Skip to main content

Some Call It Progress: Ron Kaplan Reviews Two Books That Look at Baseball Under a New Microscope

Baseball Books

Some Call It Progress: Ron Kaplan Reviews Two Books That Look at Baseball Under a New Microscope

One hundred years ago, newspapers were the only way to get information about your favorite baseball stars and teams. Then radio came along and gave fans a new way to enjoy the game. At first, team owners opposed the new medium, fearful that they would lose paying customers. They were shortsighted; the air waves allowed the national pastime to extend far beyond the limits of local travel.

Similar complaints were made when television became widely available. Why would people come out to the ballpark when they could watch for nothing from the comfort of their own homes? Again, shortsighted.

The point of this recap? Old doesn’t mean better, and new isn’t necessarily something to be afraid of.

Yet some fans are in a quandary with the new generation of statistics and ways of doing things. Michael Lewis’ MONEYBALL gets credit (or blame) for turning things around. Since its publication in 2003, numerous books have studied the success of teams that adopted this new philosophy based on statistics rather than the gut feelings of the veteran scouts. Players’ values were judged by different standards than those of their predecessors. Thus was born “sabermetrics.”

That was almost 20 years ago. Maybe it’s a decreased attention span that has ball clubs and fans looking for the next big things: exit velocity and launch angle, the latter of which is the subject of Jared Diamond’s book, SWING KINGS: The Inside Story of Baseball's Home Run Revolution.

They say that great players make lousy managers. Maybe that’s why the subject of the book --- “no-names” like Bobby Tewksbary and Craig Wallenbrock, who barely reached the pros --- were so successful in teaching their theories of swinging up at the ball in an effort to loft it out of the park rather than level or even down to merely put it in play. This would have been anathema to Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, although Babe Ruth probably would have been on board; he liked to say, “I hit big or I miss big.” Indeed, a lot of current players miss big as evidenced by the dramatic increase in strikeouts, the “broken eggs” to the omelets of home runs.

Diamond, who covers baseball for the Wall Street Journal, highlights several of what golfers might call “swing coaches,” but he mainly focuses on the success stories --- players such as Josh Donaldson, Justin Turner and J.D. Martinez, who sought out these gurus, looking to turn their careers around. It worked for them, but does it work for everyone? I would say no, but I’m an old-timer.

FUTURE VALUE: The Battle for Baseball's Soul and How Teams Will Find the Next Superstar is a textbook for those who want to take the deepest dive yet into how today’s teams research the young men who might one day put on a major league uniform. Eric Longenhagen, FanGraphs’ “lead prospect analyst,” and Kiley McDaniel, who is currently writing for ESPN after many years in various front offices, keep their focus on how the sausage is made --- and to be honest, I don’t know what kind of audience this one is for. You have to be an uber-geek, and I say that with all the love and respect in the world, to embrace all this data.

The authors obviously know their stuff as they report on how the players are evaluated and graded (and how the rules are different for countries outside the U.S. and Canada), how teams decide how much of their operating budget to spend on scouting, and how much to spend in attempting to draft their players.

Despite the marvelous research and attention to detail, what I found missing is the part about “the battle for baseball’s soul.” It seems all business to me.

SWING KINGS and FUTURE VALUE remind me of the classic musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is the story of a Jewish village in Russia in the early 20th century. Times are changing. Traditional religious ideals are giving way to more modern ways of thinking. As the star, Tevye, reluctantly says to his wife, “It’s a new world.” That’s my feeling about some of the new books coming out about baseball.

--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (