Recently I read “Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution” written by Brian Kenny. For those of you unfamiliar with Kenny, he is currently a studio host on Major League Baseball (MLB) Network and has been covering baseball on a national level for over 20 years when he started working at ESPN where he was an anchor on SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight. Kenny is no stranger to questioning conventional thinking when it comes to the way in which MLB players and teams go about their business. This is evident on a regular basis when watching MLB Now, a show in which Kenny and a round table of baseball experts (former players & media members) debate current trends and topics such as pitcher usage, statistical evaluation, and player contracts. Kenny’s book is no different as he examines the way in which the game is currently played and asks if it is the best way, while providing a series of historical facts and evidence along the way.
As I have discussed in previous posts, obtaining information and how one makes decisions is a process that takes both time and a certain level of conviction, to stay the course when outside pressures begin to mount. Kenny points this out by explaining how group think or what he refers to as “The Herd Mentality” has a strong influence on the culture that is created in many organizations and industries. It takes a rare breed of person to act independently and go against the traditional ways of thinking and problem solving. Still, throughout the history of baseball there have been teams and managers that have attempted to innovate in the way they use the players at their disposal, over the course of an individual game and season. Some areas in which baseball has changed over the years include the use of defensive shifts, pitcher usage, and some of the statistics used to more accurately determine an individual players contribution to his team.
When reading through each chapter it becomes clear that certain metrics are outdated such as the emphasis on awarding an individual “pitcher win”. As Kenny points out the pitcher win was first rewarded in the 1870’s when the starting pitchers finished over 96% of the games, thus it was understandable to accredit the individual pitchers with a win or loss. The way in which pitchers are deployed has changed drastically over the past 150 years and starting pitchers currently finish around 2% of games. It is not uncommon for a team to use 4 or 5 pitchers daily, as teams attempt to optimize player matchups to gain a competitive advantage. Some teams will carry 12 or 13 pitchers on their 25-man rosters at various times throughout the season. Starting pitchers average just over 5 innings per outing in the game today or roughly 60% of the total innings required each season.
There are five events that need to happen for the starting pitcher to be awarded the win. 1)He must pitch effectively, getting outs. 2)His offense must score enough runs. 3)The defense must make the necessary plays behind him. 4)The bullpen must hold the lead. 5)The manager must keep him in the game for the required 5 innings, and when he is removed his team must lead at the time. The pitcher himself only has individual control of one of these five factors, that being how effectively he is throwing the ball on that given day. Therefore, the idea of handing out an individual pitcher win and more importantly placing much value on it is rather rudimentary in this day and age.
In order to find the best or at the very least improve upon current practices one must ask him or herself if this is the only way and more importantly “why” are they doing it. Ultimately what are they hoping to achieve? One way of posing these questions is the use of iteration, which Kenny points to throughout the book. Iteration is the process in which repetition is used in order to obtain, evaluate and fine tune each aspect of the operation. Baseball is not the only place in which conventional wisdom about change runs deep. There are many situations and organizations that do not incorporate any form of iteration when facing modern challenges.
I did enjoying reading Brian Kenny’s book. It’s thought provoking, and although I follow the game at an in-depth level, at points in the book I was thinking about various parts of the game in a different light. Kenny does an excellent job of showing how certain ideologies have evolved over time, such as the amount and type of defensive shifts that have become commonplace. He also pays homage to some of the pioneers of Sabermetrics such as Dick Cramer, John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and of course the godfather himself, Bill James.
Overall it is an entertaining read, regardless of one’s baseball knowledge or background. If you are a baseball fan, business person, or just someone who wants to learn more about innovation and forward thinking make sure you pick up a copy. You won’t regret doing so.
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