Saturday, July 21, 2018

Books: On The Brains Behind Baseball's Recent Champions

The Chicago Cubs celebrate winning the 2016 World Series.

The last two champions in baseball, the 2016 Chicago Cubs and the 2017 Houston Astros, have compelling narratives behind their success, and a pair of new books out looks at the leadership that delivered them their historic championships.

Bill Chastain and Jesse Rogers look at Cubs Manager Joe Maddon's life in baseball and how he brought Chicago their first title since 1908 in the biography Try Not To Suck, while Ben Reiter looks at the system the Astros used to earn their franchise's first championship last season in Astroball.

Try Not To Suck: The Exceptional, Extraordinary Baseball Life Of Joe Maddon
By Bill Chastain and Jesse Rogers
Triumph Books, 304 pages, $25.95

When Joe Maddon joined the Chicago Cubs in late 2014 after a successful run with the Tampa Bay Rays, long-suffering Cubs fans knew he was the man that could bring them their championship.
The Cubs reached the National League Championship Series in Maddon's first year, 2015, and finished the job in 2016 when they beat the Cleveland Indians in a classic seven-game World Series, earning their first title since 1908.
In Try NotTo Suck: The Exceptional, Extraordinary Baseball Life Of Joe Maddon, Bill Chastain, who covers the Tampa Bay Rays for MLB. com, and Jesse Rogers, who covers the Cubs for ESPN 1000 in Chicago, take fans behind the scenes as Joe Maddon made his way up the ranks from the minor leagues to "moving up the Angels chain," then Rays manager, and his time with the Cubs.
This book has everything Cubs fans would love to know about their beloved manager, including stories from Game 6 and Game 7 of the 2016 World Series against the Indians, and the origins of Maddon-isms including "Try not to suck" and "Embrace the Target."
Chastain and Rogers write about Maddon's way with words, "When he took the job with  the Cubs, Maddon insisted he would not change his style just because he was moving from a small market to a big one. His gimmicks, which played well in Tampa Bay, would still be a part of who he was in Chicago and that included his slogans. But he insists  most of what he comes up with happens extemporaneously. Yes, the 9=8 campaign was inspired by some motivational tactics used by the Miami Heat, but it came to him on a bike ride, not during some brainstorming session with Rays brass. Likewise, his best sayings with the Cubs have come in the moment, not planned out.
"'I think simplicity has a lot to do with it,' Maddon explains. 'I think the idea of going out and inundating these players with so much to think about, especially young players, is a mistake. It is honestly natural, they're not preconceived.'
"You wouldn't think of people in baseball being overly concerned with vocabulary - especially managers whose groans and grunts sometimes have to be interpreted. But Maddon is different. Though they come from different worlds, the Yale-educated Theo Epstein sees words as an asset to Maddon, perhaps unlike few coaches and managers he's been around.
"'I think in his case, his use of language is the reflection of a creative mind,' Espstein said. 'I think he's got a lot of untraditional and iconoclastic thoughts, and so to properly express himself he's going to cast a wide net and grab on to certain words and phrases that resonate with him.'
Whether he's devising a slogan for the season or speaking to the media several times throughout a day, Maddon has found words are his friend. Again, that's not typical for a baseball manager. Usually, the fewer spoken to the public, the better, as there's less chance for those words to be manipulated. Maddon doesn't see it that way.
"'I've done a lot of reading,' he said. 'I used to read a novel every two weeks, for years. I've read Nelson DeMille, all of his stuff, Ken Fuller, much of his stuff, James Michener, Pat Conroy, all of his stuff as well. I like more of the contemporary guys. I really never got into the classics: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. I've never read those dudes; I like the present stuff. But anytime I read a book I'd always have a dictionary with me just because words are important.'"
With a foreword by 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, Try Not To Suck is a fun book that Cubs fans, really all baseball fans, will love about one of the greatest minds in the game today.

Astroball: The New Way To Win It All
By Ben Reiter
Crown Archetype, $27 

Author Appearance: Ben Reiter will be at the Strand (828 Broadway at 12th Street, Manhattan) on Monday, July 23 at 7 p.m.

In June 2014, Sports Illustrated declared on their cover that the Houston Astros, then one of the worst clubs in baseball, would be World Series champions in 2017.
The story, which had a very specific prediction, was met with instant and nearly universal derision, and people though that the author of the piece, Ben Reiter, was crazy.
Incredibly, the Astros made the playoffs the following year in 2015, and after a step back the following season, roared back in 2017 to earn the best record in the American League and win the World Series, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games.
How had Reiter predicted it so accurately? How did the Astros pull off the impossible, going from being the worst team in their franchise's history to champions in three years?
Reiter looks to answer those questions in his new book, Astroball: The New Way To Win It All, the definitive account of Houston's unexpected rise to win the 2017 World Series. This also is a deep-dive first look into the pioneering analytics system that made it possible: an ingenious blend of advanced statistical models. which descended from what Billy Beane famously created with the Oakland Athletics in Moneyball, with quantified human evaluation and experience that will soon become an industry standard.
Reiter writes, "The Astros were run by executives who were said to be prodigiously intelligent and who had previously successfully led the scouting department of the St. Louis Cardinals. And yet in Houston all they did was lose, season after season, in the process becoming not just the laughingstock of baseball but of all of sports. After nearly a year of discussions, the organization promised me virtually unprecedented access to its inner workings, for a period that encompassed the first rounds of the 2014 amateur draft and a home series against the Los Angeles Angels.
"They had to have a plan. I wanted to discover what it was.
"What I found surprised me on several levels. No, the members of the Astros' front office did not anticipate that the club would win in 2014, as it hadn't hadn't in 2013 or 2012. They weren't exactly tanking, either, at least in the traditionally understood manner: losing in order to secure high picks in the following year's draft. High picks came anyway. The week I was embedded with them, they would make their third No. 1 overall selection in a row.
"But that was only part of a grand, unified strategy in which they would not make one decision or spend a single dollar that might delay the creation of a team that could be not just a champion but a dynasty. Struggling sports teams had played for the future many times before, but never with such a purity, as the Astros called it, and they'd never been so open about their intentions. This began before the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers initiated 'The Process,' and before the NFL's Cleveland Browns started whatever they did in the mid-2010s. This was new.
"Even more intriguing was the manner by which the Astros' executives were making their decisions. Baseball was more than a decade into its data revolution, and many of the men now running the Astros had begun their careers in tech industries. One of them had even been a rocket scientist at NASA. So they understood Big Data, and they had built a department to parse it and harness its power."
With a character-driven narrative that follows everyone from the players to General Manager Jeff Luhnow, Reiter shows just show Houston's brain trust, led by Luhnow and Sig Mejdal, the rocket scientist turned baseball data guru, and his analytics team, turned a laughingstock into a champion.
When Luhnow and Mejdal first arrived in Houston in 2011, they had already spent years trying to determine how human instinct and expertise could be blended with hard numbers, such as on-base percentage and strikeout rates, to guide their decision making.
In Houston, the duo had free reign to put their knowledge into practice to remake the club. No longer would scouts with all their subjective, hard-to-quantify observations be at odds with the stat guys. Instead, they found a way to correct for biases in human observation and roll their scouts' critical input into their process.
Reiter reveals how this new dual strategy led to key personnel decisions, such as drafting Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, the development of 2017 American League Most Valuable Player Jose Altuve, two-time All-Star and 2017 World Series MVP George Springer, and 2015 American League Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel; and in 2017, the acquisition of veterans Carlos Beltran and Justin Verlander (who was brought in despite the conclusions of Mejdal's algorithms), that were the main building blocks of the 2017 team.

These are two of the finest baseball books you will read this summer, as the Cubs and Astros are two of the best teams in baseball once again, with it highly possible they could face each other in the World Series this fall.

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