By Ron Keurajian
I want to start this review and say I am not a sabermetrics type of person. I like the nuts and bolts stats of the game. To me batting average is king; all else flows from this one stat. The higher the average, the greater the ballplayer; simple. Ty Cobb has the highest batting average in MLB history at .367 (or .368 depending on the research) and he was the greatest ever. Call me statistically challenged but when WAR puts a player like Mike Trout over the immortal Cobb then it’s time to toss WAR over the side of the boat and watch it drown ... slowly.
Having said that I do have an open mind ... at least when it comes to issues I agree with. I received a copy of Ahead Of The Curve, Inside The Baseball Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2016) authored by Brian Kenny, veteran anchor for MLB Network. It’s a book that stresses sabermetrics. Lots of charts, graphs, and acronyms such as VORP and BABIP are found within. BABIP? I approached this book to try and understand the thought behind this alternative school of thought. This book turned out to be a great read penned by a life-long student of the game. Kenny’s research is very detailed and his passion for the game shines through.
According to the founders, sabermetrics dissects baseball stats in an objective and antiseptic way. In-game activity is key. The book often cites Bill James, an early pioneer of the school who many consider the Father of Sabermetrics. Kenny challenges the traditional way of analyzing baseball stats and goes after many a sacred cow. Kenny discounts wins and suggests errors have little to do with the outcome of the modern game. Recording errors, to Kenny, is a thing of the past. Kenny instead opts for in-depth comparative analysis as a more accurate way to assess a player’s worth and value to the team.
Some of the comparisons are fascinating and make for riveting text. As baseball fans, we all compare player by player, team by team, and stat by stat. Sam Crawford to Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle to Ted Williams, Rusty Staub to Boog Powell and so on. The book takes this to a whole new level; putting player evaluations under a microscope.
The author hits team management fairly hard for being mired in the past. The book asserts that managing a MLB team is not that difficult and thus teams hire managers that look the part of a ruggedly handsome actor; you know Don Mattingly over Miller Huggins. Kenny presents interesting comparisons to support his position.
In the chapter “Good Looking Beats Good Pitching” Kenny studies the careers of two Detroit pitching greats: Jack Morris and Mickey Lolich; both who, in my opinion, deserve a plaque in Cooperstown.
Kenny writes: “what jumped to mind when I mentioned these two?... For Morris, it’s his big game pitching. For Lolich it’s his big gut.”
Both have Hall of Fame numbers. The book points out that, in many ways, Lolich was a superior pitcher yet Morris, year after year, received far more Hall of Fame votes than the rotund Lolich. This based on the fact that Morris looks like an athlete whereas Lolich looks like he owns a doughnut shop (which he did for many years). The book is a fairly damning indictment of team management and the sports writers. Maybe there is something to this looks-the-part routine.
Chapter 11, “Hall of Fame” is my favorite of the book. I have been involved in many heated debates with fellow fans as to who deserves induction into the Hall. Tommy John, Bobby Veach, Steve Garvey, Sam Leever, and countless other players stir great passion.
Does Keith Hernandez belong in the Hall of Fame? Using sabermetrics Kenny lays out a compelling case for Hernandez’ induction. Kenny also makes a strong argument for former Detroit shortstop Alan Trammell, who Kenny calls: “one of the top 10 [shortstops] of all time.” Trammell’s best 15-year WAR is comparable to Hall of Fame Shortstops Cal Ripken and Ozzie Smith. Kenny also makes the case for others as well, among them Dwight Evans and Tim Raines.
Ahead Of The Curve presents a wonderful blend of current players and old time legends that gives the reader a wide array of stories, facts, and player by player match-ups. Also found within is a detailed glossary of various sabermetric terms for those of us who are unfamiliar with some of the acronyms. This book is written in such a way that it will appeal to the most dedicated of experts as well as to the casual fan of the National Pastime.
The author writes: “Baseball is played both out on the field, and in our minds. I’ve found it to be beautiful in both ways.” This is what makes the game of baseball so enduring to America. This book will prove an invaluable tool to current and future generations of fans and a must for hot-stove leaguers during the chill of winter. Whether you agree with sabermetrics or not, this book is a required addition to any baseball library and will continue the debate of how to measure greatness in the grand old game of baseball.
Ron Keurajian is a long time contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and the author of the award winning Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs - A Reference Guide (McFarland Publishing 2012)