Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Big Data Baseball

I like Travis Sawchik, Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune. I read his work and I link to it a lot. He's smart, is a sharp writer, and does a great job of doing what I try to do: weave some advanced baseball analytics into traditional baseball analysis.

Last month, he published a book, Big Data Baseball, that chronicles the 2013 season, during which the Pirates ended the longest streak of losing seasons in North American sports. I think interesting sports books covering the recent past are extremely challenging. I really enjoyed the books 1954 by Bill Madden and The Machine by Joe Posnanski, but the events they chronicled--the 1954 baseball season and the 1975 Cincinnati Reds--aren't recent, so the authors could let the narrative of the season, no longer fresh in readers' minds, tell a good piece of the story. The same goes for the book I'm reading now, Dan Epstein's Stars and Strikes, about the 1976 season. 

By covering a recent season, Sawchik can't just tell us what happens day to day. We remember the season, how Andrew McCutchen became an MVP, how Francisco Liriano was Comeback Player of the Year, how the Pirates beat the Reds in the wild card game. When Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, his bestseller about the Oakland A's, he had exclusive access the the team's general manager, Billy Beane; he literally sat in on several of his meetings. Sawchik didn't have such a luxury. Athletes "write" books about teams of recent seasons--think of Johnny Damon's Idiot, published after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004--but they're more playing off the celebrity of the "author" than anything else.* An upcoming book on the Los Angeles Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy by ESPN writer Molly Knight, uses the reporter's insider access to tell behind-the-scenes stories not previously revealed. 

Sawchik, by contrast, analyzes the steps the Pirates took to reverse decades of losing baseball, weaving them into the narrative of the season. He lays out the changes that management identified and how they were effected throughout the organization. That, task, I feel, is tougher, and I also feel that he pulls it off.

The thing about the Pirates is that, just like the Moneyball A's, their success is attributable in part to their embrace of quantitative analytical methods ahead of the competition. The Pirates were arguably less noisy about it than Oakland, but they were among the first to emphasize defensive infield shifts and two-seam fastballs (aka sinkers) in order to induce opponents into hitting ground balls to infielders positioned to turn the grounders into outs. They were also among the first to understand the virtues of catcher framing: the ability of some catchers to turn borderline ball/strike calls into strikes by catching, or framing, pitched balls in a way to increase the probability of umpires calling the pitches in the Pirates pitchers' favor.

To illustrate this, Sawchik focuses on key personnel. The first one is manager Clint Hurdle, who had to be convinced of the thinking behind the changes and then sell them to the Pirates players. Hurdle didn't attend college. He was a star high school player, and as I pointed out in my post about baseball's amateur draft, the best players in baseball are drafted right out of high school, since baseball, unlike basketball and football, doesn't outsource player development to the NCAA. Hurdle was a first round pick in the 1975 amateur draft, and after a sensational 1977 at AAA Omaha (.328/.449/.529 slash line) was one of baseball's mostly highly touted rookies in 1978. His career never took off; in parts of ten major league seasons, he batted .259 with just 32 homers over 1,391 at bats. But he worked his up through minor league and major league coaching jobs to eventually six full years and parts of two more as manager of the Colorado Rockies (the only manager to lead the team to the World Series) and, since 2011, manager of the Pirates. The Pirates, after hot starts, collapsed in both 2011 and 2012 to fourth place finishes below .500. Despite his lack of a college education, though, Hurdle's a smart and thoughtful man, and when the front office showed him the data supporting the changes involving shifting and sinkers and framing entering the 2013 season, he embraced them.

From there, Sawchik tells the story of the 2013 season, weaving in the stories of key players than exemplified the Pirates' embrace of new metrics. There's the now-departed catcher Russell Martin, signed to a free agent contract after two years as the Yankees' primary catcher, picked up for his top-of-the-charts framing skills. There's pitcher Charlie Morton, an extreme sinker pitcher who had scuffled to a 5.06 career ERA from 2008 to 2012 before the shifted Pirates infield rewarded his groundball tendencies (he leads the league in groundball/flyball ratio this year, 3.77, and was first in 2013 as well), turning grounders into outs. There's lefty Francisco Liriano, signed to a bargain basement $1 million one-year free agent contract after five awful seasons following Tommy John surgery (4.75 ERA, 12% worse than the league average) and an offseason broken arm. As I discussed here, he completely abandoned his four-seam (rising) fastball in favor of his sinker, yielding a 16-8 record, 3.02 ERA, and the aforementioned Comeback Player of the Year Award. There's hometown hero, second baseman Neil Walker, who became a key player in all those infield shifts, resulting in his range factor (putouts plus assists) per game rising from fourth in the league in 2012 to first in 2013. Sawchik introduces these players as he describes the chronology of the 2013 season, culminating in the win over the Reds at PNC in the Pirates' first postseason game since George Bush--George H.W. Bush, not George W. Bush--was in the White House.

All in all, I thought it was an entertaining read, particularly the pieces about Hurdle, who's got a lot more going on than his somewhat rotund, red-faced, gum-chewing TV persona would indicate. Sawchik does a great job introducing advanced metrics like catcher framing and defensive runs saved without getting lost (as I sometimes do) in the numerical minutiae, making the book, like Moneyball, attractive to both numerically-oriented fans and those more focused on the game on the diamond. 

*I know, using scare quotes around the words wrote and author is kind of a cheap shot. Political writers have taken all the fun out of scare quotes, using them to trivialize their opponents' positions. (Think of liberals decrying "deregulation" or conservatives railing against "stimulus.") That being said, I mean, I like Pedro Martinez a lot, but you can't convince me that, in his new autobiography, Pedro, by PEDRO MARTINEZ AND MICHAEL SILVERMAN (those are, roughly, the font sizes on the cover of the book), Pedro actually said or wrote this:
I gathered as many smooth and flat stones as I could hold in one hand. The sea was still, and I skipped rock after rock across the glass surface, following the spiraling arc of the rippling tendrils until the stone skidded to a stop and slid slowly underwater.
And that goes double for Johnny Damon, sorry.

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