Distinguished Senators, the Washington Nationals Blog That Is Great

Monday, June 21, 2004

From the Distinguished Senators Library

The house library here at Distinguished Senators is a cavernous, musty place, full of the eldritch wisdom of the hoary ancients and some really awful LeCarre novels (anyone want a barely-touched copy of Single & Single?). The latest addition to the treasury is the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, which I just finished, more or less. It's not really a book you finish, and perhaps that's why I'm left unsatisfied.

I consider myself a fan of both these authors. While I have been finding Rob Neyer's ESPN columns kind of insipid (and certainly not worth paying for), Baseball Dynasties (on which he collaborated Eddie Epstein) keeps finding its way back to my nightstand. Bill James' New Historical Baseball Abstract was pivotal in changing the way I looked at baseball, however much of a grouch the author may seem to be. And in fact, neither man lets us down. The book's best bits are the ten essays about pitchers who
a) pitched at least thirty years ago
b) are not in the Hall of Fame
c) have never been the subject of a book-length biography, but
d) had careers of Hall of Fame caliber.
It's a good idea coupled with good execution. James especially is adept at giving the reader the feel for the era in which his subject played (though he's no Steven Goldman. Keep plugging away, though, Bill!). It's the rest of the book that left me less than amazed.

The lengthy discussions of the origins of the curveball, screwball, et al. were mildly interesting, but one can only spend so much time hearing back-and-forth forkball/splitter arguments. James goes through and rates the top ten fastballs of each five years, which seems to serve little point other than to start arguments. I'm leaving some things out, and that's intentional. Fun stuff to browse through, but nothing that grabs.

It's a 484 page book, and nearly 400 of it contains the Pitcher Census. This is a list of a whole buttload of pitchers, for each of whom is given a brief summary of stats and measurements, pitch selection, and notes. Sources are described, players are consulted, controversies mentioned. Some pitchers get longish essays (such as whether Jesse Haines was a fastball or curveball kind of guy), some get lengthy quotations from other sources, and some get just the minimum. It's handy if you want to settle a bar bet about what pitches Dizzy Dean's brother threw (fastball, nickel curve - and what kind of bar do you hang out at, anyway?).

After the Census, James complains about Baseball Prospectus' Pitcher Abuse Points (he thinks they're a bunch of pap! Ha ha!), and a couple BP guys respond. They're kinda talking about different things, and no one calls anyone names, so don't flip right to the back to get to it or anything. Then James messes around with some stuff I can't imagine anyone caring about (no one has ever gone 27-5!), though I guess the Cy Young prediction system has already started some arguments. Blah blah.

Here's my problem: I bet this book was a lot more fun to research than it is to read. The authors talk in the introduction about what a blast they had leafing through old magazines and scouting reports, and good for them. The Census, though, is going to age fast - it already doesn't have any Zambranos. Part III of the book is just James doing mental gymnastics with dinosaur stats (his fascination with Wins and Losses - possibly the most misleading stats in baseball - is a rant topic for another day), and I got tired of that with a quickness.

This review came out sounding more negative than I meant it to. I don't regret buying the book, and the essays are great. If I thought I was ever going to read the other 400 pages again, I'd feel like I got a little more value. Caveat emptor.

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