Book Review: Mind Gameby Dan Fox
November 03, 2005
“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 Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning from the authors of 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 OutsideMind 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 InsideThe 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:
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.
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 and Resources
Dan is the author of the blog Dan Agonistes and welcomes your comments and suggestions via email.