Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Review of "Ahead of the Curve"

Baseball has entered a new stage in which computers and analysts are just as important to a team's success as scouts and managers. Between advanced statistics and new ways of thinking when managing a game, the old line of thinking is becoming questioned more and more each season.  This book on the new way of reading statistics and managing some game situations is a terrific read that everyone who enjoys baseball should read.  Here is my review of "Ahead of the Curve." 

“Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution” by Brian Kenny

Baseball, strategy, statistics

Publish date:
July 5, 2016

368 pages

5 of 5 stars (outstanding)

Brian Kenny built a following when he worked as a baseball analyst at ESPN and his reputation as an outspoken commentator has grown even larger since he moved over to the MLB Network. One reason for this is his continuous questioning of traditional statistics and strategy when evaluating players and the best course to take during certain game situations.

In this entertaining book, he explains many of his positions in a manner that might make some fans uncomfortable, but will certainly be topics of discussion the next time a reader wants to debate the merits of a bunt or if it is wise to not have a team’s best relief pitcher not appear in a game unless it is the ninth inning and the team is ahead by three runs or less.

Those two examples are just a small sample of the types of conventional wisdom he questions and then provides an alternative based on statistics, logic and analysis. While this may sound fairly dry, the writing and creativity is entertaining.  For example, in his explanation of why it is not good strategy to leave a starting pitcher on the mound as long as possible and then not put the best reliever into the game until the ninth inning in a “save” situation, he calls his alternative strategy “Bullpenning.” In this chapter, just about every piece of conventional wisdom is thrown out and a new idea, based on statistical analysis is proposed.  The reader may or may not agree with Kenny’s radicalism, but it is written in such a manner that one will at least acknowledge that it is something to consider.

Kenny’s attack on old-school values is not limited to strategy – it also goes into statistics that have been the basis for awards, big-money contracts and even votes for the Hall of Fame. There are great write-ups on each of these three topics, along with several others, on why the stats that most fans are familiar with (home runs, batting average, the Triple Crown and so on) are poor indicators of a player’s value and talent and instead more advanced statistics such as WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) are much better.  There are many new statistics used in which a reader, including this one who has been one of those who has relied on the traditional statistics, may need explanations, which Kenny includes at the end of the book.

What really sets this book apart from others touting these advanced statistics, or “sabermetrics” as first coined by Bill James (who Kenny calls one of the seven most influential people in the history of the game), is the writing style.  Yes, Kenny questions those who are slow to embrace these changes, but when the traditional statistics and strategy works, he acknowledges it. An example is when early and mid-20th century writers elected worthy players to the Hall of Fame, which are backed up with advanced analysis not available at that time.  Therefore, it is not a complete vilification of those who have not embraced the new wave of analysis – but at times the criticism of this line of thinking can be biting (but not snarky).

This book is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys the game. If the reader is one who has embraced sabermetrics, he or she will love findings like those on which big-money free agents were worth the big contract and which ones were busts. If the reader is one who held on to traditional thinking, like this reviewer, then the solid research, reasoning and logic explaining why those values need to change will make the reader at least think, if not embrace these ideas.

I wish to thank Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)

Buying links:

No comments:

Post a Comment