From his many years at ESPN and his current perch at the MLB Network, the TV face of the “Baseball Age of Enlightenment” reflects on the rise of analytics and the torpedoing of decadeslong conventional baseball wisdom.
Today, virtually every team’s front office features an analytics department dedicated to evaluating player performance along lines promulgated as far back as the 1970s by the game’s original sabermetrician, “The Godfather,” Bill James. With a powerful assist from Michael Lewis’ Moneyball (and the subsequent Brad Pitt movie), James’ potent rethinking of the game—Kenny rates him among the seven most influential figures in baseball history—has penetrated a popular audience beyond baseball’s boundaries. It’s fair to ask, then, do we really need another book explaining why batting average, runs batted in, or errors mean less than we have previously supposed? Or why it’s pointless to assign a “win” or a “save” to a pitcher’s outing? If you answer “no,” then you’ve woefully underestimated the continued resistance of the old guard, particularly managers, narrative-driven baseball writers, and most fans, to see and properly analyze the game. In a casually friendly tone that occasionally turns marvelously cranky, Kenny deconstructs the gauzy nostalgia surrounding the Triple Crown, warns against mistaking appearance for reality—Jack Morris just looks like a better pitcher than Mickey Lolich—explains how MVP voting has gone awry, makes the numbers-based case for admitting Keith Hernandez, Dwight Evans, Alan Trammell, and Tim Raines to the Hall of Fame, and forecasts an even more radical, numbers-based baseball future. (Will we someday see an IT coach in the dugout?) A helpful glossary defines most of the new metrics applied to today’s game, and Kenny supplies plenty of flesh and blood anecdotes about players, baseball executives, and media colleagues to satisfy even the oldest, most computer-averse fan.
A delight for baseball lovers but also a useful parable about the power of habit and tradition, barriers to accepting answers hiding in plain sight for years.