For July’s entry into the Burning River Bookclub, I’ll begin with the biggest problem with this book and all others like it. The people who would gain the most from reading it will not only never pick it up, but will mock it mercilessly and maintain their ignorance. On just the smallest level, if Matt Underwood, Rick Manning and Jensen Lewis were to read (and integrate into their broadcast) Smart Baseball, by Keith Law, the collective intelligence of the Indians fan base would raise exponentially almost immediately.
As a whole, the book may have missed the mark as it’s written for those who don’t want to read it. In general, Law isn’t talking about things that aren’t already known like was the case in early sabrmetric tomes, but things that the ignorant among us are still fighting. I think most of baseball’s more enlightened fans understand why the pitcher win, RBI, save and fielding percent are awful stats that tell almost nothing about the game of baseball and those playing it, yet discussion of this takes up the first third of the book.
That being said, he does an incredible job in pulling this off and I’d say this could be the definitive book for someone who is a fan of TWTW because they don’t realize it’s a parody. On a personal note, I haven’t taken any value from the pitcher win and little from RBI, saves and fielding percent, but Law may have finally convinced me to be embarrassed to use any of those stats on BurningRiverBaseball ever again without an explanation of why I’m using them.
The second half of the book is far more useful for those like myself who find themselves half way between the old and new (maybe a little more than half way towards the new). I’ve been using UZR, DRS and Total Zone Rating for years and never knew how any were calculated or why they varied so greatly. Law goes into great detail of the history of many of the most commonly used advanced stats and how they are currently calculated. Included in this is an extensive look at wRC+ which confirmed my dislike for the stat. In fact, Law is far from a cheerleader for anything new just because it’s new and frequently uses the phrase “Garbage in, Garbage out” to describe many of the abandoned new age stats.
The timing of the book is interesting as it comes out along with the statcast revolution. For the first time ever, MLB fans have access to some of the numbers that teams do through the Baseball Savant website. He brings a ton of insight into these numbers, particularly the defensive side (both arm and range) and on aspects like spin rate.
The final section of the book is not only about statcast, but about how teams know more than they ever have before and it’s all proprietary information that fans will never be able to access. While fans can greatly improve their knowledge of the game and why things are the way they are by reading books like Smart Baseball, there will always be moves that are made that don’t make any sense to the average fan as each team keeps their own stats and evaluations.
Interestingly enough, it is this last section that would be most enjoyed by the old school, anti stat crowd. There is much praise for the modern scout, something Law knows about first hand a former member of the Blue Jays front office. If the TWTW crowd can make it through the first section, they may appreciate the book in the end as the future of baseball is about integrating everything together, not just the new replacing the old.
Since this is an Indians based site, it’s important to note that the Indians were featured greatly in Law’s book. Had he written it from 2002 through 2012, they would have been much easier to ignore, but the timing was perfect with the Indians front office leading the statistics revolution. In particular, Law praised both the acquisition and usage of Andrew Miller in 2016 during his chapter on how stupid the save is as a stat. Of course, it wasn’t all positive as he took on a topic that has been covered ad naseum on this site when he spent multiple pages discussing specifically Francisco Lindor‘s sacrifice bunts in 2015. He literally went through them each individually to provide anecdotal evidence to go with the more significant data provided earlier in the chapter on why bunting for an out is dumb.
Another repeated theme that is sure to rub some Indians fans the wrong way is the use of Omar Vizquel as an example of a player who should not go to the Hall of Fame. This was a common twitter discussion last January when looking at next years eligible players and while many who saw him play stated that he was an automatic first timer, Law has quite a solid argument why he shouldn’t be in at all. I personally don’t agree with Law’s assessment as I feel both Vizquel and Kenny Lofton‘s (who wasn’t mentioned) offense is already undervalued due to the era they played in. It is further devaluation of this offense as well as the advanced stat look at Vizquel’s defense that make the argument.
While it will undoubtedly make a large amount of people angry, in the end, this book is a chance to bridge the gap between the old school and the new, at least for those open minded enough to read it. If you read this site, I assume that you are and I highly recommend it, especially if you’d like to know more about some of the advanced stats that are becoming ever more unavoidable.