Two sweet Cheater’s Guide reviews

April 1, 2007 · Filed Under Book reviews, Off-topic ranting · 9 Comments 

A nice recommendation in the Detroit News and a really positive review in the Chicago Sun-Times. Now I can tell you to order the critically-acclaimed (and Jim Bouton… uh, what would you call that, baffling?) Cheater’s Guide to Baseball. Hee hee hee.

Opening Day post coming.

Cheater’s Guide reviewed in the New York Times

March 31, 2007 · Filed Under Book reviews · 31 Comments 

Jim Bouton, of Ball Four fame, reviews the Cheater’s Guide to Baseball. It’s kind of a good review, and it’s also not really a review of the book, which he wants to get off his lawn. The whole thing’s a little baffling.

Like in the Billy Martin chapter, because Martin said that he’d play Hitler and Hirohito, I put together a baseball team of the worst people in history.

Why he has Mussolini on the mound, as opposed to Genghis Khan (SS), say, or Pol Pot (C), may be a good subject for blogging, another hobby of Zumsteg’s.

Zing! Blogging = not serious. Also, I did discuss how I assigned player/positions later, but whatever. Or the betting games, or… anyway.

Not only do you get the complete history of — and instructions for — bat corking, you get a step-by-step recipe for how to tamper with an aluminum bat: (1) Buy an industrial aluminum forge plant. (2) Hire new workers, as needed. (3) Retool plant. (4) Take existing bat to plant. (5) Melt bat down. Etc.

By this time you realize the book is less an examination of cheating and more a glimpse into the mind of a particular kind of sports addict. The kind who, when he’s not at a ballgame with his buddies, sits in front of the TV with the remote, checking the scores to see how much money he’s won or lost.

And I’m not sure why it’s so personal – I’ve met Bouton briefly at one of his Seattle book events, and he seemed like a good guy. I don’t remember ever slashing his tires.

In any event, if you’ve read it, you can speak as well about the difference between book-as-reviewed and the actual book as I can.

It’s really a huge thing to get reviewed – it means that the editors saw the book as good and interesting enough to assign, even if it didn’t get to someone who would have got the jokes, or seen past the jokes to the interesting serious content.

First review for Cheater’s Guide to Baseball

From the Feb 1 Library Journal:

Zumsteg, Derek. The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball. Houghton. Apr. 2007. 256p.
ISBN 0-618-55113-1 [ISBN 978-0-618-55113-2]. pap. $13.95.
It’s been said that an athlete who “ain’t cheatin’ ain’t tryin'” and that “rules are made to be broken.” Zumsteg (coauthor, Baseball Prospectus) has written a lively and challenging account of cheating as part of America’s pastime, whether it’s the habits of particular notables, such as Gaylord Perry and his spitball, or modern day pharmaceutical legerdemain. He also ponders such issues as whether it’s cheating to try to bunt to break up a no hitter. No, it ensures that the game evolves and progresses! This one’s a sure hit.

Pre-order now, folks. Your purchase supports me writing for USSM.

The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball

Only $11 – a bargain at twice the price.

First book event of any kind– Peoria, March 3rd, you can meet two major league GMs, Jonah Keri, me, and get a Cheater’s Guide bookmark or something similarly exciting. Check it out.

Advance praise for Cheater’s Guide to Baseball

“Derek Zumsteg should be ashamed to have such comprehensive knowledge of the history of cheating in baseball. Pete Rose gave me two to one odds this book would become a classic.” — Allen Barra, bestselling author of The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant

Pre-order now, folks. Your purchase supports me writing for USSM.

The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball

Only $11 – a bargain at twice the price.

Book Review: The Museum of Clear Ideas

March 21, 2006 · Filed Under Book reviews, General baseball, Off-topic ranting · 19 Comments 

T.S. Eliot once wrote that April is the cruelest month. Given that Eliot was the most British American ever conceived, it is unsurprising that he did not appreciate baseball’s approach. This despite being born in St. Louis and living during the era of Rogers Hornsby. Working on some poem is barely an excuse.

To the rest of us — poets, too — April means baseball. After reading Donald Hall’s vastly underappreciated 1993 work, Museum of Clear Ideas, I think Hall — one of the towering figures in American letters — would agree. The book of poems is a moving meditation on art, love, death and baseball, not necessarily in that order.

In Clear Ideas, Hall draws on themes from sport and visual art. The book’s first baseball poem is an attempt to explain baseball to Kurt Schwitters, the artist acknowledged as the 20th century master of the collage.

The volume isn’t all baseball, but the narrative of the game informs (and bookends) everything else. We start with a non-baseball poem (“Another Elegy,” which nevertheless alludes to rain delays), then move on to nine long baseball poems divided into nine poetic “innings”. Concluding, Hall offers three warm, darkly beautiful extra-inning baseball poems that are succinct and perfect, like black pearls.

Like Schwitters, Hall wraps seemingly unrelated elements into a package that works. And while any fan of poetry ought to enjoy the book, you might have to be a longstanding baseball fan to truly appreciate some of the wit here. Besides lines about storied games from yesteryear, there are references to Dock Ellis’ acid no-hitter, Wade Boggs’ affairs, Steve Blass disease, expansion and Nolan Ryan’s Advil ads.

To the poet, baseball is a pleasure (“Baseball is not my work. It is my/walk in the park, my pint of bitter,/My Agatha Christie or Zane Grey.”), but it also reflects the grand collage of life. Generations of young men become old men, barely hanging on as skills and vitality fade. Hall’s is a world where ” … even losing three out of four/is preferable to off-season,” as life is preferable to death.

Baseball, like sexual intercourse
and art, stops short, for a moment, the
indecent continuous motion
of time forward, implying our death
and imminent decomposition.

Being a Red Sox fan, Hall knows something about loss, death, hope and rebirth. Even if you win the Series, he reminds, the season ends anyway. Fortunately, there is still spring.

The Museum of Clear Ideas is a fantastic book by a gifted poet that happens to cover the national pastime. It would be worth reading if you didn’t know a double play from doublemint, or VORP from a vorpal blade going snicker-snack. Because you do, it’ll be all the better.

[Ed note: those are affiliate links. We recommend the book even if you go buy it some other way. Standard disclaimers apply.]

Baseball Hacks

March 15, 2006 · Filed Under Book reviews · 7 Comments 

I’d recommend Baseball Hacks to anyone who has ever hung around here (or other baseball analysis sites) and thought “I wish I could get detailed stats like those” but didn’t know where to start. If you want not just to digest baseball research but check it and tinker with it yourself, and you’re willing to get your hands dirty, this is your book. And the dirtier you’re willing to get, the more you can get out of it.

Here’s my quick-and-dirty summary of the book
Chapter 1, Basics of Baseball.
Baseball information is on the internet! Whee!
Chapter 2, Baseball Games from Past Years
This is good stuff: getting yourself databases with all kinds of past game stats, hooking it up, querying it… and this is where we start to get into the real work: using Perl makes an appearance. Still, it’s almost all database-and-SQL stuff, and isn’t that heavy – if you’re not scared of the word ‘database’ you’ll be fine.
Chapter 3, Stats from the Current Season
Noooow it starts to get heavy. Hack 25 is “Spider Baseball Sites for Data” for instance. Soon it’s into building and keeping current year stats updated.
Chapter 4, Visualize Baseball Statistics
This is cool stuff, and instead of being programming/technical heavy, it’s much more into statistical analysis and visualization.
Chapter 5, Formulas
How to calculate a bunch of stats.
Chapter 6, Sabermetric Thinking
This is where you’d think things get interesting, and that’s kinda true. Here it’s about how to use the data you’re getting to look for good stuff. I disagree with how he goes about some of it (Hack 64, on clutch hitting, specifically) but it is good to see what kind of things the data can offer you.
Then there’s some fantasy stuff, which I’m sure would be great if you were interested in using your newfound data to try and find some crazy advantage. I skipped it, because that’s not me at all. And really, when Baseball Prospectus has a pretty good budgeting-and-forecasting thing, it seems a little pointless.

So what can this all get you? If you’re interested in historical baseball stats, and know or are willing to learn a little bit about databases, it’s a nice walkthrough from getting a freely available database of historical stats (The Baseball Archive) and setting it up nicely so you can do cool stuff. From there, well… even I don’t get into the kind of data-scraping that’s in here: I’d rather put up with ESPN’s ads and use their splits, or build it out of Retrosheet box scores the hard way, or whatever. And I’m fairly technical and willing to tinker with this stuff. Some of the more advanced stuff seems geared towards someone with fair technical skills who wants to tinker with both baseball data and with building thier own framework, rather get started in baseball analysis.

I will say that there’s a lot of value in having access to even a nice historical database of raw stats: I find myself pawing around it all the time, looking for interesting stuff that ends up a throwaway reference in a piece here.

So this is a book where if you’re looking to get a lot more technical and want to do a lot more research independently, you’re going to dig it. If you’d just like to be able to baseball-reference-y things, that part’s fairly easy too, and I’ve found it quite rewarding.

However, it’s not about baseball, or really about baseball statistics, or anything. It’s about (as you’d guess from the title), using computers and freely available data to hack stuff together.

Anyway, I hope this helps determine whether it’ll be a good book for you or not. check it out if that sounds interesting.

Baseball Between the Numbers review

March 5, 2006 · Filed Under Book reviews · 31 Comments 

Disclaimer: while I haven’t been involved with Baseball Prospectus for a year and change, I used to be. I know some of the people who wrote chapters. Jonah Keri, who edited this book, is a friend of USSM (and mine). So this review is totally biased and unreliable. More than usual.

Baseball Between the Numbers is a different sort of baseball book. It’s not the story of one or three games, or a player, manager, or team, it’s not a history or even a subject-themed book. It tries to answer or at least move towards a better understanding of a series of current baseball questions that dominate discussion.

For instance, “How much is a player worth?” is discussed in “Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?” by Nate Silver. In it, Silver goes through what a win is worth to a team, how a win can be worth more or less to one franchise compared to another, and how a win can be worth more or less to the same franchise depending on where they are, why it can make sense for a team to overpay, how the Winner’s Curse effects player valuation, finally wrapping back around to “yeah, that was way too much money.”

That, of course, ignores the scarcity argument, which is odd, since the chapters on replacement level do a good job of explaining that there are many scrubs and only one Alex Rodriguez. It’s a glaring omission, but as a straight “how much is so many wins worth to a team?” discussion, it’s informative and interesting.

Silver has three other really good chapters. The introductory “Is Barry Bonds Better Than Babe Ruth” is a long walk down how we can use performance metrics to compare players across wildly different eras. “Is David Ortiz a clutch hitter?” features a novel way to think about what clutch means. “What Do Statistics Tell Us About Steroids?” treads carefully, and we find:
– unexpected performance changes are historically common
– overall, steroid use seems to have a small, noticeable performance impact
To go along with things we knew (few players are or were steroid users, it’s much more marginal players using than stars).

The other chapters are a lot like those. If you’ve read the Baseball Prospectus annuals, it’s like having 400 pages of the back-of-the-book essays. There’s a ton of meat to chew on. Or if you remember the “Baseball Prospectus Basics” series of articles they (well, me too) wrote attempting to answer basic questions, it’s many of those issues blown up and done in great depth. For example I did “How to run a bullpen” and here Woolner writes a far better chapter on “Are Teams Letting Their Closer Go to Waste?” which goes so far as to attempt to answer the question of when it’s worth taking the risk of putting a pitcher in, not knowing what’ll happen later or tomorrow.

The book does a good job of attacking these topics in chunks that are substantial but not too weighty.

Other standout chapters from my first reading:
“Is Joe Torre a Hall of Fame Manager?” James Click attempts to define how a manager can help (or, as it turns out, least hurt) his team. The results are a little shocking. Lou Piniella, for instance, turns up in the “Best Manager Seasons by Strategic Decisions, 1972-2004” table (for 2001 with Seattle, and 2003 with Tampa) and in the “Worst” table (Seattle 1993).

Neil deMause has three in a row (“Do High Salaries Lead to High Ticket Prices?” “Are New Stadiums a Good Deal?” and “Does Baseball Need a Salary Cap?”) that make me want to take this book with me when I go watch games in local watering holes (“Here, read 207-214 and get back to me. Don’t leave with the book.”).

“Do Players Perform Better in Contract Years?” by Dayn Perry comes to the conclusion that yeah, they do, but the perception also stems from age-related decline, as most free agents are in their thirties. That there is an effect, though, raises a whole other issue – if we accept it’s true that players can have better years for reasons unrelated to normal influences like park, age, and so on, isn’t this the best argument to look into chemistry ever? If a player can perform significantly better through better focus, or workouts, or whatever they’re doing that year, shouldn’t teams hunt this down and spend whatever it takes to figure out how to better motivate their players, be that the manager, the coaches, the color of the clubhouse, even the psychological profiles of their teammates? That’s huge!

James Click’s chapter on when one-run strategies make sense (almost never, and certainly not when we’ve been told they do), “When Is One Run Worth More Than Two?” shocked me a little when I finally got far enough into it.

There’s also a really nice glossary of stat terms in the back that runs about twenty pages. People ask me all the time to point them to a good explanation of this stuff, and generally I point them to ESPN, or BP’s increasingly comprehensive one, but if you want something to keep by the desk for clear, readable explanations, it’s your book.

There are only two serious downsides to the book:
– A lot of it’s dry. You may wish to get some decent coffee before you sit down for some of these chapters. There’s a lot of stats talk in some chapters that’ll weigh heavily on your eyelids. A couple times in reading it, I said “I’ll take your word for it, Keith, I trust you,” and skimmed ahead (or whoever). Now, it’s necessary to get you to the fairly shocking stuff, but I want to be clear: you’re not going to read this in one sitting.

– If you’ve obsessively kept up on baseball research over the last couple of years, there’s not a great deal here that’s new or shocking. But if that’s you, the stuff that’s going to seem dry to the newly introduced is, and even when they walk through the current view on pitcher effects on balls in play it’s well-down as it follows the evolution of an argument into a better understanding of the way baseball works.

Rob Neyer’s “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups” is grinningly referred to as “bathroom reading” in that it’s easy to pick up, read a couple of pages, read something interesting, and then put it down. Baseball Between the Numbers is session reading: you might only read a couple chapters that are immediately interesting to you right away, and then return to it to pick off another chapter every day (or week, or when something sparks your interest). Each chunk of knowledge only takes ten, twenty pages, and even the most dense stuff shouldn’t take an hour to get through. I hope that it proves accessible enough that baseball fans can all get a little smarter about the things that are clear, and have a better idea of what they don’t really know as well. It would certainly improve fandom.

Check it out.


March 2, 2006 · Filed Under Book reviews · 3 Comments 

A very short review of Fantasyland, a new book by Sam Walker.

Walker enters Tout Wars, which is one of two super-high-profile roto contests, as one of the “rookie” entries, against a set of expert roto players, and descends into madness in his pursuit of the title.

The good stuff: he goes crazy trying to win. He hires two advisors (one a NASA dude for the stats, one more on the scouting-and-intuition side), gets advice from a baseball astrologer, and gets an attractive actress to act as his “videographer” for the auction so she can flirt and distract the other male, geek-o-matic guys.

One by one, Christine slowly drains my opponents of their excess testosterone: complimenting Steve Moyer on his tan, asking Lawr Michaels if he’d like to play some air guitar, and panning in tightly on a visibly irritated Ron Shandler. “I like to think I know what I’m doing a little bit,” says a suddenly modest Matt Berry. “I certainly know I’m not one of the sharks today,” Joe Sheehan confesses. “I’m a little guppy swinning through the water, and I’m going to get eaten before the day’s out.”
“No, no,” Christine purrs. “Repeat after me: ‘I’m going to be a shark!'” Sheehan blushes, waits a few beats. “I’m going to be a shark!” he says.
“There you go!”

The draft (p151-153) is the funniest fantasy baseball anecdote I’ve ever read.

His attempts to talk to players about being on his team are awkward to the point of hilarity sometimes, and sometimes happily insightful. His writing’s easy and relaxed, and Walker’s self-critical and funny about his descent into madness.

The bad stuff: gets a little tedious in going over the mechanics of what’s happening when in the league, which today is really dry. Sure, whether or not Josh Phelps got benched was important then, but now? He tries to condense it down as much as possible, but it’s just sawdust in the Twinkie. And if you’re a serious baseball fan, you’ll probably notice that there are errors that slipped in on some niggling stuff (the Wade Boggs thing, for instance, p.28).

Also, there’s a baseball astrologer. Reallllly annoying, but I’m not going to get into that again.

He’s clearly got a huge crush on Ron Shandler, which is fine on its own. I’ve bought Baseball Forecaster before (I’ll spare you that review, too). And it makes for a weird/funny moment when Ron Shandler, who can be as insufferably arrogant as anyone, says of Baseball Prospectus “They’re so friggin’ arrogant. Joe Sheehan is one of the only guys over there that I have any respect for.”

That’s funny on maybe four, five levels.

If you’re a fantasy baseball fanatic, this is going to be a really good read. If, like me, you’re not that into roto, it’s fairly quick and entertaining as long as you start to skim when you feel your eyes glossing over when he talks about his horrible dilemma about what to do with his free agent budget.

Anyway– Fantasyland, Sam Walker. Check it out.