Book Review: Mind Game

“Once [Dave] Roberts got to Boston, he mostly sat. And sat. The manager kept an eye on him but didn’t call his name very often. It was as if Roberts had changed from a ballplayer into some kind of glass-front box with the words break in case of need for stolen base stenciled on the front…And so here Roberts was, glass broken, standing on first base with Bill Mueller at the plate, the only potential run of the year that mattered anymore. It was a desperate moment, but nonetheless a moment that had been planned for. That was the difference between this around and 1949, 1978, 2003, and all the other disappointments of the last century. God was in the details and so were playoff victories. And the Red Sox were finally looking at the details.” – From the Prologue of Mind Game

For the statistically minded crowd like many of you who read THT (and you know who you are), certainly the most interesting baseball book published this season was Baseball Prospectus.

Today I’ll give you a little insight into the book’s structure and core message in addition to my own criticisms of the book.

Baseball From the Outside

Mind Game is broken into 25 chapters and three appendices with sidebars (“Extra Innings”) liberally sprinkled throughout, all written by twenty BP writers including editor Steven Goldman and featuring heavy hitters such as Will Carroll, Nate Silver, Keith Woolner, and Clay Davenport, among others. Simply putting together a book with this many contributors that flows as well as it does is a feat in and of itself.

And that flow takes the reader on a chronological journey starting with an excellent short primer on Red Sox management history (1919-2002) in chapter one and then begins the story in earnest with the Theo Epstein era beginning in November, 2002. The book concludes with the end of the 2004 World Series and then analyzes the winter of 2004-2005 in chapter 25 with a short epilogue dated August 8, 2005. As a result of Epstein walking away from the job earlier this week, it neatly captures almost the entire Epstein era with the Red Sox and will serve as a useful reference of the period. Each chapter bites off a section of time and uses it as a stepping stone for discussing a particular strategy the Red Sox employed or a way of looking at a topic of interest from a performance analysis perspective using the Red Sox (and often the Yankees) as fodder.

Before we take a look at some of those topics, however, I’d like to digress a bit by sharing that more than any particular topic that is covered in the book, I appreciate the effort because of the overall philosophy that it represents. That philosophy is embodied, for example, in the way in which the book weaves both a traditional seasonal narrative and a performance analysis bent by introducing concepts like VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), and EqA (Equivalent Average) within the context of the story while not getting too heavy handed with the explanations. In fact, other than the “Comforting Note About Statistics” in the front of the book that briefly explains VORP and then the brief descriptions of other statistics used in the appendices, the text remains uncluttered with theoretical explanations. Instead the writers effectively use the statistics to illustrate and explicate instead of as an end in and of themselves.

This is exactly the kind of writing that will help move the message of the sabermetric or “performance analysis” community from an outsider’s perspective to the main stream, until eventually it becomes the new orthodoxy. That “quiet revolution” as Silver called it in a column last season may not be completely victorious until the old guard moves on, a process that has much in common with that described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There Kuhn quotes Max Planck’s observation that:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generations grows up that is familiar with it.”

But be that as it may, books like Moneyball and The Numbers Game have increased the visibility of performance analysis within both the industry (the front office and the media) and the fans. And with that increased visibility comes the twofold responsibility of the community to gently preach the message to the uninitiated, and to use and solidify core conclusions that move the philosophy towards the status of the new orthodoxy. Mind Game, while not generally breaking new ground, does a wonderful job of highlighting the role performance analysis can, and does play in the game today, and, as a result, is a stepping stone because it introduces readers to this deeper level of analysis while building on the base of accumulated wisdom gained in the last 30 years.

A Peek Inside

The topics that the BP writers chose to cover are well selected for their applicability to the Red Sox (and I should also point out the Yankees since Yankee fans will learn as much about their team as a Red Sox fan will about theirs) and for the general insights gained from performance analysis. Some of my favorites include:

  • “The A-Rod Advantage”. Nate Silver’s analysis of the Alex Rodriguez trade that wasn’t and how, had it gone through, it might have impacted the Red Sox and Yankees using WARP and a hypothetical set of moves made by both teams in the wake of the deal. Interestingly, one of the lessons Silver thinks that Epstein and the Red Sox front office learned was “Don’t do your negotiating in the media”. If early reports of Epstein’s departure are to be believed, it appears CEO Larry Lucchino didn’t learn this one very well.
  • “Varieties of Relief”. A discussion of the history and impact of closers and how it relates to the misnamed “bullpen by committee” of the 2003 Red Sox and the valuation of Keith Foulke and Mariano Rivera.
  • “The Holy Gospel of On-Base Percentage”. Jonah Keri takes a look at how the Sox capitalized on the under appreciated on base skills of Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, and Kevin Youkilis to keep their offense in high gear throughout the 2004 season.
  • “Basebrawl”. An interesting analysis by Steven Goldman of the effect of the brawl between the Sox and Yankees on July 24, 2005, and how brawls affect teams generally, using the first list of fights I’ve seen, stretching from 1923 through 2004 and included in an appendix. This chapter and a sidebar studying the effect playing on the West Coast has on East Coast teams are the two bits of truly original research I found in the book.
  • “Nomargate”. Chris Kahrl’s analysis of the Nomar Garciaparra deal and how the deal was predicated on reducing risk not primarily because Nomar was a problem, but because of the performance of Pokey Reese.
  • “Cracking the Rivera Code”. James Click looks at how the Sox fared against Rivera and how their balanced lineup allowed them to fare well against both control and power pitchers.
  • “Insult and Injury”. Although not statistically based, Will Carroll does a great job of going in-depth on the injury to Curt Schilling and how he was able to come up big in the post season.
  • “Beat the Yankees, Be the Yankees”. Dayn Perry’s look at the 2004-2005 off season for both the Red Sox and Yankees. While I don’t agree that signing Jason Varitek for four years and $40 million made sense even in the Red Sox plush financial position, Perry does a good job of showing how Epstein addressed many of their needs through the acquisitions of Matt Clement, David Wells, and Edgar Renteria. He does not mention, however, the bullpen which was neglected in the offseason and which, in 2005, proved to be their greatest weakness.
  • There is also some good work to be found in the sidebars that are sprinkled throughout the book. I particularly liked Steven Goldman’s comparison of the Red Sox loss of Tris Speaker after the 1915 season and its loss of Babe Ruth after the 1918 season, Jim Baker’s look at teams that strike out a lot and how little it impacts their production, and James Click’s look at the rise and fall of offensive-minded shortstops in the American League.

    But while I certainly enjoyed the book and recommend it, there were a few small issues I would have liked to see addressed.

    First, I can only imagine the difficulty in trying to keep a consistent voice in a book with so many contributors, and so this is not a major criticism, but there are several occasions when the same concept, such as the Pythagorean method, is explained by different authors. While this allows a reader to jump in anywhere, in a book that is chronological and meant to be read from start to finish as I assume this one is, it serves to distract.

    A second distraction was the political swipes taken by several writers aimed at the right wing. They felt oddly out of place, and in a book about baseball, were the last thing I wanted to see. This point goes to the general tone at times as well. Baseball Prospectus is known for its irreverent and often humorous player comments in its yearly annual, but for Mind Game, I felt that the normal schtick should be toned down a bit. This book should serve a broader audience and as a vehicle for spreading the message, should take pains not to appear too arrogant or condescend to those who aren’t yet on board.

    Finally and most importantly, the subtitle of the book, “How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning”, leads the reader to believe that at some point in the book, just how the Sox and Epstein got smart and what the blueprint was would be enumerated or laid out in outline form at least. Instead, the strategies are scattered throughout the book, and so at the end you’re left skimming back through the book in order to try and dig them out. In my own reading I made the mental list below.

  • Understanding the importance that two dominating starting pitchers have in the postseason and acquiring Curt Schilling to fill the void
  • Understanding that their bullpen was weak and despite wanting to stick with their innovative bullpen by committee idea, went out an acquired the only closer on the market in Keith Foulke
  • Selecting a manager in Terry Francona who was familiar with performance analysis and not afraid to try new things
  • Understanding the strategic but not general value of speed and constructing a roster that allowed speed to be used judiciously (e.g. Dave Roberts)
  • Understanding the value of on base percentage relative to defense and strikeouts and signing the likes of Mueller, Bellhorn, and Youkilis
  • Not being afraid to reduce risk and improve the weakest dimension of the team by trading the popular Garciaparra for Orlando Cabrera and acquiring Doug Mientkiewicz
  • Understanding the optimum usage pattern for Pedro Martinez and sticking with it in 2004
  • Allowing David Ortiz to develop his natural swing with the help of hitting coach Ron Jackson, whereas the Twins always tried to get him to shorten his swing because they were afraid of strikeouts
  • Not getting too attached to players who helped you win when they become too expensive in relation to their performance. The Sox divesture of Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, and even Dave Roberts and Gabe Kapler after the 2004 season are examples.
  • I don’t know if this is exhaustive or captures the messages that the writers wanted to convey since there wasn’t a list presented. A final chapter that drove home these points would have been a welcome addition.

    Despite these minor failings, the message of the book still comes through. The core of that message is that with smart management, any team can improve, and a team with the financial resources of Boston in a system as stacked as Major League Baseball should be able to compete year in and year out and even win a championship from time to time. In other words, 2004 wasn’t a fluke. And that’s a message that fans everywhere, and not just Red Sox Nation, will appreciate.

    References & Resources

  • Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning by Baseball Prospectus, Steve Goldman editor, 2005
  • The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics by Alan Schwarz, 2004
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, 3rd edition 1996
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