Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Tale of Two Analysts

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
I've just finished read two recently published books: Brian Kenny's Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution (Simon & Schuster, Amazon) and Tim Kurkjian's I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love (St. Martin's, Amazon). The books couldn't be more different.

The tone in Kenny's Ahead of the Curve is one of dismissive pomposity. Page after page is drenched thoroughly with disturbing egotism and arrogance. He routinely made this reader feel dumb and insulted for being either resistant to or in something like denial of accepting/embracing sabermetrics. Some of the sabermetrics seem useful and interesting, others are frivolous and not helpful. It is abundantly clear that Kenny loves the game of baseball and is an authority; however, the style of writing was so off-putting it was a struggle to want to finish his book. The best chapter was "Chapter 15: Department of Decision Science" in which, happily, Kenny's "I" persona was largely absent. Kenny's thesis is that he was ahead of the curve in many aspects of baseball in the last thirty years; and that in doing so he separated himself from the 'herd'. However, ironically, he is now an active participant in and proponent of a herd of sabermatricians.

As can be done with statistical analysis, Kenny only chooses those results which suit his argument. For example, Kenny discusses the lack of MVP's being awarded to pitchers in the modern era, but never mentions the reason for this is likely due to the establishment in 1956 of the Cy Young Award, which is annually given to the best pitcher in each league. He also goes on and and and on about WAR and uses it as a metric to defend his stance that Mike Trout was hosed by the BBWAA in the 2012 MVP award (given to Miguel Cabrera). But, he never acknowledges that WAR is not an officially recognized stat in Major League Baseball. As such, it is likely that the BBWAA voters are unable to take this into consideration when voting. This is speculation on my part and it's likely I'm incorrect. A lot of people place a lot of emphasis on WAR which, these same people readily admit, is flawed and imperfect. Which makes me question how important a "stat" it can actually be? Anyway, Kenny kind of falls into a trap of his own making in the Trout/Cabrera debate and negated the pages and words he dedicates turning purple in the face trying to re-write history. He calls Trout the "best" player of 2012. This is probably true, but he wasn't the "Most Valuable", which was rightly given to Cabrera of the Tigers. This is a question of semantics.

The glossary in the back of the book is really helpful. When using acronyms for the first time Kenny in the book, Kenny reminds the reader to see there to get an idea of what he's talking about.

On the contrary, in I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies, Kurkjian writes with palpable enthusiasm for the "game we all love". Kurkjian's book represents the more human side of the game of baseball: from the quirks of the five kinds of superstitions, to what it's like to be hit by the ball, to an excellent defense of why he is so fascinated by the sacrifice fly, to how amazing John Kruk is, and so much more. He also discusses sabermetrics but with far more circumspection than Kenny about its applications. It isn't numbers and computers that are playing the game: it's people. See particularly pages 39-44 for what sabermetrics CAN'T do. Some of the text feels repeated from his previous book or from Baseball Tonight/Sportscenter broadcasts; but his writing is so wonderful I don't mind re-reading. Kurkjian writes with so much personality and likability -- his recounting of the Great Hot Dog race and experiences with Terry Francona and Buck Showalter so are wonderful -- that it was a refreshing and purifying read after Kenny's. Can't recommend I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies, as well as Kurkjian's Is This a Great Game, or What?, enough.

Thanks for stopping by!

1 comment:

  1. I agree with most of what Brian Kenny says, but his delivery makes him seem like a huge asshole. This makes for good TV on the MLB Network when he gets in arguments with the likes of Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac, but instead of teaching he will ridicule.