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Sunday, July 31, 2005

3 Nights in August

Prompted by a review I read on I went out and bought the book 3 Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager by Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights.

As many of you already know the book covers in detail the three game series between the Cubs and Cardinals at Busch Stadium from August 26-28, 2003 as told from the perspective of Tony La Russa. I found it interesting that Bissinger was actually approach by La Russa to write the book in November of 2002 and that originally it was to be written in La Russa's voice. After getting into it Bissinger and La Russa opted for telling the story in a more narrative fashion and instead of looking at an entire season, focused on a particular three game series. This approach seemed to work very well since it allowed for more in-depth sidetrips from the central story that a book devoted to an entire season probably could not have done. And by focusing on just three games Bissinger was able to capture specific moments and strategies that let give you a view into La Russa's mind.

I was also interested in the book for a more personal reason. That week in August I was in St. Louis for a series of meetings with my good friend Jon Box, a life long Cardinals fan from Memphis. Our supervisor at Quilogy, John McCartan was able to secure some nice seats for the third game and so John, me in my Cubs attire and Jon in his Cardinals garb took in the game and, although the game was so unceremoniously ended by Kerry Robinson's leadoff homerun in the bottom of the ninth, we had a great time talking baseball and enjoying the atmosphere of that important game. I also liked the book because knowing the outcome as I did I knew that Bissinger was going to pay particular attention to Robinson and indeed Bissinger developed a very interesting back story about Robinson's attitude and La Russa's disappointment in Robinson's failure to execute the fundamentals earlier in the series as well as earlier in the season.

As you would imagine the book is broken into three roughly equal parts for each game. Along the way Bissinger includes sections of the chapters devoted to game one on La Russa's history in baseball and the sacrifices he's made as well, a profile of Mark Prior, Cardinals video guru Chad Blair, Rick Ankiel, and Dave Duncan La Russa's pitching coach. The Cubs took game one 7-4 behind a strong outing by Prior and third inning homeruns by Randall Simon and Aramis Ramirez off of Garrett Stephenson.

In the section devoted to game two Bissinger spends a bit less time on the game itself and more on the back story and strategies of La Russa. I found particularly interesting his discussion of La Russa's philosophy regarding beanballs and how in a series in Arizona he ordered his pitcher to hit Luis Gonzales in response to a pitch near the head of Tino Martinez. What fascinated me was that La Russa ordered an intentional walk to Junior Spivey with two outs and a 1-2 count in a 1-0 game in the top of the eighth in order to ensure that Gonzales batted in the ninth. He then had Jeff Fasero hit Gonzales in the ninth with two outs. The Cardinals lost the game 1-0. Bissinger says of the mindset of La Russa:

"La Russa knew that he had possibly affected the game's outcome for the sake of retaliation. He also realized that his friendship with Gonzales might suffer...He still didn't like what he had done...He knew that if he didn't protect his players, didn't stand up for them, the respect they gave him...would crumble away. [Paul] Richards had told him that sometimes, you have to be willing to lose a game to win more later. And this, La Russa had concluded, had been one of the those times."

The implication is that somehow the team would lose more games in the future if they didn't think that La Russa was protecting them. While there may be a temporary reaction, surely the players (and a veteran like Martinez especially) understand that winning the game should be the first priority of a manager. After all, its not as if the Cardinals will never play the Diamondbacks again. In contrast, elsewhere in the book Bissinger makes it clear that La Russa has had to tell players that winning comes first and so they have to understand that La Russa is working for the good of the team when they are pinch hit for or taken out for a reliever. It seems to me that a manager should inculcate in his team that it is his first job is to win the game at hand and any other issue has to take a back seat. Once another issue takes precedence it would seem to invite a slippery slope.

In the second section Bissinger also includes short profiles of J.D. Drew and La Russa's struggles with trying to get him to perform up to his potential and juxtaposes that with Albert Pujols who came out of nowhere to quickly become the league's best hitter. The most interesting profile, however, is of Cal Eldred and his comeback from elbow problems to pitch effectively out of the bullpen. There is included La Russa's take on steroids in the game (he suspected something says Bissinger but apparently didn't do anything) which includes a short defense of Mark McGwire that rings hollow in the wake of the hearings earlier this summer where McGwire all but admitted his use of steroids. The second game is a pitcher's duel between Kerry Wood and Woody Williams that ends with a 4-2 Cardinals victory on the strength of four runs in eighth courtesy of a Kyle Farnsworth implosion.

In section three Bissinger devotes a lot of time to the intertwined stories of Matt Morris and Darryl Kile as Morris struggled through injuries in 2003 in the wake of Kile's death in June of 2002 in a Chicago hotel room. And of course this section, and the book, culminates with the redemption of Kerry Robinson who homered off Mike Remlinger to seal the 3-2 victory in the third game. The homer was Robinson's first and only of the season and just the third of his career. He also doubled in the 6th to plate the first Cardinals run. Incidentally, one of the reasons Robinson was in La Russa's doghouse was that he had repeatedly failed to be aggressive in RBI situations. La Russa preaches that in those situations the hitter should attack the first good pitch. I was surprised to find that this even applies to bases loaded situations such as the one Scott Rolen found himself in during the series. While I certainly didn't like the outcome of the game or the series, the game was well played and well pitched by Carlos Zambrano and included a solo homerun by Sammy Sosa in the first inning off of Morris on a hanging slider.

There were also three issues in the book I wanted to address.

First, I found it interesting that La Russa prepares a series of index cards before each series that details in his own shorthand the matchups of his hitters against the opposing pitcher and vice versa (e.g. his card will say Karros 8-29-1, Sosa 2-14-1 representing hits, at bats, and homeruns against his starting pitcher). These are the cards he keeps in his back pocket and refers to periodically throughout the game. Bissinger implies that he takes great stock in these cards but doesn't acknowledge that in many cases the sample sizes are likely too small to matter. The cards also do not include walks, strikeouts, or even extra base hits besides homeruns as you might expect given the constrained space. It would seem to me that a major league team should have at its disposal in a more meaningful form a complete statistical record of each plate appearance against a particular pitcher accessible in the dugout. Although they do have video as Bissinger discusses, the video is used primarily by hitters before the game to analyze their approach against a particular pitcher and by Dave Duncan to analyze opposing hitters for pregame meetings. Wouldn't it make sense to have a notebook computer in the dugout that could tell you, for example, that in going 3 for 8 against a particular pitcher two of those hits were dribblers in the infield and the third a pop-fly to short right? That kind of information could be condensed into a score or rating for each matchup based on sample size, hit location, and how hard the ball was hit.

Second, Bissinger talks in the preface about the impact of Moneyball on the game. He notes that

"front offices are increasingly being populated by thirty-somethings whose most salient qualifications are MBA degrees and who come equipped with clinical ruthlessness: The skills of players don't even have to be observed but instead can be diagnosed by adept statistical analysis through a computer...It is wrong to say that the new breed doesn't care about baseball. But it's not wrong to say that there is no way they could possibly love it...They don't have the sense of history, which is to the thirtysomethings largely bunk."

This seems more than a bit like a straw man to me. As I said in my review of Scout's Honor, there is a place for both scouting and statistics in their proper roles. No team in their right mind would forsake one completely for the other and the thirtysomethings like Paul DePodesta and Theo Epstein certainly don't. Performance analysis is about understanding how to properly value a player's contribution in all aspects of the game given the inherent structure of baseball coupled with how to project performance when data is available. The discussion in Moneyball focused on using the results of performance analysis to capitalize on undervalued skills. Plate discipline is therefore a by product of the philosophy not its raison d'etre. Never is it the case, especially at the lower levels, where observation is discarded.

It's also a cheap shot to say that those who value performance analysis can't love the game or that they don't value history. The first claim is simply an ad hominum attack and the second is refuted by the fact that the performance analysis crowd in one sense values history more than the tools-only guys. After all, critics like Leonard Koppett have often accused stat heads of dwelling on the past because statistics record what has happened, not what will happen.

Bissinger also says that his book was not conceived as a response to Moneyball since work on it began before La Russa or he had heard of Michael Lewis. That said, there are at least two points in the book where he takes a crack at Lewis and the "thirtysomethings".

The first is a short discussion of on base percentage that I alluded to in another post. The long and short of it is that Bissinger is using a caricature of Moneyball by suggesting that on base percentage is valued over every other statistic and in every situation in the same way that Bill Shanks did in Scout's Honor. La Russa appears from Bissinger's description to rightly understand the value of on base percentage but also the value of playing the scoreboard. Like so many of the attacks on Moneyball this one rings extremely hollow.

He also takes a shot at Bill James and the Red Sox.

"...he gave his little conspiratorial laugh in spring training when he heard of the Red Sox plan, based on analysis by statistical guru and team consultant Bill James to have rotating closers instead of one designated pitcher. James, in part because of what he felt was the inflated statistic of the save...believed that it wasn't always necessary to bring in a classic closer to pitch the ninth. La Russa respected James, but based on managing nearly 4,000 games, was convinced that James was wrong. La Russa was also right: the Red Sox ultimately dumped the idea when it became clear that closer-by-committee was no-close-by-committee."

Unfortunately, the name "closer by committee" was given to the experiment way back in January of 2003 or before and implied that there would be some kind of rotation as Bissinger alludes to. Actually, Epstein said of the idea in early February:

"The 'closer by committee' concept (if we must call it that) has more to do with usage than it does with personnel. We still want a truly dominant reliever (or two, or three, or four). We just won't hold him back for the ninth inning so he can chalk up a save. The goal is to put the best pitcher in the game to get the most critical outs, period."

The problem was not with the concept or the Red Sox desire to acquire dominating relievers. The fact is that they could not acquire Ugueth Urbina and instead relied on a group of relievers who had closed before including Ramiro Mendoza, Bobby Howry, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, and Chad Fox. The idea was not to rotate the closer duties but rather to use the appropriate pitcher for the situation instead of saving one guy to pitch only in the 9th. As Epstein also said:

"I'll leave it up to Grady to find usage patterns in the pen...(But) the way we've built the pen is with versatility and flexibility in mind. On any given day, we want Grady to have lots of options to attack game situations and opposing lineups.''

This makes perfect sense given that the Sox appeared to have a solid bullpen in these guys. However, when Mendoza blew a 4-1 lead in the 9th inning of the first game of the season and Fox and Embree did likewise, all before the 8th of April, you knew that the experiment wouldn't last. Like the four-man rotation the idea of using several good relievers to close out games as opposed to one dominating one is an idea whose time will come again. Some team will try it out of necessity and it'll work.

Finally a small criticism. I found some of Bissinger's writing a bit forced. In an effort to spice up the narrative he occasionally resorts to some analogy or metaphor to describe a baseball situation that comes off sounding a bit cheesy.

But despite these few problems I really did like the book. La Russa comes off as a guy who has perhaps sacrificed too much in terms of family to get where he is, but one who really cares about both his players and about winning. You get the impression that when the game is over La Russa has left no stone unturned. And I especially enjoyed the descriptions of La Russa's thought patterns as the games unfolded and how he was thinking ahead to matchups several innings down the road. In one insight that I didn't realize many managers were aware of (at least Dusty Baker) La Russa chose to stay with a left-handed hitter against Mike Remlinger because he knew that Remlinger was a reverse left-hander - meaning one that is more effective against right-handed than left-handed hitters. Those kinds of little things permeate the book and make it well worth reading for any baseball fan.


Anonymous said...

Another excellent review Dan. I actually ordered the book myself and am awaiting delivery. Glad now that I did order it.

A funny thing has happened since my Stats vs. Scouts article. While I have historically sided with the scouts and "traditionalists," I would always take into account what I considered relevant statistical data. I wish more people would read your review of Shanks book, because I'm getting a little tired of hearing authors bash any and all statistical analysis without putting it into context or seeing any of its value.

It's almost like their agenda now is to destroy an author or publication instead of arriving at the truth. Yeah, I know. It wouldn't be the first time.

I wrote a Stats vs. Scouts article because I was concerned with the number of statistical publications that suddenly refused to acknowlege skills. Now I'm afraid I need to rewrite my article to defend the other camp. Amazing.

Anyway, good work!


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