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Bookish, Baby

Every year, Bronx Banter correspondent Christopher DeRosa puts out an annual for his friends called “The Baseball Procrastinator,” in which he chronicles the previous season in baseball. DeRosa includes sharp and entertaining book reviews in his annual–my favorite part, to be honest. DeRosa doesn’t only cover books that were released last year, he reviews books that he just simply got around to reading. Well, I find them so enjoyable that I asked if he’d modify a grouping of this year’s batch for you guys here at Bronx Banter. He has, and so here they are. Enjoy.

2005 Readings in Baseball

By Christopher DeRosa

Bill James Handbook 2006 (Cabrera cover)

They do a great job with the leader boards in this book. They’re so extensive that they’re not just a vehicle to see who did better than who, but to see how different players play the game.

You can use the Handbook to break down questions like, who was a better leadoff hitter, Derek Jeter or Johnny Damon? Not only overall, but specifically as a leadoff hitter, Jeter gets on base more than Damon, .391 to .367. Another job of the leadoff hitter is to take some pitches. Jeter led the AL in pitches seen with 2883. Jeter also led the league in ground ball to fly ball ratio. Is that someone you’d want hitting first, or second with possibly a man on? The book has a new baserunning report. Who scored a higher percentage of times when reaching base? Damon, 38% to 34% for Jeter. But Jeter was much better going first-to-third, doing so in 42% of such opportunities (18/43) vs. 19% for Damon (6/31). Jeter was also better at scoring from second base, 15 times in 21 chances, as opposed to 22 out of 34 chances for Damon. Damon did score 7 times in 10 chances from first base, Jeter 5 times in 10 chances. Damon was the better percentage base stealer, 18-1 vs. 14-5.

More Yankees: It’s fun to see Mariano’s across-the-leader-board domination of the reliever stats. He led the league in save percentage (91.5), relief ERA (1.38), lowest opponents’ batting average (.177), lowest opponents’ on base percentage (.235), lowest opponents’ slugging percentage (.230), retiring the first batter faced (.831). He was also 4th in he league in opponents’ batting average with runners on. He was the 3rd hardest pitcher for lefties to hit (.177), and the 5th hardest for right-handers to hit (.176). No one else was so high on both lists. He was tied for 3rd with 43 saves, tied for 4th with 7 relief wins, 10th in relief games (71), and 7th in relief innings (78.1).

After years toiling near the bottom of the league, Derek Jeter has moved all the way up to 2nd in the AL in range factor, and he won his second Gold Glove! After watching him all year, I don’t really think he deserved it, but it is a kind of funny payback for yet another season of relentless Jeter-bashing from the baseball hipsters.

Jason Giambi took the most pitches in the AL (Abreu led the NL). He led the league in secondary average, at .523. He had the highest offensive winning percentage of any AL hitter other than Travis Hafner, ahead of Manny, A-Rod, and Ortiz. He was the most effective hitter in the league versus sliders. Not bad for a guy Selena Roberts wanted them to release.

Edward Grant Barrow, My Fifty Years in Baseball (1951)

Probably, most fans come to know Barrow through salary negotiation stories, where he’s the heavy. Unlike George Weiss, though, Barrow had a pretty genial side and it shows in his autobiography. One of the better stories is when he trades Leo Durocher to the Reds, and Durocher comes in with his derby hat, spats, and velvet-collared overcoat to say goodbye. Barrow asks when his train is leaving, and Durocher calls him over to the window to see a blonde waiting in a red convertible. “I’m not going by train.”

Barrow believed that only losers baited umpires, and tried to keep the Yankees from doing it. “Umpires knew that they weren’t ‘in for it’ when they came to the Yankee Stadium to begin a series. This was not only because of the club’s attitude. New York crowds have always seemed to me the fairest in baseball, lacking the antipathy toward both the visiting team and the umpire that is so pronounced in many of the big league cities.”

In the 1920s, he ran the Yankees with only four scouts (among them, Paul Krichell and Joe Kelley). He considered buying Jimmie Reese and Lyn Lary his worst deal ever. “Another memorable disappointment was our failure to develop Walter Beall, a husky right-hander who had a blazing fast ball and the greatest curve ever seen in baseball.” His all time team was: Young/Waddell, Bresnahan, Gehrig, Lajoie, J.Collins, Wagner, Cobb, Speaker, Ruth. His views on the greatest team of all time are interesting to me, and I’ll quote at length:

Some old timers will shout, “Hey, hold on! How about the Baltimore Orioles! No team was
ever better than the old Baltimore Wonders!”

I admit the old-timers have a point. The Orioles were a great team, but I think time has colored them up to the place now where legend has taken over reality. … They dominated their league, but with it all never hit the .700 mark in the percentages. …

The Orioles were good, but the twentieth century has produced better ones.

Connie Mack thinks his 1910-11-13-14 champions were the best of all his Philadelphia teams. I prefer his later champions—the 1929-30-31 team that had more power and better pitching and a better outfield. The earlier team had the game’s most celebrated infield… but the late champions had a good infield too…

McGraw’s Giants of 1921-22-23-24 were also one of the best. Indeed I would rate them the best National League team of this century, better than the 1909 Pirates, the 1914 Braves, or any of the later Cardinal pennant winners. The 1934 St. Louis team was very strong one. Any team that had the Dean brothers at their best on it had to be a good team.

The 1915 Red Sox weren’t bad. I think the 1921-22-23 Yankees were better than the Orioles. My feelings about the 1927 Yankees are already known [called them the best Yankee team ever].

But the greatest team of all time was the Chicago White Sox of 1919. I say 1919, because that is the year by which it is best known.… Actually, it was the team that first started to roll in 1917 and was still going up when the scandal of 1919 … wrecked it.

“That team should have played another fifteen years,” Collins once told me. He thinks, as I do, that it was the greatest ever put together…. Ball clubs don’t stay up there that long. But it had even greater years head if it had been on the level…

I saw a lot of that team first hand, because it played against my own while I was managing the Red Sox. [noted that in 1918, many of the team’s players were in the service] But with the return of its best players it sailed to the pennant in 1919. They led the race through most of the campaign and might well have set a record if they had ever gotten together and all played the best ball they could at the same time.

Those 1917-1919 White Sox were without equal. They had pitching, power, defense, and perfect balance. They didn’t have a weakness.

I would put the 1927 Yankees right up behind them. In fact, they have a real claim to being the greatest.

It’s surprising that the level-headed Barrow could have been captivated by the myth of the Black Sox, who never hit the .700 mark in the percentages or the .650 mark either. In the three seasons the White Sox were good (’17, ’19, ’20, when Boston finished 2nd, 5th, and 5th), Barrow’s Red Sox still managed to go 31-33 against them, so I wonder why he was so bowled over. It’s also surprising that he makes no mention of his own 1936-39 Yankees, a team many analysts now consider superior to any of the ones he did mention. This despite the fact that his all-time Yankee selections were basically the 1936 Yankees plus Ruth and Meusel.
In 1939, Barrow became the president of club (though his duties were basically the same as he’d been doing as GM). “This was a great day for me and I must say that I was proud. Mrs. Barrow and I had an extra cocktail that night before dinner.” It amused him that in his successors’ regime, the Yankees had dozens of people working for them.

We had a compact organization. In the downtown office at 55 West 42 Street, I had, besides Miss King, an office manager, a bookkeeper, a telephone operator, and a ticket man. Uptown at the Stadium, I had [superintendent Charlie] McManus, two people in charge of the uptown ticket distribution, and a telephone operator. These, with our scouts and [traveling secretary] Mark Roth on the road, were the whole permanent Yankee organization.

Actually, Barrow had one other department: his “gestapo,” a secret plain-clothes detective force whose job it was to look for gamblers and throw them out of Yankee Stadium. The whole thing reminds me of how Abe Lincoln ran the Civil War with a smaller bureaucracy than it takes to get Laura Bush around today. Is the modern world that much more complex, or could we get along with much more streamlined organizations?

Howard Bryant, Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball (2005)

Bryant gives us more than a steroid book: it is a chronicle of the major developments in big league ball on and off the field over the last ten years. He provides interesting profiles of Barry Bonds, Bud Selig, Don Fehr, Jason Giambi and the leading anti-doping crusaders, as well as convincing characterizations of bit players like Tony LaRussa. If you liked John Heylar’s Lords of the Realm, you would probably like Juicing the Game too.

As history, I think Bryant tries too hard to fit the steroid scandal into a narrative that starts with the recovery from the 1994 strike. Therefore, he doesn’t dig deeply into how and when steroids got into the game. Forcing this story line leads directly to Bryant’s overemphasis on the fans’ responsibility for steroids. Players don’t take steroids for fans; they take them for themselves. The chapter that castigates our whole sports and entertainment culture for certain players cheating is a big dead spot in the book. He also has a clumsy way of introducing a new source: that just wasn’t right, thought Tony Gwynn; baseball had to change, thought Reggie Jackson; about a hundred times. Nevertheless, I thought this was the best baseball book of the year, especially the first 250 pages or so. Here’s a passage that goes to the heart of the matter:

There were entire clubs that were considered “steroid teams.” The Philadelphia Phillies of the early 1990s with Lenny Dystra, Darren Daulton, Pete Incaviglia, and Dave Hollins were always suspect. So were the Ken Caminiti Padres, and the originals, the Tony LaRussa A’s. Scouts consistently were suspicious of the 2002 Anaheim Angels’ bullpen. “Those guys, guys like Brendan Donnelly and Ben Weber, had never done anything in their careers, said one American League scout. “And all of the sudden they were throwing gas.”

The possibility that cheating delivered unjust results not just for individual players, but for whole teams in pennant races and championships, is the great unmentioned part of the steroid story.

Steven Goldman, Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel (2005)

Goldman’s account of the Casey’s start with the Yankees, in the first three chapters, is close to a tour de force. It is here that he brings to bear the best features of his Pinstriped Bible column, including his visceral and persuasive judgments on personnel issues and his insistence that the Yankees always attack their problems. He peers through the sheen of Bucky Harris’s success to see a complacent manager piloting the Yankees toward also-ran status. He breaks down the 1949 roster and details each problem Stengel confronted, from sifting through first base candidates like Dick Kryhoski to accommodating petulant superstar Joe DiMaggio.

The rest of the book, which is about how Casey Stengel came to be the person in that situation, is less detailed and therefore less exciting, but there’s much of interest here. Goldman’s Stengel resents being thought of as a clown, but not enough to stop him from being funny. We get a similar picture from Creamer’s biography, but Goldman does more with the McGraw relationship, and shows Wilbert Robinson to have been an important Stengel mentor as well. Other than the first three chapters on the 1949 Yankees, I thought the strongest part of the book was the portion covering the Dodger years, where we see Stengel feeling his way as a big league skipper, experimenting here and there.

Forging Genius is marred by a number of unfortunate writing choices. Goldman crams in so many one-liners and stray tidbits that he ends up with a mess of distracting and inelegant parenthetical asides. He shoots from the hip, but he’s far too wild. About Stengel’s Navy service he writes, “Stengel’s participation in Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for Woodrow Wilson did not extend beyond the grounds of the Brooklyn Naval Yard.” While the reader is left to wonder what Goldman’s getting at, he’s on to something else. By the time we get to 1939, he’s so intent upon tossing around the old WWII lingo that the progress of Casey Stengel becomes almost an afterthought. “On October 8, the Yankees completed their World Series sweep of the Cincinnati Reds. Hitler took no notice.” Really? I thought he was a season ticket holder.

I finally lost my patience with the hip-to-history routine when I read the sentence: “From Bob Quinn’s office the greatest disasters of World War II must have looked like, in order, Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor, the Rape of Nanking, and the Rape of the Braves roster.” Goldman could have used a good editor to rein in some of these indulgences.

In any case, the author doesn’t have as much to work with in Stengel’s Boston years. Casey was stagnating and this was no kind of team with which to be forging genius. But what of his stint with the Oakland Oaks? Goldman blows through the years 1946-48 too rapidly, given his ostensible purpose. Steve Treder did a piece on Casey’s Oaks in The Hardball Times last year arguing that the low at bat and innings pitched totals of his regulars suggests that he was madly rotating the same way he would in New York. I’d liked to have heard more about Goldman’s take on the same period. These objections aside, Forging Genius stands up with Creamer’s Stengel: His Life and Times and Stengel’s own autobiography Casey at the Bat as one of our three important Stengel books.

Lou Gorman, Lou Gorman: One Pitch from Glory–A Decade of Running the Red Sox (2005)

I’m reading a lot of GM books this year. Gorman was part of a lot of interesting teams (including the 1960s Orioles, the 1970s Royals, the 1980s Mets), but in this book he only covers his Red Sox years. He seems like a decent fellow who doesn’t have hard feelings about anyone, even Dan Shaunnessy, who comes of as all the more ridiculous in the author’s gentle handling. You feel for Gorman after the Buckner play:

As we began consoling one another and trying to raise some glimmer of hope for Game 7, Mrs. Yawkey motioned for me to sit down next to her. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know, your manager just cost us the world championship.” I began to respond, but she continued, “Do you understand what I am telling you? Your manager cost us the world championship.”

One game later, Gorman finds himself in the unfortunate position of having to tell the Red Sox players that the mayor of Boston insists that they show up for their scheduled parade anyway. They did, reluctantly, but ended up being moved by the fans’ support. A good number of Red Sox fans came out and warmly cheered Bill Buckner the day after the series, which goes to show how much of their sense of grievance arose after 1986.

I liked this Dwight Evans story. Gorman is trying to trade Don Baylor when Evans corners him and says, “Lou, you can’t trade Don Baylor, he’s the leader on our ball club and we need him.”

“Dwight, Don Baylor has asked me to trade him; it’s his request.” I paused before I continued. “Dwight, furthermore, Baylor has only been with us for two seasons; you’ve been here for 16 seasons. Why aren’t you the leader on this club, not Baylor?”

Dwight was taken back by my response. He stared at me and without saying a word, turned and walked out of the office and into the clubhouse.

Gorman’s initial trade for Baylor worked out well, chemically, for the 1986 Red Sox, and his addition of Spike Owen and Dave Henderson made them a more complete postseason team. But Gorman had a bad year in 1987 by allowing Gedman and Clemens to hold out and sign late. For whatever reason, Gedman was never the same and the holdouts seemed to confirm that the Sox were going to take a full year to detox from the World Series. In 1988, he made two important trades: a great one getting Lee Smith for washed-up Calvin Schiraldi, and another shipping Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling to Baltimore for Mike Boddicker. In talent exchanged, it was pretty horrible, but Boddicker did help them win two division titles and was a solid #2 starter for them for a while.

The 1990 trade of Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen is harder to defend, but Gorman gives it a try, basically arguing that they could not have won the AL East in 1990 without Andersen’s 22 innings of good relief work. I looked it up on Retrosheet.org. Andersen appeared in 15 games for Boston, and in three of them, he pitched well in a close win. Boston won the division over Toronto by two games, so it is possible, however unlikely, that they’d have lost the division without him. Even if that’s true, you’re going up against the 1990 Athletics in the playoffs. What’s the idea, to scrape in and hope for an upset against what Gorman admits is a vastly superior team, or try to be the vastly superior team by not trading Hall of Famers for 22 innings of middle relief?

Bill Shanks, Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way to Build a Winning Team (2005)

Moneyball so upset Bill Shanks that he was moved to write a 376-page book arguing that traditional scouting is still the best, and morally superior, way to build a team. His main point (it’s enumerated) is that a prospect’s “make-up” is the most important thing about him; infinitely more important than his “stats” (or as we might put it, his performance). Shanks is challenging Michael Lewis, but he missed the major theme of Lewis’s book. Recognizing make-up is what Moneyball is all about. Traditional scouts drooled over Billy Beane because of his body, his face, his speed, his firm handshake. They didn’t see that he lacked the make-up to be a major league ballplayer. Lewis’s main story is how Beane, in his next career, finds the nerve to go with his instincts and impose his system on the less ballsy people around him. Moneyball doesn’t advise taking the human element out of baseball; it’s a testosterone play. It’s no coincidence that Lewis’s next book was about how his high school coach made a man out of him, or that he’s ridiculed people like Shanks as members of baseball’s “women’s auxiliary.”

Shanks states baldly that to be successful, teams need to trust in their scouts, especially their veteran scouts. At any time though, you’ve got about 28 teams trusting in traditional scouting. Some of them finish first, some finish last. So what kind of a formula is that? The Braves may have great scouting, but what if your team doesn’t? The point of systems is that they can compensate for a deficiency in intuitive genius.

Another major argument in Scout’s Honor is that it is better to draft mostly high school players than mostly college players. Shanks points out a tangible reason to favor high schoolers: younger prospects make better trade bait. Despite sabermetric studies suggesting that college picks yield better results, I find something intuitively appealing about drafting high schoolers and teaching them to play your way. Nevertheless, you have to take seriously the high failure rate of high school pitchers drafted in the first round. Shanks describes the Braves picking Chipper Jones #1 pick instead of Todd Van Poppel after Jones punched an opposing player in the nose. This act proved he had the right make-up, you see. But Shanks reports that the Braves actually preferred Van Poppel, and only went with Jones when the Texas hurler turned them down. Shanks thinks the story shows that the Braves are right to draft high school players with moxie, but perhaps it shows that they were lucky they were denied their preference for a high school pitcher.

Shanks might be on to something about high school draftees, he doesn’t argue the point convincingly. He cites one slap-dash study by Jim Callis and expects that to refute the more extensive work that’s demonstrated that college draftees pan out better. He doesn’t refer to those studies, and it’s not the only time that he ignores the obvious rebuttal to an argument. Trying to prove that the Braves are inheritors of the Oriole Way, he talks about their pitching and defense, but fails to mention the “three run homer” part, Earl Weaver’s use of stats, or even Earl Weaver himself. He totally dismisses John Shuerholz’s post-’85 record in Kansas City, saying he was with a financially disadvantaged team. Where does he think Billy Beane works? He implies that Beane gave the A’s only an illusory quick-fix, while the Braves build for the long hall. As it so happens, since 2000, the Braves have gone 571-399, and in the same span, the A’s have gone 571-400.

On the plus side, Scout’s Honor offers some good ideas, such as how the Braves find quality through quantity. For several years, they insisted on getting a pitching prospect thrown in on every deal, just to stockpile arms. They bought an extra farm team to increase their options. I would want my team to do the same; why should we get by with so paltry a minor league system compared to what the best clubs had in mid-century? The more slots you have with people playing, the more chances you have to develop somebody. It’s almost too obvious.

Shanks also reveals many of the behind-the-scenes figures in the world of the Braves’ dynasty. Although too much of this boils down to Braves personnel saying what great guys each other are, we do learn a bit about how Cox, Shuerholz, Kasten, Turner, and scouting director Paul Snyder functioned. I like books that let you in on trade conversations. What emerges here, and in the Gorman book, is that trading is done in a very straightforward manner. In most trading stories, the teams settle immediately on who they want, try to get the price lowered for a while, and then say yes or no to the original deal. It seems nobody today tries to do it like Branch Rickey did: maneuvering the trading partner to take the wrong guy or getting the other team to bring up the name you really want.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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