I've considered myself a foot soldier in the battle for better baseball thinking since my undergraduate years, a fight I can't claim much more participation in than a somewhat mean-spirited eagerness to challenge conventional wisdom and rankle old folks by mocking television commentators and deriding the myth of the "leadoff hitter."
While I'd already read Moneyball, easily the most provocative book to hit baseball in my lifetime -- though perhaps not as a significant to the larger culture as Juiced or Game of Shadows -- I couldn't resist picking up the latest paperback reissue late last year when I saw it included a new afterward by the author, Michael Lewis.
What a blast. Lewis' response to the baseball establishment's irrational and foolhardy rejection of his findings carry enough force that, to a hometown fan like myself, reading it feels nearly as good as watching the Cubs seal a tight game by racking up a half dozen runs in the top of the 10th inning.
But, beyond that, what most captured my mind on this run through Lewis' paean to the Oakland A's and Billy Beane wasn't any of the empirical arguments that have earned his subjects so much respect. Instead it was a rhetorical tool more familiar to the school of literary folk wisdom that has dominated baseball for most of its history--exactly the crowd most threatened by the book's implications.
Here, on pg. 222, Lewis uses a favorite device of old-school sports writers, the metaphor, to illuminate his hero's data-driven approach to evaluating pitchers.
His reduced circumstances had forced Billy Beane to embrace a different mental model of the Big League Pitcher. In Billy Beane's mind, pitchers were nothing like high-performance sports cars, or thoroughbred racehorses, or any other metaphor that implied a cool, inbuilt superiority. They were more like writers. Like writers, pitchers initiated action, and set the tone for their games. They had all sorts of ways of achieving their effects and they needed to be judged by those effects, rather than by their outward appearance, or their technique. To place a premium on velocity for its own sake was like placing a premium on a big vocabulary for its own sake. To say all pitchers should pitch like Nolan Ryan was as absurd as insisting that all writers should write like John Updike. Good pitchers were pitchers who got outs; how they did it was beside the point.
Clear, effective writing. I dig it.