Sunday, December 17, 2006

Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong (Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts)

Among baseball analysts, sabermetricians are defined by their skepticism and demand for hard evidence: “You think pitching is more important than hitting? Why? By how much? How do you know? Why are you looking at me like that?”* They particularly focus on trying to prove or disprove the value of conventional wisdom—asking, for instance, whether traditional offensive statistics like batting average and RBIs, and traditional pitching statistics like ERA, are really useful ways of deciding how good a player is, and how big a role factors like luck and environment play in those statistics. It’s an indication of their success that stats like on-base percentage and slugging percentage are now shown regularly on broadcasts and at games, and that it’s now general knowledge even among casual fans that a player’s home park can have a significant effect on his superficial numbers (with Exhibit A being Coors Field in Denver).

Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong takes a series of questions about the game and tries to answer them with hard data and statistical analysis. Some of these are old sabermetric canards (whether the RBI is a useful statistic, whether there’s such a thing as clutch hitting, when teams should really use their closer), but others are just interesting questions that get to the heart of evaluating players; managerial strategy; the relative value of pitching, hitting, and defense; and even questions of payroll and stadium financing. Is Barry Bonds better than Babe Ruth? Does batting order matter? Is Alex Rodriguez overpaid? Do catchers really have an impact on pitching performance? And my favorite: Why doesn’t Billy Beane’s shit work in the playoffs? (For those who haven’t read Moneyball, this was Billy Beane’s famous answer for why the A’s did consistently well over the course of a regular season and consistently failed in the postseason: “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”)

The answers to these questions are invariably interesting, but just as interesting is the discussion of what the questions even mean. Most people, if asked whether Barry Bonds is better than Babe Ruth, would go straight for their career numbers, and compare their batting average, home runs, RBIs, and so on. A more serious fan might also look at stats like their OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). But the discussion here starts asking the really hard questions: Wasn’t Ruth facing much easier pitching than Bonds does? Doesn’t Bonds benefit from modern nutrition and training methods? What about the different ballparks they played in? And how do their various core stats translate into actually helping their teams win—which is, after all, their purpose in the first place? This is how you end up with measures like EqA (Equivalent Average, a composite measure of total offensive performance) and adjustments like the Time Machine Effect and Timeline Adjustment, which are complex, but necessary to get at the truth of the question.

The book did have a few minor annoyances. The most substantial of these was that the discussion of VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), one of their fundamental concepts, doesn’t occur until more than halfway through the book, meaning every time it came up prior to then (which was often), you always being referred to a future chapter—an idea as important as that really should have been thoroughly explained much earlier. Less substantial but still bothersome was that the 27 chapters are organized into an innings-outs scheme, from Chapter 1-1 to Chapter 9-3. This is clever, but is also always producing things like “Table 1-2.7”—which, in an already numbers-heavy book, is just too many numbers to simply identify a table, and became a little tedious after 100 pages or so.**

Balancing these somewhat, though, is that this is the first book I’ve ever seen to cite the Onion in an endnote, which you’ve just got to respect.

If you love baseball and are at least willing to put up with the math, you’ll like the book—I liked it a lot, but Maria passed it over to me right around Table BP.7 in the introduction (“Babe Ruth’s EqA, Adjusted for Time Machine Effect”). It also helps, I think, if you’ve encountered at least some of these ideas before, either in Moneyball or from reading a sabermetrically inclined sportswriter or two, but there is a helpful glossary if you get lost in the maze of VORP and WARP and PECOTA and BABIP and WinEx and SNLVAR. Despite the complex subject, though, you don't have to be a mathematician to understand it and enjoy it. And even if you don’t follow all the details of every last regression analysis or take the time to examine every last line graph, when you’ve finished, you’ll undoubtedly look at the game differently than when you started.

* Rejected opening #1: “If baseball analysts were states, sabermetricians would be Missouri—the Show-Me State.” What—I didn’t use it!
** And this may bug only me, but one of my pet peeves is the use of RBI as both the singular and plural form: 1 RBI, 120 RBI. I realize there are reasons for doing this (namely that RBIs appears to read literally as run batted ins), but I don’t happen to agree with them, and I frankly doubt that those who say “He had 120 RBI last year” would also say, for example, “During the war he and his unit were captured and held as POW.”

The United States of Arugula (David Kamp)

Anyone who reads this blog regularly should know my stance on food. I'm pro-food. Totally for it. In a single paragraph of the preface of David Kamp's The United States Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, he uses some of my favorite words: Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Anthony Bourdain, Zagat, Whole Foods, local farmer's markets, Cook's Illustrated.

Kamp presents a great history of how Americans started thinking more about food than just sustenance. He starts with what he refers to as The Big Three: Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Julia Child, and I especially loved his descriptions of Child in her TV show: "She held up a roasting chicken and promised to help it realize 'the full glory of its chickendom.' She unapologetically patched back together a potato fritter that had fallen apart as she tried too flip it, saying 'You can always pick it up. If you are alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?'"

He also chronicles the availability of ingredients we can find easily today. In the late 1960s, chefs couldn't easily find fresh herbs to work with. (In its initial years, Chez Panisse in Berkeley took care of this problem by having customers bring their home garden herbs with them to dinner.) But once items became available, then there were ingredient explosions: balsalmic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, blackened redfish (a trend started by cajun chef Paul Prudhomme, which was so popular it almost decimated the redfish population).

Along with highlighting the higher end restaurants (such as Nobu and Spago), Kamp also discusses the influences of smaller restaurants: The Greens (started by Deborah Madison, the author of what I would call the best cookbook ever, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone), the Moosewood Restaurant (which also has many great cookbooks), and Ovens of Brittany (a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin whose staff included Odessa Piper who went on to make L'Etoile, also in Madison, the success it continues to be today).

There's a lot of great information in this book. Among other interesting things, I learned that Peets coffee (a California favorite) began before Starbucks, and that the guys who started Starbucks had Peets as their initial supplier and roaster. I would think that anyone who watches even a little bit of Food Network would like this book, and all foodies would love it.

Next book up: Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager by Buzz Bissinger

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light (Mort Rosenblum)

Saying I enjoy chocolate might be an understatement. I really like chocolate, and I mean the good stuff. I'll take the Scharffen Berger. I'll take the extra-dark. And I'll especially take just one of the expensive handmade chocolates at the Whole Foods chocolate bar (I'd take more but that would cost me a lot of money). And thanks to Mort Rosenblum's Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, I now am much more educated on what makes good chocolate good, and the history behind it.

I was worried this book might be too heavy-handed and boring with the history, but it wasn't at all. Rosenblum mixes the history with his present quest to learn as much as he can about chocolate. He fully admits that he was a chocolate novice when he started this book, and he surrounds himself with experts as he travels country by country to taste and experience chocolate.

The chocolate stories from Europe, including France, Belgium, and England, were great, but I most enjoyed learning about American chocolate, especially the stories behind Hershey (and hearing what non-Americans think about the taste of Hershey bars) and the Mars company.

My mom-in-law told us a couple months ago that the public can tour the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory up in Berkeley, and I guess at the time I didn't realize how much fun that would be. After reading this book, however, I definitely want to tour the factory soon, especially because you get to taste chocolate during it. And Scharffen
Berger chocolate is really, really good. (You can buy it online if it isn't available at a store near you.)

Next book up: Not sure yet. I have a couple of books waiting on the hold shelf for me at the library.

In Persuasion Nation (George Saunders) by Guest Reviewer Jim

Way back in the Dark Ages of 1996 (visionary me, age 18: “This Internet thing is totally lame”), my dad got me a new book of short stories by a guy neither of us had ever heard of or knew anything about—CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders. He bought it purely based on the interesting-sounding blurbs from Garrison Keillor, Tobias Wolff, and (particularly) the notoriously reclusive and not-given-to-spreading-effusive-praise-for-just-anybody Thomas Pynchon.

The first time I read it, I didn’t give it much thought. But when I picked it up again a year or so later, almost at random, it absolutely floored me. How I had missed this the first time, I don’t know—the stories were funny and weird and moving all at the same time, and not like anything else I’d ever read, featuring, among other things, an unfortunately chosen security guard run amok in a Civil War theme park, hapless resentment taken out on cows with windows in their sides, a guilt-ridden wave maker, and a mutant in the future making his way across an irrational American landscape trying to save his sister. I think I may have read it straight through two more times, and I’ve gone back to it at least five or six times since then.*

I’ve been an avid follower of his over the last ten years, even getting my hands on his children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, just because I had to see what a George Saunders children’s book would be like. (Answer: Very funny and very weird. And, I might add, outstandingly illustrated, and just nicely designed and well put together as a whole.) Which is a roundabout way of getting to In Persuasion Nation, his third short story collection and fifth book overall, released earlier this year.

Although it carries the familiar “stories” description on its cover, In Persuasion Nation also includes pieces more classifiable as humor or straight satire than fiction (for example, “I CAN SPEAK!™” is a letter written from a product service representative to a customer complaining about the title product, a computerized mask that lets parents pretend their babies can speak, and “My Amendment” outlines a proposal to outlaw not only same-sex marriage, but also “samish-sex marriage” when a somewhat effeminate-seeming man marries a somewhat masculine-seeming woman). In addition to some classic Saunders lunacy, full of the kinds of guilt-ridden losers and hilarious bureaucrat speak that populated his first two collections (see “CommComm,” in which an unfortunate government PR flack becomes enmeshed in a fellow employee’s failed attempt to cover up historical artifacts at a dig site) (and also there are ghosts) (and a department called Odors), the book also includes some surprisingly straightforward narratives (see “Christmas” and “Bohemians,” both set in reasonable approximations of the real world) alongside a few that charge full speed into satirical unreality (both “Brad Carrigan, American” and “In Persuasion Nation” are set in a sort of TV dimension inhabited by characters from sitcoms and advertisements, struggling against the limitations of their existence).

The sheer variety of material and approaches, and his forays into what might understatedly be called wildly imaginative absurdity, make this book less coherent than either CivilWarLand or Pastoralia (his second collection); it feels like what I suspect it is, which is a sort of jumble of different kinds of work he’d done over the last five or six years while also working on Gappers of Frip and his terrific semi-allegorical short novel The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. That’s more of an observation than a criticism—he’s clearly given his imagination free reign to lead him wherever it wants, and I’m happy to follow. But for anyone who hasn’t read him before, it also means that I’d recommend either of his other two collections as a better place to start. But if you’ve already jumped on the Saunders train (as, incidentally, the folks over at the MacArthur Foundation did earlier this year, handing over one of their $500,000 no-strings-attached, keep-up-the-good-work "genius grants"), you won’t want to pass it up—even if the strange meta-landscapes of stories like “Brad Carrigan, American” and “In Persuasion Nation” aren’t your thing, it’d be worth it just for stories like “Bohemians” and (a favorite of mine that I’d saved from the New Yorker back in 2002) “My Flamboyant Grandson.”

And then you can start doing what I do, which is keep a keen eye out for news of his next book.

* Side note: I went to see him give a reading a couple years ago, and took along my battered old copy of CivilWarLand to get it signed. When I handed it over he looked at it and said, “Oh God, you’ve got the one with the ugly cover.” Hehe.