Archive for Book Review

Kick Butt

I recently received a copy of the book Kick Butt, by my Sewanee colleague Don Huber. It’s a novel about a fictional athletic director at a college in the south. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but from glancing through it, Huber doesn’t present a sugar-coated portrait of big-time college athletics.

Don is an interesting fellow. He teaches Classics and used to earn a living as a songwriter in Nashville. If you’re looking for some holiday sports reading, you might want to check it out.

Review: Game of Shadows

Over the weekend, I sat down and read Game of Shadows from cover to cover. And, while I have a few problems with the book, I think it’s very interesting and informative about the influence of BALCO. When I first thumbed through it in the book store, I wasn’t impressed. But as a whole the book works, and I’m glad I decided to read it. I will admit that I know nothing about the chemicals discussed and their effects on the body. This stuff could be entirely wrong, but I haven’t seen any scientist dispute this yet.

Fainaru-Wanda and Williams, the SF Chronicle reporters who broke the BALCO story, have put together an easy-to-read narrative of the history of BALCO—with particular emphasis on it’s founder, Victor Conte—based on their own investigative reporting. The authors paint Conte as an intelligent but slimy entrepreneur who set up a side business of helping athletes use performance-enhancing drugs and beat drug tests. The Clear, the Cream, EPO, and HGH were all offered by BALCO with the intent to help athletes break the rules without detection.

The BALCO story has been reported through baseball, but Conte’s impact on track and field was much greater. Contrary to his baseball persona, where he operated largely behind the scenes through Barry Bonds’s trainer, Greg Anderson, Conte was the man with the little black bag on the field at most important track and field competitions. His ties to Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones are direct and much more incriminating than his relationship with Bonds. And it should be no surprise that Conte was ultimately busted by a bitter track coach.

The baseball connection appears to be real. Several sources point to use of BALCO products by a handful of major leaguers, with the biggest names being Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield. If the grand jury testimony is true, and I don’t think there is reason to believe it isn’t, then BALCO was selling its product to a few baseball players. But here is a big problem. I feel extremely guilty reading a book that uses leaked grand jury testimony. The problem is that these are just accusations, and the accused have no way to respond until this goes to trial.

Another problem I have with the book—although it’s not distracting because I’m used to it—is how casually the authors throw around accusations as facts about athletes not involved in the BALCO scandal. Mark McGwire supposedly achieved his heights because of steroids, which simultaneously caused him to quit. This is just mentioned casually, as if it must be true. There is no evidence of this. The same goes for Sammy Sosa. Maybe Bonds thought they did, and that motivated him to use, but I don’t put much stock in Jose Conseco’s word. And while Maris’s home run record has been broken six times since 1998, this is not proof of anything. And I don’t like the way the old game is painted as innocent, either. Steroids are older than all of the players in the game, including Julio Franco. I don’t know when they entered baseball, and we’ve known for some time amphetamines have been used by players.

Another contribution of the book is that it shows steroids aren’t just some magic bullet. Bonds’s workout regimen is amazing. He works hard, every day. Maybe the drugs help him do so, but it’s not easy. The question is, how much of Bonds’s success is a product of PEDs (assuming he used them) and how much is effort and talent? I don’t know, but try this little thought experiment: Would Maris’s home run record have been broken without the aid of steroids? Without a doubt, my response is YES. And given Bonds home run prowess, he was a likely candidate to break the record, even without help. Players not involved in the steroid speculation have demonstrated the ability to come close. 36 times players have hit 50 or more home runs in a season, 17 occurred before 1990. 18 occurred after the league expanded in 1993, I think it’s very likely to be the main factor. And if you want to blame steroids for these new home run highs, then you’re accusing Brady Anderson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Luis Gonzalez, Jim Thome, and Andruw Jones, too. Some people have, and that’s just wrong. Of course, maybe the juice was enough to put McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds over the edge. I don’t know, but neither does anyone else. For the most part, the media has been very irresponsible about this, and it ought to be more careful in its coverage.

Another interesting thing I noticed is the paltry dollar sums the athletes paid to Conte. If the benefits were so large, why were players paying only a few thousand dollars for them? I guess part of the reason is that he used these athletes to promote his legitimate nutritional supplements. But still, it sounds like the development, distribution, and testing costs are pretty hefty.

Like I said, it’s an interesting read. I look forward to seeing how this plays out in a full trial…if there is one.

Gladwell on The Wages of Wins

Malcolm Gladwell reviews The Wages of Wins in this week’s New Yorker.

It’s hard not to wonder, after reading “The Wages of Wins,” about the other instances in which we defer to the evaluations of experts. Boards of directors vote to pay C.E.O.s tens of millions of dollars, ostensibly because they believe—on the basis of what they have learned over the years by watching other C.E.O.s—that they are worth it. But so what? We see Allen Iverson, over and over again, charge toward the basket, twisting and turning and writhing through a thicket of arms and legs of much taller and heavier men—and all we learn is to appreciate twisting and turning and writhing. We become dance critics, blind to Iverson’s dismal shooting percentage and his excessive turnovers, blind to the reality that the Philadelphia 76ers would be better off without him. “One can play basketball,” the authors conclude. “One can watch basketball. One can both play and watch basketball for a thousand years. If you do not systematically track what the players do, and then uncover the statistical relationship between these actions and wins, you will never know why teams win and why they lose.”

The WoW is by three economists—Dave Berri, Martin Schmidt, and Stacey Brook— who have been doing some of the best research in sports economics over the past few years. I happened to end up at a dinner with Dave Berri at the Western Economic Association meeting last July, where I learned about the book. I thought the book had a lot of potential, given the work these economists had done. It reminded me of what William Easterly did in The Elusive Quest for Growth with his amazing academic work on economic growth.

Because of our similar research interests Dave sent me a few finished chapters, and it was even better than I thought. I’ve mentioned it a few times over the past few months, because of my excitement over what I have read. I think the readers of Sabernomics will enjoy its discussion of not only baseball, but other sports as well. The chapters on basketball are exceptional. Now that I have the entire book in front of me, I find that it has exceeded my already high expectations. Sometimes I wonder if my opinion is the exception or the consensus, but it turns out to be the latter. In addition to Mr. Gladwell, the book has also received praise from Alan Schwarz (cover blurb) and Tyler Cowen.

I’ll try and post a more thorough review of the book soon, but I’m a bit tied up with some other projects, so I can’t make promises. If you read the book, or find other reviews, and want to post comments in this thread, go right ahead. Also, check out the authors’ blog.

Payroll and Wins

Dave Berri, coauthor of The Wages of Wins, is today’s DH at The Baseball Analysts. Berri, an economist at Cal. St.-Bakersfield, answers the question: Can Money Buy Love in Baseball?

Contrary to popular perception, payroll in professional sports is not strongly linked to wins. A $100 million team does not win twice as many games as a $50 million team – not even close. Our own work has shown that only about 18% of a team’s regular season wins can be attributed to its payroll. In other words, more than 80% of a team’s regular season record cannot be tied to team spending. We would add that this is what we see when we look at teams in Major League Baseball from 1988 to 2005. In other words, the lack of a link between spending and wins is not a recent phenomenon. Across time more spending is not an elixir that leads automatically to success on the field. As the saying goes, games are not won on paper. Moreover, they are not won just because you spent a pile of paper.

Also, check out the site for the book. I received a copy of the book recently, and I have been loving it. Berri, Schmidt, and Brook do some of the most interesting work in the field of sports economics. I think the book is going to be a big hit, so pick up a copy of the book when it comes out in May. And look out for the authors’ blog, which is just getting started.

Studes Interviews John Dewan

Dave Studeman interviews John Dewan, author of The Fielding Bible, at The Hardball Times. They talk about the book, Baseball Info Solutions, and ACTA Publishing. I’ve seen several interviews with John, and he seems like a really interesting fellow who is quite gracious. One thing I know is that John is very good at what he does, and I suspect there are more good projects on the way.

I have been quite impressed with The Fielding Bible, and I find myself looking at it every time I watch a game. I think the method is sound, and I am quite comfortable with the results. I don’t think it will be long before the Plus/Minus rating is a regular fielding category on baseball stats websites.

Mazzone Tales

In the mail today, I just received two books from Sports Publishing, Baltimore Orioles: Where Have You Gone? by Jeff Seidel and Leo Mazzone’s Tales from the Mound. I’ve always had a soft spot for the O’s, because Charlotte—where I grew up—hosted the double-A affiliate of the club for most of my childhood. I even threw out the first pitch of the game once.

Anyway, I was very happy to get the updated addition of Leo Mazzone’s book with Scott Freeman—Braves has been removed from the title. Tales is a very nice read that mixes in anecdotes about Mazzone’s baseball experiences with pitching philosophy. Mazzone speaks candidly about his career, and mentions more than just the good stuff. He admits to yelling and butting heads, but always praises the pitchers and coaches he’s worked with. Leo seems to enjoy and appreciate just being a part of the game. Even if you just like the Braves, you will probably enjoy his inside perspective on the Braves 14-year run.

I glanced through the new version at lunch, and I was happy to see additional anecdotes up through the 2005 season. He tells some pretty interesting stuff about Smoltz moving from and to the rotation, Dan Kolb not handling Atlanta, and working with Jaret Wright. I don’t want to spoil too many of his anecdotes so I’ll pass along just one.

Kevin Gryboski was another groundball specialist for us in 2004, and he had a great year. Then, in 2005, he started complaining a little bit about how we were using him…and he was talking a little rough to the rookies, as if he were a seasoned veteran. Bobby got angry and said, “Okay, we’ll trade him to Texas.” He was going to be the set-up man to the closer. A month later, he was in Triple-A.

What the heck is wrong with that guy? Grybo should have been on his knees thanking Bobby Cox for just keeping him on the team. And not only did he have him on the team, but he used him a lot more than I would have. Maybe he was upset about his role, but a relief pitcher who walks more guys than he strikes out doesn’t have much room to discuss any dissatisfaction.

Baseball Hacks: A Review

Baseball Hacks : Tips & Tools for Analyzing and Winning with Statistics
Joseph Adler
O’Reilly Media, Inc.

This book started popping up for me on Amazon about six months ago. Every time I searched for a book on baseball, my cookies kept telling the folks at Amazon that I’d like this book. But why? I wondered. O’Reilly publishes computer books, what could they be doing publishing a baseball book? In fact, Baseball Hacks is a guide complete with 72 “hacks” for analyzing baseball data. Not only does it show you where to find data, but provides in-depth tools for extracting and analyzing what you get.

A few skills presented include:
— Spidering baseball data off the web, including MLB Gameday data.
— Writing Perl scripts to organize and extract play-by-play data.
— Using MySQL to make tables and extract information.
— Using R, to analyze data with linear regression and graphics tools.

Even if you are not skilled in any of these areas, the book walks you through them. The book is well-written with plenty of examples. Adler is clearly an accomplished sabermetrician with a vast knowledge of the practical tools of the sabermetrician. The book also includes small contributions from Tom Dierickx, Mark Johnson, Matthew Johnson, Ari Kaplan, Pete Palmer, and Brendan Roberts. Additionally, the book’s website has many other examples that are not in the book.

If you want to get into serious sabermetrics research, this is the book you need. And even if you already know a good bit about baseball analysis, there is plenty new in the book that you don’t know. I’ve already recommend the book to several people, and I’m sure I’ll have an opportunity to do so again soon.

Fantasyland: A Review

Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball’s Lunatic Fringe
Sam Walker
Viking Press

In 2002 Michael Lewis fired the first shot in a culture war taking place within baseball with Moneyball. In his bestseller, Lewis investigates the success of the Oakland A’s, which employ the new ideas of sabermetrics (the scientific study of baseball) to put winning team on the field. The protagonist is Oakland’s General Manager Billy Beane, a failed top-prospect but a successful front office manager. While Beane’s explosive personality and some condescending arrogance documented in the book caused some baseball insiders to grumble upon the book’s publication, it was the methods the A’s employed that created most of the establishment’s backlash. The members of baseball’s establishment—or, “The Club,” as Lewis later labeled his critics—was an old-boys network of GMs, scouts, and media who didn’t take kindly to the implication that the old way of doing things might not be the best way.

Moneyball was an indictment of the old guard. Lewis documented how Ivy League kids with knowledge of computers and mathematics could exploit the mistakes of leather-skinned scouts with one-armed tans. The new methods of measuring player performances that substituted experienced eyes, grizzled wisdom, and a radar gun with sample sizes and confidence intervals was too much. This conflict can be described as jocks versus nerds, experience versus youth, or man versus machine. These are classic human themes, which is why Lewis’s story is so compelling. Few members of The Club would deny the usefulness of stats, but they will always remind you that it’s the human scouts who can pick up things not reflected in numbers. These were the methods acceptable for “fantasy baseball” not the real thing.

The thing is, though Moneyball isn’t the most popular book in MLB front offices, Sam Walker acknowledges in Fantasyland that there has been no rebuttal of the ideas presented. If anything, the Moneyball&#153 philosophy seems to have extended its influence further into the game. This is where the story begins. Walker, who writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal, runs the reverse experiment of Moneyball to weigh in on the “scouts versus stat-heads” debate. Whereas, Lewis documents stat-geeks invading the big leagues, Walker brings the human element to the fantasy sports world, where the sabermetric revolution has strong roots.

Tradition has it that fantasy baseball revolution its origins to a few prominent New York publishers who met in a now defunct New York restaurant, La Rotisserie Française, which would give rise to the original name of fantasy baseball: Rotisserie. However, it turns out that the founding father of the league, Dan Okrent, actually got the idea from a group of professors at the University of Michigan, who played a similar game in the 1960s. So, the game that is played over beer and hot wings to fulfill the unmet dreams of sports fanatics actually has ivory tower origins.

Fantasy sports are now big business in the US, with an estimate of 15 million players of fantasy games. While only those with the most extreme athletic gifts can hope to be a part of real professional sports, fantasy games provide an outlet for the masses to participate. Players select real professional players to play on individual teams, where “owners” reap the benefits of on-field production in several statistical categories. Fantasy players must gather as much information as possible in order to win their leagues. It is the drive of fantasy players to win these contests that has generated new knowledge in projecting player performances based solely of categories in box scores. Many of these ideas fit with the strategy employed by the A’s in Moneyball.

But, Walker wants to challenge the roto-nerds on their turf with information that few fantasy players can get their hands on. Though Walker doesn’t have the knowledge or wisdom of experienced front office personnel, he does have a press pass, which gives him access to information that no fantasy player has. And he’s not just jumping into any fantasy baseball league. He’s hoping to test out his ideas in Tout Wars, an advanced league in which only the top Rotisserie experts can play. Walker’s plan for success is simple, “I’m going to be good at this Rotisserie game, because I know people.”

Walker’s quest begins by building his own “front office” that he uses to compile the vast amounts of information he collects. If big-league teams need a group of people to win, so will Walker. The front office is composed of two diverse personalities with slightly differing skills sets. Nando, the general manager of the Walker team—the Streetwalkers—-is a young fantasy buff. Though he is wise to the statistical bent of the fantasy community, he’s open and intrigued by Walker’s idea. Nando will be the human voice, many times telling the owner what he wants to hear. Sig is a NASA biomathematician working on a PhD. in statistics. Everything is in the numbers for Sig, and he’s less impressed with Walker’s plan, but still intrigued. Sig will clash with the owner and general manager many times over the coming months. But, both will also learn to find comfort in his numbers.

Next, Walker starts his personal scouting trip to spring training. There, he talks to players, scouts, mangers, and GMs to try and get the inside scoop. Although he finds some things, he’s certainly disappointed with his trip. He’s gained a few hunches, but possibly he’s formed some irrational attachments to players for the wrong reasons. Walker will also prowl the clubhouses during the regular season, not just to get dirt on players, but to actually try to influence coaches and managers. From a pitching coach he learns that a pitcher he was thinking about picking up is not suffering from a rumored injury. He also uses data to convince a manager to use a Streetwalker pitcher differently. Certainly, these are things that the normal fantasy player can’t do. But, Walker is frustrated that even with this edge, his advantage doesn’t seem to be helping much.

While Walker’s intent is scientific, testing out the idea that inside information is important in sports, one of the greatest aspects of the book is how the game shaped him personally. He becomes to the fantasy baseball world what George Plimpton became to professional football with Paper Lion. Walker meets all of the fantasy players. The Tout Wars participants form a unique bond of friendship, or maybe “acquaintanceship” is the better term. Tempers erupt, tensions are real, and feelings do get hurt. There is no monetary reward for winning the game, but approbation from the fantasy world means a lot to these men. The players know that whatever they do in life, in the fantasy world these are only other people who understand them.

Just as Bill James was the person bearing the intellectual responsibility for the subject matter of Moneyball, Ron Shandler—author of Baseball Forecaster—plays the part in Fantasyland. Shandler also happens to be as much a participant in the book as any other player, because he is playing in Tout Wars. Shandler is bothered by many things in the real and fantasy baseball. He sees the game changing, and doesn’t necessarily care for the new breed of baseball analyst. He cares about Tout Wars partly because it’s an arena to prove his place in the fantasy baseball world. He doesn’t explicitly say it, but I feel it. And this means more to Shandler than the real game, as he walks away from major league employment—the ultimate dream goal of most serious fantasy players—to concentrate on his fantasy empire. I don’t know enough about Shandler to judge the accuracy of Walker’s portrayal; but, assuming it is correct, I really like the man.

As a player, Walker loses himself in the experiment as he experiences the pangs of the competition, watching his team of players (each of whom received a Streetwalkers t-shirt as a sign of devotion) fail and succeed. He stays up late cheering them, let’s himself go when they slump, and celebrates when they succeed. He learns about the human side of players, and gains an appreciation for what he has. “Man, I love my wife,” Walker says on one occasion. Even if you can reduce a player’s performance down to his numbers, it’s important not to forget about the person. The point ought to be a cliché, but Walker has the writing skill to convey it without getting sappy.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I don’t I think you will be surprised by the fact that the Streetwalkers don’t end up in first place. Season number one ends up as a learning experience. The real joy in reading the book is the documenting of experiences that every fantasy player feels: injuries causing panic-trades, competitors riding fluke performances, and angst over ethically questionable moves. The book really moves, and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit. In fact, the book caused me to join a baseball fantasy league this year for the first time in a long time.

Though it’s not chronicled in the book, Walker and his front office certainly learned from their mistakes in 2004. I didn’t follow the 2005 Tout Wars season to know how they did it, but both Walker and Nando (on his own team) finished first and second, respectively, in different leagues. Sig moved to the real world of baseball working for the St. Louis Cardinals. These movements seem to mirror Walker’s intuition: it’s not just stats or human observation, it’s both. And the both the real and fantasy worlds of baseball need a little more of what the other has got.

Review: The Undercover Economist

Well, it’s a short review. I’m still on the road, where I’ve gotten the chance to do some reading, and I wanted to post my brief review of Tim Harford‘s The Undercover Economist. It’s very good, and I’m kind of surprised no one has written an introductory economics book for laymen like this before. The best ideas always seem obvious in hindsight. Many people often ask me for one book to better understand economics, and I have several. But none of the ones on my list are as comprehensive as this one. If you read this book, you will have a good grasp on what every college student ought to be learning in Econ 1o1. The important micro and macro concepts are well-covered simply and with real-world examples. And the writing quality is excellent.

There are a few examples that I don’t agree with (for example, I don’t fully agree with his take on the healthcare market), but those are outweighed by the examples he includes that are far better than the ones I often use in class. All coffee drinkers (lots of good examples about coffee) ought to earn As in their Intro courses. It’s a book that I wish I could have written, and Harford should be commended on the excellent service to the discipline…or scolded for breaking the knowledge cartel of academic economists. 😉

The DePo Era

If you’re looking for a reason to purchase The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2006, check out this sample of Jon Weisman’s (of Dodger Thoughts) excellent analysis of Paul DePodesta’s tenure with the Dodgers.

This was actually the first article I read in the volume, and I liked it quite a bit. Although, I found one of DePo’s best moves went unmentioned. The trade of Tom Martin to the Braves was amazing. He had a horrible contract based on good luck and park inflated numbers, yet DePo was somehow able to get the Braves to pay nearly $2 million for under 20 innings of pitching, during which he managed to give up five home runs. I saw all of those ding-dongs, and none of them were cheap.