Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Book Review: Mind Game
How Management Designed the Red Sox' Victory  

The Baseball Prospectus team delivered their most recent book last month, a 350+ page collection of essays on the Boston Red Sox' drive to the 2005 World Series trophy and supporting statistical tables. It's a truly enjoyable read for existing BP fans and Sox fans who would like a wonky and detailed history of the team built to put The Curse in a hearse. It's called Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series and Created a New Blueprint for Winning (Workman Publishing: New York, $13.95).

The short of it: It's a very worthwhile book you'll definitely want to own, but it probably won't find a place on your permanent shelf.

Assembled out of permutations of 19 authors and an author/editor, Steven "Double Duty" Goldman, Mind Game delivers 25+ chapters that cover various aspects of the Bosox' 2005 season, roughly chronologically. The crew takes on specific subjects from background history, to individual people on the roster (with chapters on Pedro Martínez, Nomar Garciaparra and David Ortiz, for example), statistical analysis of various aspects of the game and how the Sox ranked, and how the front office assembled the team, why it assembled it this way, and how they tried to make adjustments as the season progressed.

In doing that, they provide the most detailed examination of the management decisionmaking that developed the strategy, the roster built on that strategy and the decisions they had to make as a result of change. From an MBB perspective, while the authors don't pay any special attention to drawing out lessons for us to apply in our non-baseball endeavors, some little pieces surface anyway.

The challenge of assembling such a populous team spread over a continent and knitting together the content is a challenging one, much like Diderot faced in assembling the Encyclopedia, though Diderot took 30 years, and in 1780, which was even before Julio Franco was playing, they had no e-mail. But Goldman still deserves laurels for assembling and editing this volume.

I do have a quibble: the book bears conceptual sprawl. In several sections it looks like the work was designed to be a novice's introduction to sabermetric principles using the 2005 Bosox campaign as a backdrop. That would have been a great idea and it works when they do it. At other times it looks like a way to promote BP's special sauce, the core set of signature stats they use such as VORP and MLVr and WXRL, the ones the community identifies as theirs. That would have been an interesting idea, and it generally works when they do that, although some of the explanations will be over the heads of readers who haven't marinated themselves in statistical analysis before. There are other essays that fit neither model. The work's varying foundations don't undo its value, but it seems like an opportunity lost, an opportunity to pick out one of those approaches and make a work that would be an all-time classic.

The chapters include some total jewels, brain candy of the first order:

  • Goldman's chapter on the history of the Red Sox between the Series wins, The Banality of Incompetence 1919-2002, is a superb short history, written with the author's usual incomparable style and original insight.
  • The chapter on relief pitching, contrasting the Sox' pen with the Yankees' is both solid writing and interesting research, as penned by Derek Zumsteg, and it's brightly complemented by Dave Pease's long sidebar on Calvin Schiraldi and one-year reliever fluke seasons.
  • Deconstructing Pedro, Jay Jaffe's lively recounting of the Boston ace's mano-a-tetes with the Yankees (or was that Don Zimmer's steel plate?) documents the reality that can so easily get buried in feature-writers' tsunami of vapidity.
  • Will Carroll's gristly explication on the medical condition that brought Curt Schilling down and the experimental procedure that brought him back for a little is great writing of Stephen Jay Gould quality: it explains things we don't know and probably never imagined wanting to know about in minute detail and is completely gripping.

The lessons for managers outside baseball are not made explicit (that's not the BP guys' mission). There are two chapters that are dense with lessons, the Goldman chapter on the Sox' history, and Shopping for Winners, a solid Jonah Keri & Chris Kahrl exploration of how the Sox and Yanks put their teams together. There are many small pieces loosely joined across the book you might synthesize into ideas of your own. But there's not one single place where they put together all the elements the front office used to craft this blueprint for winning the way they focus a chapter on defense or relief pitching.

I think if you either like data analysis or you want to like it, you'll find Mind Game an absorbing & stimulating read. It the numbers turn you off, there are significant parts of the book you'll enjoy anyway for the personality and Red Sox history. Along with the goofy book about Tony LaRussa, Three Nights in August, this is one of the two most informative baseball books of the last year. Like the Sox, it's a winner.

It's available from booksellers.

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