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Reading Room: A trip into sabermetric history

Starting the offseason book recommendation thread with "The Diamond Appraised"

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I just finished a baseball book that opens with one of our favorite topics -- framing. Here's a handy description from the second page of the first chapter.

But it isn't just the pitcher that the catcher is trying to manipulate, even though you'll never hear a good catcher discuss his other main target. Catchers quickly go dumb when it comes to their attempts to influence the umpires. They are not eager to advertise what sells best when noticed least. While some umpires learn to ignore the supposedly innocent ramblings of a catcher's chatter, few escape being hypnotized by the glove of a good catcher. The mark of the master is the illusion whereby balls become called strikes. Learning to catch the ball so it looks like a strike may do more toward preventing runs than throwing out the extra base runner once a week that is the difference between the best- and worst-throwing catchers.

The best catchers learn to heighten the illusion of strikes by "framing" the close pitches within the strike zone by where and how they catch the ball. They know the less they move the more it looks as though the pitch went where it should, and thus should be a strike. They diligently practice catching the low pitches without turning the glove down to catch a ball just below the strike zone. They know if they have to drop the glove down, the umpire will automatically call it a ball, low. Some catchers believe they get more calls if they help the umpire anticipate where the pitch is supposed to go, and they set an obvious target at the risk of tipping off the batter as well. That's why a catcher doesn't mind the umpire putting his hand lightly on his upper back. This lets the umpire feel the catcher's movement and direction, which not only keeps him out of the catcher's way when blocking or chasing tough pitches, but lets the catcher relay the location of his pitch call with just a subtle shift of his frame.

It goes on to highlight the mechanics of catchers who have a rich history in getting more favorable results for their pitchers, and rail against guys who drop their gloves out of the zone. This is common knowledge now, but it likely wasn't when the book was written.

I'm talking about "The Diamond Appraised" by Craig Wright, which was published in 1989. Wright is a front-office pioneer, in that he was the first sabermetric analyst hired by a team with that title. He first approached the Bill Veeck-Roland Hemond White Sox in the 1970s, but ultimately landed a job with the Rangers in the 1980s.

At this point in sabermetric development -- about 20 years before PITCHf/x -- he had to relay his framing findings using catcher ERA isolated by starter. There are more sophisticated ways of measuring it now, but it's one of those data points -- along with Brad Ausmus' then-ridiculed playing time during the offensive boom -- that shows how teams were considering framing well before outside analysts like Baseball Prospectus could put numbers to it.

As for the rest of the book? Well, considering it's presented as a contemporary look at baseball -- and that contemporary look is now 27 years old -- it's not a surprise that some research doesn't quite connect the way it once might have. There's a chapter about the National League's All-Star Game dominance that's now a historical curiosity, and while it was likely ahead of the game in giving run prevention a similar weight to run creation, the findings rely on range factor, which seems antiquated. Wright is really fired up about Pete Rose chasing Ty Cobb's hit record, but the book came out around the same time as the Dowd Report did, so it's not like Rose's fixations are under-covered ground nowadays.

Other areas fare better. As "The Arm" tells us, baseball isn't closer to solving exploding elbows, so Wright's decades-old attempt at defining the problem and trying to find common threads in historically healthy pitchers remains relevant enough (especially the part about workloads on young arms). Pace of play remains a fly in the ointment, and his railing against specialization strikes a chord:

The longer a game exists, the more sophisticated it gets. The competition is so fierce that anything that works is likely to be repeated throughout the sport. This causes a leveling off of performance, and the impact of even a truly great player is reduced. There is a dulling of extremes that in turn places a new emphasis on smaller edges. The pressure to win generates specialized pitching roles, a greater emphasis on platoon matchups, and one-dimensional bench players.

While specialization helps create new winning edges, it dehumanizes the game and returns us to an unpleasant aspect of the larger society from which we are trying to escape. Rather than honoring the individual who learns to cope with his weaknesses while living off his strengths, we move toward a game in which the best player is not an individual at all but a composite of players -- one hitting righties, another hitting lefties, one hitting for power, another doin gthe baserunning, and yet another wearing the glove."

Unfortunately, he prefers the 24-man roster and an eight-man lineup instead of a designated hitter, while baseball is flirting with the idea of a 26th man.

I've only mentioned Wright so far, but his name isn't the only one on the book. It just may as well be. Former MLB pitcher Tom House is credited as a co-author to create a premise in which new-school thinking clashes with the guy on the ground. There's give-and-take early on, but his participation noticeably peters out. If you purchased the book expecting a 60-40 split and healthy debate throughout, you'll be really surprised that the last chapter is an impassioned plea to remember the greatness of Honus Wagner.

The combination of age and publishing pressures make it an uneven read now, but it was still worth my time for the nominal amount I paid at a used bookstore. I'd seen Wright's work cited by numerous saber-oriented writers, so now I know what I was missing, and what people had been missing at that point in time.

Other books I'd recommend

Truman, David McCullough. It won a Pulitzer Prize, so it's not like it needs my seal of approval, but I'd call it the most engaging 992 pages I've ever read. It pairs well with a trip to the Truman library in Independence, Mo., which I went to for the first time two weeks ago.

The Sagas of Icelanders, Penguin Classics Deluxe. I'm a fan of Iceland as much as I'm not a fan of medieval literature, so I borrowed it from the library not knowing which side would win out. The direct nature of the writing (or at least the translations) served my purposes of learning the origin stories, not just of Iceland but North America as well. There are also a lot of nonchalant depictions of sudden extreme violence. The Ommegang beers are the only thing I know about "Game of Thrones," which doesn't stop me from describing random things as "a real Game of Thrones," but this might actually kinda fit?

I'm now working my way through a history of Troy baseball before the new Michael Chabon book comes out.

How about you? What are you reading? What have you read? It's the holiday season (the holiday season), so people might need gift ideas.