In the spring some hearts still turn to baseball, and publishers respond. Chris Ballard’s One Shot at Forever (Hyperion, 2012) is a sweet, Hoosiers-type story of how a small-town, high-school baseball team made it to the 1971 Illinois high-school championship game. George Will’s A Nice Little Place on the North Side (Crown, 2014) is a nice little book, but by the end of it I was ready for books that recognize original sin and not just lovable quirks.
I got that in two books by Dirk Hayhurst, who was on his way to a major league career when he hurt his pitching arm. His Out of My League and Bigger Than the Game (Citadel Press 2012 and 2014) are the best inside-the-locker-room books I’ve seen. They show, with verve and humor, what the contemporary pro baseball world is like. Hayhurst’s realism also means that although he professes faith in Christ and writes of his own virginity until marriage, he reports the f-laden language and adulterous striving epidemic among bantering non-Christian athletes.
For those who want just the facts, ma’am, the 25th anniversary edition of The Bill James Handbook (ACTA, 2013) is essential. James revolutionized the use and abuse of baseball statistics a quarter-century ago. He went beyond batting average to OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages). He went beyond won-loss records to WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched). He went beyond other conventional measures to the esoterica that bred a new intellectual discipline and organization, sabermetrics (derived from the acronym SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research).
I still have the early James handbooks, so it’s fun to note the success of one American dream by seeing how far James has come. He now gives out his own awards for fielding prowess based on Defensive Runs Saved. His player-by-player statistical summaries include how to pronounce names (Yasmani Grandal is yaz-MON-ee gran-DAHL). But the most interesting part remains James’ take on timeless questions of baseball philosophy: His stats show that “Throwing Strikes is more important to the success of a major league pitcher than Having a Swing-and-Miss Pitch,” and the Ground Ball Rate is irrelevant to success as a pitcher.
Those seeking not only information about last year’s major league season but predictions of the future may go all the way to Rob Gordon and Jeremy Deloney’s Minor League Baseball Analyst (Triumph, 2014). It includes extensive stats of high potential minor leaguers (for example, we can learn about “catcher pop times,” i.e. how long it takes from the time a pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the time a middle infielder receives the ball at second base). It also gives players’ “upside potential” plus a rating on their probability of reaching that potential. I’m skeptical, since many phenoms self-destruct or suffer injury—but fortunetellers of the world, unite.
Encounter Books continues to publish a series of 50-page-or-so “broadside” books of policy and cultural analysis. I found particularly valuable The K-12 Implosion by Glenn Reynolds and What Doomed Detroit? by Kevin Williamson. (His short answer: “a combination of racialist politics and union self-dealing.”) Another broadside, Richard Epstein’s Why Progressive Institutions Are Unsustainable, gives a trenchant analysis of why America is heading to economic disaster unless we have a great reversal.
I’ll quote just a bit of Epstein’s analysis: He writes that the progressive agenda requires “extensive and counterproductive programs of redistribution that cannot be supported by a stagnant economy and a shrinking productive wealth base. As that base gets smaller, the demand for a stronger safety net induces yet another round of transfer payment.” That hurts productivity and fosters unemployment, which leads to “fervent calls to create a stronger safety net,” which leads to more economic weakness, then a bigger safety net, and down we go. —M.O.