Disclaimer: This post is not a book review. You may now proceed.
Alan Hirsch is a nice guy. He struck us as one, anyway, when we corresponded with him about a new book he co-authored with his brother Sheldon, The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball. We weren’t surprised he was a nice guy, although in a perverse sort of way, we were a little disappointed.
Why disappointed? Well, we haven’t actually gotten the chance to read The Beauty of Short Hops, so we can’t offer up a critique of the work as a whole…but we can critique the press release, which made it sound like everything we could dislike in a book about baseball, bound together and forming a facepalm in paper form…and it would have been so much fun to hate it all the more. The release says the book aims to debunk “the myths perpetrated by the bestselling book Moneyball and the philosophy of baseball that it described.”
This, to us, sounds like backwards thinking (the Moneyball philosophy is one that places a heavy emphasis on statistical analysis to find advantages over competitors, which to us just seems…smart), and it’s what made us eager to contact Hirsch and get a few thoughts from the co-author himself. And that exchange did calm some of our worst fears about the book – though just as we can’t be too harsh on it since we haven’t actually been able to read it as of yet, neither can we give it too much credit.
For example: the press release promised that The Beauty of Short Hops would debunk the Moneyball philosophy, which “celebrated and accelerated the statistics-obsessed revolution in understanding baseball started by Bill James.” In fact, Hirsch told us he’s an admirer of James, and that this comes through in the book.
Additionally, we wondered about a line in the press release criticizing “the Moneyball approach” because “it cannot make baseball a predictable game wholly understandable in numerical terms.” So what to make of Moneyball author Michael Lewis saying the following in Tommy Craggs’ 2005 piece on former ESPN broadcaster Morgan (who did once rush to judgment on a book – specifically, Moneyball – without reading it)?
“[Moneyball] is about using statistical analysis to shift the odds [of winning] a bit in one’s favor, not to achieve perfect certainty, which is impossible.”
Hirsch did allow that “[e]ven some of the most hard-core [sabermetricians] may acknowledge that perfect predictability is unattainable,” but that “[a] big part of our book tries to show just how far from attainable it is, including for reasons that most sabermetricians have overlooked.” (He didn’t give us any more detail than that – he had to leave some motivation to check out the book, after all.)
We also felt compelled to ask Hirsch about a false dichotomy that drives a lot of the pro-stat crowd (a category in which we’d include ourselves, if you haven’t figured that one out) absolutely crazy, but seems to get raised now and again by anti-sabermetric types anyway. That’s the idea that anyone who does enjoy stats, learning about them, and appreciating what they contribute to the game necessarily can’t also enjoy the unexpected twists and turns that sometimes happen in baseball, and the vital part they play in the game.
Thankfully, when asked if he thinks this way, Hirsch replied, “Certainly not.” He did, though, add that “for many sabermetricians…[stats are] more like an obsession, and it clearly does interfere with appreciation of the contingent element of sports.” This, of course, is where we’d likely disagree…we’d venture to guess that a great many sabermetricians/people generally obsessed with stats do indeed enjoy “the contingent element,” and as far as being obsessed…hey, it’s just another way to be obsessed with baseball, which is fine by us.