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‘Smart Baseball’ lives up to its title

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Keith Law book offers depth of sabermetric insight

They say that numbers don’t lie. And that may be so. But sometimes, well … sometimes they don’t tell the whole truth.

None of our professional sports are as numbers-driven as baseball. For generations, fans have committed to memory certain legendary numbers, numbers that are as much a part of the game’s historical fabric as the actions that took place on the field.

But some of those numbers aren’t as informative as you think.

Keith Law is a noted baseball wonk and veteran sportswriter who has long been a sabermetric champion, devoted to finding the numbers that more effectively explain and describe the game that he loves. His new book “Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running it, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball” (William Morrow, $27.99) digs deep into the game’s statistical past and present to explain why some numbers are outdated while others are outstanding.

Law breaks the book down into three components. Part One is “Smrt Baseball” (that title is a reference to a classic bit from “The Simpsons”), in which Law discusses a few of his least-favorite stats and explains why they’re ineffective relics of a bygone age. He methodically tears down such box score mainstays as batting average, pitching wins and RBI – numbers that don’t actually mean nearly as much as we think they do. According to Law, stolen bases are kind of overrated and fielding percentage is nonsense. Oh, and the save rule has ruined baseball.

Part Two is “Smart Baseball.” This is where Law goes in-depth on numbers with which casual fans might not yet be familiar (many who cover the game are notoriously averse to this data-driven attitude, though slow progress has been made in recent years). These are things like on-base percentage – which Law believes to be the single best measure of a hitter in terms of combined accuracy and ease of use – and slugging percentage. He also discusses newer numbers, rate stats like wOBA (weighted on-base average) and wRC (weighted runs created) that help form more precise pictures of a player’s offensive output. Advanced defensive metrics are addressed, as is the increasingly-popular catch-all construct WAR (wins above replacement).

Part Three is – you guessed it – “Smarter Baseball.” This is where Law looks at how these ever-developing statistics can be applied to other aspects of the game. He revisits past Hall of Fame elections and MVP votes and examines them through the sabermetric prism. There’s some discussion of how technological developments have altered the way teams look for players as well as how they understand what they already have. Law also takes time to look forward and guess at future changes that this new focus on statistical analysis might bring to the game.

“Smart Baseball” is unapologetically nerdy, with Law taking obvious delight in his stathead geekery. But it isn’t condescending or overly obtuse; there’s a density to the book that rarely gets too heavy. Law does a particularly good job of bringing enough math for explanation and justification without falling too deeply down any statistical rabbit hole – although truthfully, if you’re interested in this book, the math stuff probably doesn’t worry you much.

One especially great thing about this book is Law’s investment in supporting his analysis. In a world of sports commentary that is driven largely by bloviation, it’s refreshing to read something so meticulous in its construction. Law defends his opinions with hard data, explaining his ideas thoroughly in a manner both well-researched and well-written.

Analytics have invaded front offices across Major League Baseball; 15 years ago – back when Law was starting a four-year run in the Toronto Blue Jays front office – teams were just starting to recognize the value that sabermetrics could provide. Today, every team has not just an analyst or two but full departments led by PhDs – all of them looking for the next data advantage. This book is an excellent way for fans to get a better sense of just what that data race might mean.

“Smart Baseball” is a must-read for any baseball fan interested in an expanded understanding of the hidden intricacies of the game. While it’s unlikely that historically beloved stats like RBI and wins, as imprecise as they are, will ever disappear, what Law has done is shown us just how much is happening beneath that surface level of convention – and given us access to the numbers that help define that activity. Even those already familiar with these next-generation stats will find themselves learning something new.

By prioritizing innovation over tradition, “Smart Baseball” offers the reader an intelligent, engaging and likely eye-opening experience.

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 April 2017 13:40

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