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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Making a List

Is there anything better than opening a book about our national pastime in front of a warm fire at Christmas?

With the Christmas holiday fast approaching (as constantly reminded by my daughters), today I'll do my best to help provide you with some ideas for that special someone in your life (who is a baseball fan of course) by running down my shortlist of favorite baseball books published in 2006.

  1. Baseball Prospectus 2007. Did you really think I wouldn't be a good organizational soldier? In all honesty, this being my first year of watching and participating in the process of putting this annual together has shown me the tremendous amount of thought, analysis, and research that go into the book. And although it won't ship until the new year, I'm sure your loved one will be more than satisfied with a promissory note in their stocking. But while they're waiting there's always a gift subscription. Aren't you impressed that I got them both in?

  2. The Echoing Green. This book by Joshua Prager takes the reader on a fascinating and amazingly in-depth exploration of the 1951 pennant race and its participants focusing on the intertwined destinies of Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson. The book is suitable for any fan whose interest lies in the history of the game or indeed anyone with an interest in history as the book goes far beyond the events of the field and illuminates the cultural context within which the "Shot Heard Round the World" echoed. For those who want the full review, take a look at my column this week where I review it in depth.

    It is certainly the case that the book is written in a more literary and sometimes lyrical style than the sports writing most of us are accustomed to. And there are even a few $5 words to boot including "puissant", "lacuna", and "avoirdupois", for which you'll need to consult your dictionary. That said, the writing doesn’t get in the way of the story and often serves to move the flow of events along. It is really an excellent book and one that I doubt you or that special someone will regret investing in.

  3. The Book. Self published by the trio of Tom Tango, Andrew Dolphin, and Mitchel Lichtman,The Book is simply the most densely packed collection of sabermetric studies ever published. After laying out the methodology and tools in chapter one that include run expectancy, Markov chains and win expectancy, a new statistic called Weighted On Base Average (wOBA) which is essentially (OBP * 2 + SLG) /3, and the essence of random variation, the authors use the tools to discuss everything from the essence of clutch hitting to game theory and how it applies to strategic decision making in the game. And although the book is hard slogging at times with prose that is somewhat challenging and more tables than you can shake a stick at (140 in 380 pages), the authors compensate by summarizing core conclusions in callouts within the text that are prefaced by "The Book Says". Any fan interested in baseball strategy will appreciate it for that reason and for those more versed in performance analysis it is a must for the library.

  4. Baseball Between the Numbers. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't include BBTN in this list and so this time I'm not just being politically correct (and I had nothing to do with the production of the book having come on board after its publication). As with The Book, BBTN packs a plethora of sabermetric studies into its 374 pages, many of them either new (in contradiction to one of the reviews I've read) or done with a methodology not employed previously. However, this book is much more readable and geared to the fan interested in what the new breed of performance measures reveal about the game. Broken into nine chapters with three topics in each, the authors begin each topic with a question such as "Is Joe Torre a Hall of Fame Manager?" by James Click or "Are New Stadiums a Good Deal?" by Neil deMause and then use that as a platform to explore relevant surrounding issues. No doubt the thinking fan on your list will find it entertaining and educational.

  5. Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders. This was one of my favorite books of the year and one I reviewed on BP back in July. It combines the elements of good story telling and pertinent analysis that Neyer, as a student of the game, has become known for. I'll let the review speak for itself but suffice it to say that the book is a fascinating "what if" analysis of moves that were made and not made and for which a reasonable argument was available, although not always voiced, at the time.

  6. The Fielding Bible. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of the methodology used and the understanding gained from the Plus/Minus system John Dewan and Baseball Info Solutions developed and published early in 2006. I've written as much on more than one occasion and although complete data for 2006 remains unpublished, the baseball fan on your list will still enjoy this one.

  7. The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2007. The seemingly tireless Dave Studeman over at THT has done another remarkable job of pulling together a retrospective that is both chock full of analysis on the season that was and offers copious content related to the history of the game and sabermetric analysis. Its 352 pages are filled with essays by the full crew at THT plus a few guest appearances by the likes of Rob Neyer and Rich Lederer as well as John Dewan's fielding metrics at the team level. Having received my copy earlier this week, I can testify that any fan with an interest in the game will appreciate this year's edition – and learn more than 10 things.

  8. The Bill James Handbook 2007. As with the THT annual the handbook is published by ACTA and has become a yearly staple of my December reading. Although it contains precious little in terms of prose, this year's offering includes John Dewan's Plus/Minus fielding leaders for 2006, an enhanced baserunning section which I'll review in a few weeks, and a new essay and section on "Manufactured Runs" by Bill James. These are in addition to the team efficiency report introduced last year, standard batting, pitching, and fielding records, lefty/righty splits, the manager's record, park indices, leader boards, and hitter and pitcher projections. There's enough here for any interested baseball fan to chew on throughout the Christmas break and beyond.

  9. Winners. This effort by Dayn Perry published early in the year provides an excellent look at the profiles of teams that make it to the post season. Using an analytical approach, as you might imagine, leads Perry to some well-reasoned conclusions. I wrote a review of it earlier this year over at THT.

Happy shopping!

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