Sunday, October 28, 2018

Books: On Baseball Strategy

Yankee Stadium. Photo by Jason Schott.

This baseball season has shown that the strategy of the game has been altered by analytics, but has that changed the way players think during a game? Two new books look at where the game is today: Power Ball, by Rob Neyer; and Ninety Percent Mental, by Bob Tewksbury.

Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game
By Rob Neyer
Harper; hardcover, $27.99

Rob Neyer, former ESPN columnist and analytics pioneer, examines the game as it's currently played on the field, in the dugout, and in the executive suites while tracing how Major League Baseball has changed in the last few decades, in his new book Power Ball.
Over the last five years, power and analytics have propelled methodically constructed teams like the Houston Astros to be consistent contenders. This is an age that Neyer has dubbed Postmodern Baseball, when pitchers consistently top 95 miles-per-hour on the radar gun, technology allows them to scrutinize and tweak their mechanics after each outing, and batters throughout the lineup can all hit moon-shot home runs and compare their "launch angles."
Neyer looks at today's baseball through the lens of a nail-biting September 8, 2017 game between the Oakland Athletics, who would finish last in the American League West, and the Astros, who went on to be World Champions. The nine innings of this game look at how MLB has evolved since Athletics General Manager Billy Beane's Moneyball philosophy was first deployed almost twenty years ago.
Neyer recreates this unexpectedly thrilling game, which was won by Oakland 9-8, with in-depth analysis, color commentary, enlightening interviews, and historical context. Within the game, he contemplates the issues that matter most to fans while sharing his invaluable insights on the players, the managers, the written and unwritten rules, the front office maneuvers, the role of sabermetrics, and the ever-evolving thinking of what it takes to build a contending team.
Neyer writes of what he hopes to achieve with this book, "Ninety feet. Sixty feet six inches.
"Those numbers - the distance between the bases; the distance from the pitcher's rubber to the foot of home plate - have remained the same since 1893. You remember 1893, right? When a mustachioed fells named Grover was president?
"No, you don't remember. The two dimensions that matter the most in baseball have been the same for way longer than you can remember. Or your grandparents can remember.
"It's still ninety feet, and it's still sixty feet six inches, and you still gotta hit a round ball with a round bat and that's still really hard to do. Which is why we're able to compare Babe Ruth to Aaron Judge. Mickey Mantle to Mike Trout.
"This is a wonderful gift to baseball fans. I just watched Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, and there was very little that didn't seem perfectly modern. Aside from a player they called the Little Round Man, anyway. When my wife's uncle Bruce tells me stories about seeing Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers in Brooklyn, it's not like trying to imagine Gettysburg or the Pony Express. I can relate to a baseball game sixty-some years ago at Ebbets Field. They've now been playing baseball at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field for more than a century, and a time-traveling baseball fan form 1917 would not need long at all to perfectly understand a game in 2017.
"But even as the dimensions and the necessary skills and a few of the ballparks have remained largely the same for so many decades, virtually everything else is radically, dramatically, tremendously different than it was.
"Most of the changes have been gradual, so we hardly noticed them as they were happening. But we're lucky enough to get the occasional literary snapshot.
"Way back in the Dead Ball Era, more than a century ago, National League stars Johnny Evers and Christy Matthewson wrote - okay, had written for them - fairly sophisticated, revealing books about the game s it was then played in the major leagues. Alas, there really wasn't anything comparable published for some years. Not that there weren't any books published about the game on the field in the next few decades; it's just that none of them are today considered essential for one's understanding of the times.
"For that sort of book, we must jump all the way to Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, when the wonderfully perceptive Arnold Hano sat in the center-field bleachers, just like any other fan, in Manhattan's Polo Grounds, and wrote an entire book about that single game. Hano's A Day in the Bleachers would be the first of a specific genre, and stands today as the single most vivid description of Wille Mays's nearly infinite talents.
"In 1985, we were blessed with Dan Okrent's Nine Innings. Three years earlier, Okrent witnessed a Brewers-Orioles game in Milwaukee, and over the course of many months he reported the hell out of that single game. The book was worth the wait."
Neyer says he was inspired by Hano's and Okrent's legendary writings on baseball, and he hopes that he has found the game that perfectly encapsulates the modern strategies of baseball, the Moneyball A's and the analytics Astros.

Ninety Percent Mental: An All-Star Player Turned Mental Skills Coach Reveals the Hidden Game of Baseball
By Bob Tewksbury
DaCapo Press; hardcover; $27.00

Bob Tewksbury is a former Major League pitcher and All-Star who excelled on the mound partly due to his mental acuity and resiliency. 
After retiring as a player and working briefly in broadcasting and as a player development consultant, Tewksbury joined the Boston Red Sox after the 2004 season to be their mental skills coach. He was with Boston for 11 years, including when he was on the staff of the 2013 World Championship team. He is currently the mental skills coach for the San Francisco Giants, where he works with players at every level in their organization.
Tewksbury  draws on his perspective as a thinking-fan's player and his expertise as a "baseball whisperer" for an inside look at the psychological side of the game and how a well-disciplined mind can provide a definitive edge.
In Major League Baseball, what separates those who succeed from those that do not live up to their potential is a sharp mental game both in preparation and in the heat of the moment.
Joe Torre, Hall Of Fame and four-time World Champion Manager, who was with the St. Louis Cardinals while Tewksbury was there, said, "He was one of the most thoughtful players I ever managed, approached the craft of pitching like an artist."
Ninety Percent Mental gives fans and athletes access to the mind games a player must utilize to get through an at-bat, an inning, and a game by sharing techniques of visualization, breathing and relaxation, and positive self-talk. Tewksbury discusses some of the game's key strategies and moments with stories stories from legendary players who he played with and against, such as Mark McGwire, Craig Biggio, and Greg Maddux; game-changing managers and executives such as Joe Torre, Bruce Bochy, and Brian Sabean; and current star players like Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Andrew Miller, and Rich Hill.
Tewksbury writes on the art of the pitch by starting with a story from his first spring training when he was a Yankees prospect, "A day before the first major league spring training of my career, I was picking up baseballs during batting practice in Florida alongside the great Catfish Hunter, who was in camp as an alumni coach and whose glittering career would land him the next summer in Cooperstown. Aside from having a great nickname, Catfish was a control artist who commanded home plate as well as his favorite fishing holes. 
"Always on the lookout for a learning opportunity and with deep admiration for Hunter, I figured this was a no-brainer. So I asked him, 'Catfish, do you have words of advice for a young pitcher trying to make a major league team?'
"I can still see this picture today. Wearing his Yankees pullover sweatshirt, and with the omnipresent wad of chaw in his left cheek, Catfish casually turned his head toward me, spit out a thick, long stream of tobacco juice and said in that slow, North Carolina drawl: 'Just throw strikes, kid. Throw strikes.' Splat!
"So much for the deep, dark mysteries of the big-league universe. Throw strikes? I could do that. I had to do that. I wasn't Nolan Ryan. Especially after my shoulder surgery in 1988, I didn't have the kind of fastball that would strike fear into the hearts of hitters. Truth be told, I didn't have the kind of fastball that would even jangle their nerves. Just listen to Fred McGriff, the 'Crime Dog' himself, the slugger who pummeled 493 career home runs during his well-decorated career.
"'The best way to describe Tewksbury, I always say, is that he was a comfortable oh-fer,' McGriff says. 'Because other pitchers that threw a lot harder, you've got to worry about how hard they're throwing, you may get hit, whatever. Tewks didn't throw very hard, you weren't intimidated, you weren't scared, nothing like that. Then at the end of the day, you were 0 for 4 and pissed off because how did you go 0 for 4 against this guy?
"'He didn't throw very hard. He had great control. He threw strikes. He proves to you how hard it is to hit.'
"I became living proof that to thrive in the jungle that is major league baseball, a pitcher can elude the carnivores even while existing on their own turf. For thirteen seasons, I pumped strike after strike over the plate without ever risking a speeding ticket from the local authorities. And let me tell you, there are few things more satisfying in the world than eyeing a rival slugger eagerly step into the batter's box with hunger in his eyes, then watching him U-turn it back to the dugout with that look in those eyes having changed to fury. The kind of fury that Albert Belle once unleashed after he jammed himself with a 3 and 0 curveball. Up stepped Robin Ventura a couple of hitters later, with a message from Sir Albert to my catcher, Terry Steinbach: 'Maybe Tewks had better get an escort to his car after the game, because Albert wants to kill him!'
"From New York to Chicago to St. Louis and beyond, I pulled rabbits from the unlikeliest of hats, waved red capes at some of the game's most bullish sluggers and executed Houdini-like escapes from some of the toughest jams because I finally reached the point where I could see where I was throwing the baseball before I actually let go of it."

These two books will illuminate your thinking on baseball, and how there are many constants in this game as it is changing by the minute.

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