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Wednesday, August 09, 2023

Beach week and DC Stopover

My family returned to the Delaware beaches this summer for the first time since 2017. My spouse's sister and her family also came over from the UK and so the vacation was also a family reunion. Moreover, the two families stayed together in a big condo at a golf resort favored by some friends who long ago lived on the same street as my wife and her sister. When everyone got together, as we did for pizza one evening and in various combinations on the beach, with spouses or partners and their mostly young-adult "children," it was a sizeable assembly. 

I'm not really a fan of the sun, or sand, so I did little more along the ocean front than walk along the beach slathered in sunscreen. I did very much enjoy being with family and friends, drinking the regional craft beer (and visiting a nearby brewpub), and consuming the locally grown produce (the corn this year was spectacular). I should not forget to mention the excellent crab cakes my sister-in-law produced one evening nor the excellent novel I read while enjoying the freedom to do nothing. 

On the return from Delaware, my spouse and I stopped to visit one of her oldest friends who lives in Arlington. While in the DC area, I connected with one of my oldest friends who lives in nearby McLean and we spent part of an afternoon visiting the National Portrait Gallery and taking in the special Leonardo DaVinci exhibit at the DC Public Library. Among other attractions at the Gallery was a special exhibition for Frederick Douglas. 

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Saturday, August 05, 2023

20 Years Later: 3 Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger

This book has been on my radar for a long time. It was published to some acclaim in 2005 and concerns a three game baseball series that occurred August 26th to 28th, 2003, involving the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. In that era, these were two of the best teams in the National League. It's been on my shelf for a good while after I eventually acquired a used paperback copy complete with an Afterward published in December 2005 that includes the framing of the book as a counter-take to Michael Lewis's terrific Moneyball, which I read soon after it originally appeared. I finally decided to read this book when visiting St. Louis for the fourth of July weekend earlier this summer. 

The book tells some interesting stories and offers some revealing insights into the way Tony La Russa managed baseball games. Though the book focuses on a three game series, it also covers some of La Russa's personal baseball history dating back to his first job as a manager in the late 1970s, continuing through the 1980s with first the Chicago White Sox and then the Oakland A's. La Russa was hired by Sox owner Bill Veeck, who bought his first baseball team in 1941 and was the son of a man who was president of the Cubs in 1918! After this book was written, La Russa managed Cardinal teams that went on to win the 2006 and 2011 World Series. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014. 

The book also features stories about several star players that continue to be relevant two decades later. Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was arguably the greatest hitter in baseball when this book was written and he retired just this past off-season, ending his career with a bit of a bounce-back season in St. Louis in 2022. Another prominent member of that 2022 Cardinals team, Adam Wainwright, is briefly mentioned in the book's Postscript because he was part of the return for a trade involving JD Drew, a talented Cardinal player of 2003. And Scott Rolen, who hit a key home run in one of the book's three games and made timely defensive plays as well, was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. La Russa himself returned to managing the White Sox in 2021-2022, winning a division title in 2021, but not completing the season in 2022 because of health reasons (after mediocre results as well). 

The reader gets a good feel for how La Russa and his long-time pitching coach Dave Duncan prepared for games and thought about various tactics, strategies, and statistics. The events in the book occurred prior to the Statcast era, but many of the ideas La Russa and Duncan have about pitch sequence and selection are now readily testable by anyone with an internet connection given the trove of data Statcast publishes online. 

These are the best elements of the book. But there are some important weakness too:

First, the book barely scratches the surface on the steroids scandal that greatly influenced baseball in this era. The game had already agreed to employ anonymous PED (performance enhancing drug) testing in 2002 and the results announced after the 2003 season revealed that 5 to 7% of samples were positive, triggering a new random testing policy. Bissinger knew all this when he published the book and yet devotes only a few pages to the issue. I attended SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) meetings in Boston in the first months of 2005 and this was the center of a tremendous amount of discussion. 

Bissinger's neglect of this topic is important for multiple reasons. To begin, he describes La Russa as an avid opponent of steroids who lamented their effects on the game and on young lives. Yet, we now know that La Russa's A's and Cardinals featured stars that were among the most notorious users -- sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Bissinger quotes La Russa as saying he could tell which players were using and that Canseco wasn't! While the identities of the users had not been revealed by baseball in 2003 and 2004, by December 2005, when the Afterword was written, Canseco's book had acknowledged that he had been a user. Moreover, Canseco named Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa (a Cubs star in 2003) as users too. In March of 2005 McGwire and Sosa, along with Rafael Palmeiro (later suspended for PEDs) and Curt Schilling testified before Congress about steroids

Second, rather than enter into the steroids controversy, which seems like it would have said something important about the "humanity" of baseball, ostensibly Bissinger's goal in writing the book, the author instead takes the opportunity to attack Moneyball. He attacks the statistical analytical perspective promoted in Moneyball early in the book but the theme becomes the centerpiece on p. 269. I believe Bissinger focuses on the trees rather than the forest, devoting great attention to criticizing (with very little context) the specific players selected by the Oakland A's in the 2002 amateur draft. It's always dangerous to discuss a draft in the first few years after it occurred, but Bissinger makes fun of the Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton initial two selections even though both turned out to be a pretty good players who spent a decade or more as major league regulars (or in Blanton's case as members of a major league rotation). Swisher made an All-Star team and both men played in a World Series. Many other selected players enjoyed decent careers and the draft was not a bust. This is now easily confirmed with a simple Google search. 

The real problem, however, is that Bissinger completely misses the point about Moneyball. He treats the book as if the Oakland A's use of various strategies and tactics to pinch pennies is inherent to the approach. That organization is notoriously cheap and Bissinger points out that money can buy winning players regardless of how smart the Harvard MBA GMs are. However, in this century, wealthy teams like the New  York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers have won numerous division titles, pennants, and championships by using the kind of advanced statistical analysis that Moneyball entails and that Bissinger explicitly hates. Yes, low budget teams like Tampa and Cleveland have also consistently succeeded (KC did as well in 2014-2015) by employing some of the same tactics, but the tactics themselves are not solely about saving money. Rather, they are about analyzing the game statistically to reveal previously unexploited advantages and inefficiencies. 

Third, Bissinger's critique of advanced statistics also seems pretty hypocritical given that he devotes so much attention to the kind of small-N data that Earl Weaver allegedly used to  employ in the 1970s. Apparently La Russa and Duncan kept track of whether a particular hitter was 5 for 19 against a certain pitcher (and whether pitchers mostly succeeded against certain opposition hitters), but we have known for a fairly long time (dating to the work of Bill James in the 1980s) that these kinds of small sample statistics are not very meaningful. In any case, Bissinger seems to love revealing these and other less important stats throughout the book.  He repeatedly mentions batting average, RBI, pitcher wins, and other traditional stats that are now widely recognized as less meaningful. Much of this was known in 2003, discussed prominently by Bill James and Michael Lewis and less notably by many hundreds of stats-drunk baseball nerds on the internet in the 1990s. Why convey so many stats that do not say very much about winning baseball games? This book isn't really an anti-statistical diatribe, it is a attack made with a head-in-the-sand approach. Bissinger simply refused to keep up with the field's use of more meaningful stats but relies upon older, less revealing, stats. Was this true of La Russa too?

These are not the only shortcomings and contradictions of this book. On p. 217 of the paperback, Bissinger writes about how pitcher Brett Tomko is laid back and sleepy. On the very next page he mentions how lost Tomko is in high pressure situations, implying a high strung response. Can an observer ever really know a player's psyche and situational reactions? 

On pp. 270-71 Bissinger criticizes writer James Click's article evaluating and critiquing the use of the (sacrifice) bunt. Bissinger favorably quotes Hall of Famer Frank Robinson who objected in part because of his personal experience on the field as player and manager, something Click never had. I guess Click got the last laugh since he was the GM of the World Series winning Houston Astros in 2022 and the sacrifice bunt has practically disappeared from the modern game. In 2021-2022 while managing the White Sox, La Russa himself used the bunt less than half as often as he did when this book was written. 

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