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Baseball inside the numbers Ahead of the Curve'

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New book an informative, entertaining introduction to sabermetrics

Tradition is a hell of a thing. It's hard to overstate just how difficult it can be to overcome the inertia of 'this is how we've always done it.'

There are few places in popular culture where that sentiment rings truer than in professional sports. Change particularly intellectual change comes at a glacial pace.

Brian Kenny, formerly of ESPN and now of the MLB Network, is one of the few figures in sports media who is unwilling to wait.

Kenny's 'Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution' (Simon & Schuster, $28) offers some insight regarding his drive for those intellectual changes within Major League Baseball. His passion for the analytic side of the sport has made him a bit of an outlier, a lone voice shouting sabermetrics into a wilderness filled with old-school writers and ex-ballplayers all adherents to the aforementioned 'this is how we've always done it.'

Statistical analysis has allowed us to look beneath the surface of the game that we love, to interpret data in such a way as to enhance our understanding far beyond the basic back-of-the-baseball-card numbers that have become inseparable from the experience.

The ideas that Kenny espouses ideas that were pioneered by such figures as Bill James can run contrary to how we currently see the game. His 'Kill the Win' campaign argues against using such idiosyncratically and arbitrarily determined stats as pitching wins and saves as any sort of real measuring stick. He bemoans the love affair with commonly-cherished things like batting average and RBIs, choosing instead to celebrate on-base percentage and runs scored. He values walks and despises bunts. He believes that starting pitcher usage is in need of an overhaul and that the Triple Crown is overrated.

Kenny looks not only at what statistics can tell us about the modern game, but at how those same numbers relate to baseball's history. Some of the most entertaining passages in 'Ahead of the Curve' come when Kenny looks back at some of the outdated MVP votes and Hall of Fame snubs that resulted from the conventional wisdom of the times. We're not talking ancient history, either look at the inexplicable reality that is two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez.

His passion for what he believes is palpable and when you're reading, you can't help but be pulled in. Whether he's sharing stories of his on-set antagonism with players-turned-analysts or talking about his long-term admiration for the work of James and other proto-sabermetricians, Kenny wants to catch the baseball conversation up with the fascinating work that has been done by the analytics vanguard in recent years. He wants a world where logic is on equal footing when it comes to looking at the game. He wants to bring baseball knowledge into the 21st century.

But what he wants most of all is for everyone fans, coaches and reporters alike to take a step back and think logically and for themselves.

What Kenny has done here is walk a very fine line. This is the sort of book that could very easily become a tail-swallowing ouroboros that disappears into itself in a puff of acronyms. It could also have been a 'Baby's First Sabermetrics' primer that would simultaneously condescend and fail to significantly inform. It could have been too dry or too light or too wonky or too simplistic.

Yet 'Ahead of the Curve' is none of those things. Kenny's matter-of-fact style blends nicely with the statistical complexities he presents; he puts forth his ideas, anecdotes and arguments with clarity and humor. It's a wonderfully informative, wonderfully readable book.

'Ahead of the Curve' can most easily be described as a sort of gateway book, an entry point into the realm of baseball analytics. That isn't to say that it is remedial even those with a passing understanding of basic sabermetrics is going to learn a lot about the statistical gears that are eternally turning between the lines. A must-read for any baseball fan, statistically-minded or otherwise.


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