June 26, 2003
One of the more common themes running through my inbox this spring was Michael Lewis' book, Moneyball, about the Oakland A's and their approach to building a winning baseball team. I read it in in two sittings, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. The chapter detailing the conversation between the A's scouts and their front office in advance of the 2002 draft was some of the most entertaining baseball copy I've read in years.
I never did write a column about the book, however, largely because I thought everything there was to say about it was said by others. In addition, the interviews Will Carroll did with Lewis and Billy Beane for Baseball Prospectus Radio provided the most interesting angle on the book that BP could supply.
So the standard answer I developed for people asking me about Moneyball was this: I enjoyed it, but it was neither the best Michael Lewis book I read this spring, nor the best baseball book. On a friend's recommendation, I picked up Lewis' Liar's Poker, his book about his experiences at Salomon Brothers in the mid-1980s. It was more personal, more entertaining, and more educational than Moneyball, although some of that is due to my being less familiar with bond trading than with shortstop trading.
The best baseball book I read this spring, though, was Paths to Glory, by Mark Armour and Dan Levitt. Now, I'm not a baseball history guy. It's the weakest part of my knowledge base, and while I'm not hostile towards it the way, say, a Fox executive is, it's just not the area of the game where I've focused my learning. So when I come across a book that presents the game's history in a manner both interesting and educational, like Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract or Baseball Dynasties by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein, it's easy for me to get lost in it. I'd put Paths to Glory in the same league with those books.
The book examines the construction and evolution of 13 great and near-great teams in baseball history, stretching from the 1899 Brooklyn Superbas through the Braves of the 1990s. For each team, Armour and Levitt describe how the team was assembled, what made them better than their peers, and how they fell from their perch. It's a bit like reading a Transaction Analysis for some of the most interesting teams in baseball history, and like TA, the book goes beyond the standard explanations for why things happened. Armour and Levitt challenge the conventional wisdom on many issues:
Armour and Levitt are well-versed in both history and sabermetrics, and the latter is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. Runs Created, park-adjusted statistics, Defensive Efficiency Rating and other advanced tools find their way into the pages, and are explained in detailed appendices. Just as James and Neyer do so well, Armour and Levitt fold the statistical arguments into the text ones in a way that enhances the book's flow.
At the end of the book, Armour and Levitt distill what they've learned in their studies into six points, and conclude:
"[T]he development and maintenance of good baseball teams is not random...The team that recognizes its environment, understands the principles of team construction, and makes good decisions, can compete at the highest level for many years."
I seriously doubt that's going to end up in needlepoint and hanging on the wall at 350 Park Avenue, but it's an essential truth of baseball. Teams control their own destiny, and well-run ones find their way to the top and stay there.
In addition to the 13 team chapters, the authors address topics such as the development of relief pitching, career paths, and the translation of minor-league statistics. Nothing in this book has a tossed-off, filler feel to it: the extra chapters and the sidebars are all well-researched, well-written, and filled with interesting conclusions. The mini-biographies on players such as Gavvy Cravath, Hoyt Wilhelm and Vern Stephens were among my favorite parts of the book.
That's the thing about Paths to Glory: it does so many things well. It tells stories, it makes well-crafted sabermetric arguments, and it educates. It's simply an excellent book, one that can be both enjoyed and studied. I've done both over the last week or so, and I know it's going to be a book I go back to again and again.