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"Big Data Baseball" finds strength in anecdotes

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Semi-regular SSS reading recommendation roundup is back with a book about the Pirates' revival

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When responding to people complaining about the White Sox, I often stress the importance of paying attention to other teams. For one, if you watch enough baseball, you realize that no team's problems are unique. Besides that, understanding how other teams succeed help make criticism of the Sox a little more precise and forward-thinking.

Along these lines, I practiced what I preached by reading "Big Data Baseball" by Travis Sawchik, the Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

"Big Data Baseball" follows the Pirates through their barrier-breaking season of 2013, when they snapped a streak of losing seasons 20 years long by embracing analytics in a last-ditch effort to save jobs (Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle's, in particular).

The Pirates weren't the first team to employ defensive shifts, but they approached it more aggressively by finding pitchers who could pitch into the shift with two-seam fastballs. They also were ahead of the curve on recognizing the value of pitch-framing, they spent over slot to the extreme before Major League Baseball cracked down on it, and they're going into biomechanical studies as hard as anybody.

Sawchik uses the signing of Russell Martin as a bellwether, which is fair. I remember that the Martin signing was panned by Pittsburgh media, as it used up a good chunk of the Pirates' available funds on a .211 hitter. But he was recognized by open-source pitch-framing studies as one of the best, and as one of the key communicators on the team, he embraced the role of ground control for the pitching staff.

He's the player embodiment of the book's theme -- committing to a plan whole-hog from the top down thanks to open communication. The book focuses more on non-players, though. Huntington and Hurdle put their faith in the science because nothing else has worked, bringing the analytics guys headed by Dan Fox (formerly of Baseball Prospectus) into a more visible role, first in meetings, and then in the clubhouse. Players are encouraged to give them projects or poke holes in their theories, which is only possible because Fox and quantitative analyst Mike Fitzgerald are gifted at illustrating points in terms (or graphics) everybody can understand. By the end of the book (2014), Fitzgerald is traveling with the team on a regular basis.

But beyond those directly involved in the chain of command, the book makes you think of other branches, like minor league coordinators and coaches who have to sell this as part of the development, and pitchers and pitching coaches who have to trust the defensive alignment and not let the odd single to a traditional position bother them. There's a great story about how Rene Gayo, the director of Latin American scouting, found Starling Marte. For these reasons, the book is an effective one.

It doesn't feel like a comprehensive one, though. It's both a little too tidy overall yet a little bit too drawn-out in parts. It's only 233 pages, but it still finds time to re-establish a few plots, such as Russell Martin's Montreal upbringing, or the salvaging of Francisco Liriano, or the integration of the analysts in the clubhouse, which is time that could have been spent better acknowledging that everything didn't go right. Players who didn't quite work out as imagined are more or less brushed off, which makes one wonder what else is being sacrificed to expedite the storyline. Andrew McCutchen is basically nonexistent, reminiscent of the way the "Moneyball" movie ignored Hudson-Mulder-Zito. That makes it difficult to treat as a wholly genuine assessment.

(One Sox-specific example that caught my eye -- the narrative praises Huntington during his days in Cleveland for not letting loyalty force them to re-sign aging DH Jim Thome, when they ended up walking into a bigger mistake with their four-year, $57 million deal with Travis Hafner. Those Indians basically showed that even on-paper decision-making could go very wrong. Thome was fine.)

If you can set aside the homer streak that runs underneath it, though, "Big Data Baseball" will help inform opinions about your own team. Sawchik might be close to the source, but those relationships yield anecdotes across a wide spectrum of positions to illustrate what it takes to disseminate information effectively across a cross-section of baseball people, some of whom may not be naturally inclined to understand it.

What are you reading?

Other books I've read and liked since the last time we did this:

*"The Wright Brothers," David McCullough. Immensely readable American history by the master of it.

*"Dead Wake," Erik Larson. The author of "The Devil in the White City" uses his dual-narrative style for the last crossing of the Lusitania, and the perspective of the Germany submarine commander is the more gripping one.

*"Drown," Junot Diaz. After reading "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," I doubled back to check out his collection of short stories that was published 10 years earlier. Either one complements the other.