Baseball Books, Good and Bad

Last Sunday night, I was slothing my way through one of those soulless duty-free bookshops at O’Hare—the kind with the endless supply of the book-clubby tome du jour and caustic lighting and $4.29 Smartwater bottles—when a book caught my eye.

Moneyball. Completely out of place. Next to Stieg Larssen.  Kitty-corner from Mitch Albom. A new cover—one of those weird book-turns-into-movie-so-we-change-the-book cover-to-look-like-the-movie poster covers: a shadowy and tiny Brad Pitt, relegated to the bottom right-hand corner of the picture, standing in the outfield of the Coliseum—an angle meant to convey contemplation, smallness, pressure.

But Moneyball. How tired was I? I could count on two hands my cumulative hourly sleep total the past three nights (#whitetravelerproblems) and I was just coming out of a craft beer coma. I was not in my best shape, in other words.

Yeah, Moneyball. There—at the moment, here—in this shitty little store with its overpriced items and sub-bodega customer service. Rebranded, reborn, with a new cover and a price out of line with a relatively-successful-but-not-meteorically-so book about how a bunch of white guys running a small franchise exploited market inefficiencies—that market being Major League Baseball—to their advantage, acquiring assets—those assets being Major League Baseball players—to maintain success—success defined as regular season wins relative to dollars spent, not money or championships—despite a bevy of competitors with more resources, and a market—again, Major League Baseball—that is governed by archaic restrictions and regulations that make competitive balance the stuff of reverie.

How does that book transcend its subject and land in duty-free bookshops? How does that turn into a box office smash?

Moneyball, at its heart, is about economics. Michael Lewis received his Master’s Degree in Economics from the London School of Economics in 1985, published Liar’s Pokera brilliant examination of greed at his old firm, Solomon Brothers—in 1989, and has for two decades been primarily a financial journalist.

So Lewis wrote a story that has more to do with his own acumen than baseball: economics and storytelling. Each of Lewis’ chapters tells a story: Jeremy Brown and his assumption that he’d never be looked at by a Major League team; Mike Magnante being released four days before earning his pension; Scott Hatteberg fielding ground balls hit by his wife in the pouring rain. But the broader narrative is much simpler: market undervalues On-Base Percentage (OBP); A’s notice this; Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta exploit this.

That Lewis is able to find the Browns and the Magnantes and the Hattebergs is really quite remarkable. Those stories are what make the book, what give it heart and compassion and basic human qualities—the same qualities that make sports movies successful: dump the X’s and O’s and focus on the white lady who helped the black kid out.

(Michael Lewis wrote The Blind Side, too.)

All of which kind of reminds me of a book I thumbed through earlier this year: Charley Rosen’s The Bullpen Diaries. Since Moneyball, lots of good baseball books have come out: The Bullpen Gospels, The Baseball Economist, The Extra 2%. And lots of bad baseball books have come out—like The Bullpen Diaries.

Rosen, who has for many years written about sports, decided to chronicle the 2010 Yankees’ bullpen, writing about all 162 games, every single appearance, every single pitcher, etc., while occasionally aiming to distill his focus to a single player, the indisputably superhuman, greatest closer of all-time, maybe the most amazing pitcher of our generation, Yankee legend Mariano Rivera.

How Rosen navigates the 162-game season is almost impossibly clunky. Trying to write in a present-past-wait-is-it-the-present? tense in the opening pages, Rosen explains how the Yankees view their fireballing perpetual-tease of a reliever Joba Chamberlain. “Let’s see if and how [Chamberlain] works his way back into a key role this season…” The book was published in 2011, if you’re holding it in your hands, you’ve already seen how Chamberlain worked his way back blah blah blah.

In the middle pages, Rosen takes the reader through each game, providing series-by-series, and occasionally game-by-game, analyses. In the entry of a 7-1 Yankees win on April 25, Rosen takes issue with general manager Brian Cashman’s roster construction and manager Joe Girardi’s bullpen usage:

With the Yankees up by six runs in the bottom of the 9th, why didn’t Girardi use Sergio Mitre? After all, Mitre hadn’t pitched in seventeen days and could’ve used the work, whereas Damaso Marte had seen action only four days previous. The fact that Sergio Mitre’s number wasn’t called raises the question of exactly why he’s still on the roster.

The analysis is not necessarily remedial; it’s fair to wonder why a mop-up guy like Sergio Mitre isn’t used in a mop-up situation (though asking why Mitre’s number wasn’t called is not a hard question to answer: he sucks). But this passage gets at the fundamental problem with The Bullpen Diaries: who is this book for?

Yankees fans? Well, no. Diehards who are diehard-y enough to care about roster construction—all the way down to the swingman spot in the bullpen—would have already read pages upon pages upon pages of fishwrap about those topics during the season, and probably from baseball writers with more skill and access and understanding of the game and the Yankees’ thought process than Rosen.

Sabermetrics buffs? Well, no. Not at all. The statistics in the book are neither advanced nor interesting—including some strange and unnecessary new bullpen metric Rosen pulls out of his ass.

General fans? If you’re not a Yankees fan, why care? Why read hundreds of pages about some other team’s bullpen? And bullpens, though they are interesting in a sort of nerdy-baseball-storyline way (why are the players used in the highest leverage situations the ones who aren’t good enough to start?), don’t make for a sexy, crackling subject for a mass-market release.

Rosen seems to target the general fan in the pages that focus on Rivera, the Yankees’ unparalleled closer. Rivera, Rosen argues, is a tremendous pitcher, unlikely hall-of-famer, and all-around good guy. He wants the story to not only focus on Rivera’s sporting exploits, but his broader, more relatable and admirable traits.

How does Rosen express this? Why, banal scouting metaphors, of course!

Rivera also possesses five World Series rings, and 559 regular season and 42 postseason saves. In addition, Rivera rates 80s across the board for his generosity, humility, and intelligence.*

(*Scouts use a 20-80 scale to evaluate baseball players.)

That is Charley Rosen trying to give The Bullpen Diaries some heart. And boy, is it ever unnatural.

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