the book, broken down into "innings" with "three outs" (chapters), is a gimmick that doesn't really work. What counts though is the content, not the structure. There, the authors hit a home run. The book is well done, complete, and for the most part, easy to understand. The book falters when it gets too chart- or math-heavy, but we'll discuss that more later. Sometimes BBTN gets a bit wordy or fails to come to a real conclusion, but like the best of BP writing, it's always thought provoking.

The book, when first discussed, sounded like an update to one of my favorites, Tom House and Craig Wright's The Diamond Appraised. That book is referenced a couple times, but it isn't really along those lines. Instead, BBTN recalls another of my favorite books, Bernard Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street. Given that editor Jonah Keri is a financial writer by day, that might come as little surprise -- but he's never read ARWDWS! Now that's a shocker. BBTN, at its best, does what Random Walk did -- questions prevailing wisdom with entertaining and enlightening anecdotes, providing enough evidence for most and whetting the appetite for those who want more.

The book is not an introduction to performance analysis. It could be subtitled "Sabermetrics 201" rather than the problematic subtitle it has now, "Why Everything You Know About Baseball is Wrong." It requires a basic knowledge of the game, and at the very least, a solid read of the introduction. If a reader comes to BBTN after the gateway drug of Rob Neyer, Moneyball, or BP itself, they'll have a better understanding of what awaits them. This book is recommended highly.

But what if "Sabermetrics 201" isn't enough? What if reading BBTN leaves the reader wanting more -- much more -- and wanting to roll their own stats? That's where The Book comes in. If details are what you want, you'll get them in spades reading Lichtman, Tango, and Dolphin's work. Written with an almost unheard-of level of depth and expertise, The Book is more like "Sabermetrics 401," or even a grad level course. There's an unbelievable wealth of information on topics here, if only you can get to it. Most of the content is significantly above my head, and the math loses me at even the most basic levels.

The authors weren't looking to write an accessible bestseller with The Book. Instead, it's more like a record of what they've learned. For someone like me who writes a trivial column that's old news the same day, I admire someone who can put something so solid down with every inch of evidence. Beyond the heavy math, the writing is pretty dry, more like a textbook than a baseball book. But again, that's what the authors intended -- it isn't a bug, it's a feature.

My one complaint with the book -- or is it The Book? -- is that I didn't feel like it gave me conclusions. Often, all the evidence is laid out and the authors either feel things are self-evident with so much proof or that they leave it open, letting those readers that can grasp the material reach their own conclusion. Asking the authors to bring it down a notch is counterproductive; these guys do what they do and are among the best in their niche. It just reminds me of the theme of Gary Huckabay's essay in BP 2006: The lack of accessibility is one reason why analysts like Lichtman and Tango are, unfortunately, still on the outside.

Both books are good reads and well worth the time and effort, not to mention your money. Instead of being Moneyball, these books reach for a higher level. Both should be essential reference works for any serious baseball analyst or high-minded fan, alongside Total Baseball, The Diamond Appraised, and full sets of Abstracts and BP annuals. I'm still hoping that someone writes "Sabermetrics 101," the book that takes performance analysis to the masses in a clear, easy-to-read way, along the lines of Moneyball, but without the controversy. There's a bestseller out there, waiting to be written -- and a book I hope to read, maybe next year.

Comments
2006-03-21 21:02:04
1.   Voxter
I've said it before and I'll say it again: "objective review" is an oxymoron. Other than that, I really don't have anything substantive to say.

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