Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Sawchik debuts with a celebration of the Pirates’ recent return to glory with the help of some computer all-stars.
As the author notes in his subtitle, the Pirates had been pathetic for more than two decades. But their resurrection began, he writes, when manager Clint Hurdle, who was in danger of losing his job in 2013 after two disappointing seasons, decided to embrace “big data”—the vast amounts of information becoming available about everything from the positioning of infielders to the grips that pitchers use on their fastballs. Sawchik employs several techniques throughout, giving the back stories of the various principals in the drama, clearly explaining the technological advances in the game (Money Ball and beyond), recording the strategies and successes that management employed and enjoyed. We hear about Hurdle, pitcher Francisco Liriano, and catcher Russell Martin. But it’s not just the players. Computer whiz Dan Fox, for example, also gets his due. The story advances as the team—more or less willingly—accepts the necessity of listening to what the data are whispering. Shift infielders from their traditional positions, get pitchers who induce grounders from the hitters, find catchers who “frame” pitches for the umpires, measure the specific skills of outfielders—these and other topics fill most of the text, along with a few accounts of specific moments in games and some playoff game summaries. Sawchik, of course, is a “homer,” so he rarely describes any mutinous mumblings aboard the Pirate ship. At times, the story reads almost like a John R. Tunis baseball book for boys (The Kid from Tomkinsville, etc.): Tunis’ optimism, idealization of character, and overall enthusiasm all are here. Most important is Sawchik’s realization, however, that the diamond will never again be so rough—data-gatherers and -analysts are polishing assiduously.
Both a comprehensive and a focused look at how computer-recorded data are fundamentally altering America’s pastime.