Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster 2009

Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster 2009

Let the record show that I am not a fantasy baseball participant: I have only participated in one such league, and it was a season long home run derby. I think I finished third or fourth, if it’s of any consequence to you. I’ve only participated in one other fantasy venture – a hockey league that I drafted my players and promptly forgot about it. I don’t even know where I stand in that league.

While I don’t participate in fantasy sports, I certainly appreciate the analysis and insight that those who do have brought to the table for discussion. When you are serious about the league you are playing in, and by serious I mean willing to put money out on your predictions, you want the best information as possible.

That is what Ron Shandler and his crew are trying to deliver, and is what they once again succeed at doing, of course with the all important disclaimers.

When I spoke with Mr. Shandler last year about his 22nd edition, he was careful to remind all of us that right now, the best projection systems are only able to achieve about 70% accuracy. That number is still in effect with the 23rd edition, so bear in mind that there is still a fairly large amount of space that can’t be nailed down.

Along with that, it’s tough to be critical of the projections that the book puts forth because we won’t know their accuracy until after the season, which isn’t the best time to put out a review of a book such as this. So I’m leaving the projection side alone, and focusing on the commentary and analysis portions of the book, which I find to be the real juicy parts and the ones that almost any fan can get into, regardless of whether or not they participate in fantasy baseball.

Ron Shandler

For me, the first 50 pages of the 271 in the book are where the goodies lie – Shandler and his contributors do a remarkable job explaining their thoughts and strategies in a way that makes it easy to understand and gives the reader an understanding of the trends that shape player performance and valuation.

If anything, the book is brutally honest – case in point, The Gravity Principles, mentioned on page 23, which basically state that it is incredibly hard to be good, and that all levels of success are susceptible to disappearing at any time. Likewise, it’s much harder to get yourself out of a slump than it is to maintain a level of success.

The Baseball Forecaster also establishes age and performance markers that help you really see if a prospect or player is worth picking up or not. Having crunched the data on thousands of players over many, many years, they have developed a fairly accurate way to look at a player and see what he might be capable of. Again, by no means a definitive set of criteria, but something that does provide a guide tempered by historical research.

As I read the book, I began feeling that I could make the argument that this is as much a life philosophy title as it is a baseball book focusing on fantasy projections. It strips down the task of trying to predict player performance to looking at “component skills analysis,” a much easier thing to wrap your head around.

Which is why I enjoy the book so much – while it deals in statistics and projections, it maintains a level of approachability that other books don’t. It also manages to throw in a good amount of humor – some laugh out loud funny, some not – but it manages to keep the book from getting too heavy. Instead of just being page after page of numbers, it helps you look at the traits a player exhibits, both good and bad, and how that fits into his makeup and thus affects his performance.

Using a good amount of well-known players as examples, they clarify the concepts even further, something that will be appreciated by those both familiar with fantasy baseball and those just wanting a better understanding of how players get valued for what they bring to the park everyday.

The Baseball Forecaster 2009 presents the opportunity for any fan who wants to better understand the performance side of baseball to do just that, and in a format that should keep you engaged while not bogging you down with too many numbers. Not to say that there aren’t a good amount of stats and terms put forth – but think of it like this: remember when you had to take a class in college that was taught by several professors? You’d ask your friends which professor made the material more enjoyable, and you tried to get his or her class. The same goes with this – Professor Shandler and his book make player valuation an approachable subject for those who might otherwise be intimidated by it, while keeping his credibility with his upper-level students who want more information and knowledge.

Shandler asks you to leave antiquated statistics like ERA and batting average behind in favor of looking at performance rates – but he doesn’t expect you to make the jump on your own. The explanation for his requests are always present, and his rationale is clear. If you’re still looking at the scoreboard to see what a guy is hitting or how many wins the starting pitcher has, this will be a bit of a departure for you, but the net is never taken away; you’re just reminded why you won’t need it.

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The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009

The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009

Here we are mired in the middle of the off-season, constantly checking our team’s pots and pans on the Hot Stove to see if anything is cooking, done, or in some cases, smells fishy.

While players are only a few weeks away from reporting to Spring Training and are undoubtedly hard at work in the weight room, baseball fans who think that there is more to baseball than what h-appens in between $8 beers and wiping your kid’s nose will want to check out The Hardball Times’ Baseball Annual 2009.

It’s not fair to compare this to say, the Bill James Handbook, but it is crafted in the same vain – trying to provide analysis of the game that will give everyone from MLB executives to fans new and improved metrics by which to evaluate players and their performance.

What is different about this from James’ book is simply the sheer volume of text. I like to consider myself a fairly quick reader, and this seemed to take me quite a while to get through – and don’t even think of jumping into it without having had a stiff cup of coffee prior and eliminating any and all distractions and interruptions. This is some serious heavy lifting.

But that’s not all bad provided you’re up for the task of taking it on. There are articles that will have more relevance to you than others – depending on how much you want to read about your favorite team versus other teams, or take on topics such as Mike Piazza’s career numbers and his Hall of Fame credentials, or an in-depth look at Pat Gillick, former GM of the Phillies, Blue Jays and Mariners.

The bottom line here is that if you read the book – or even just parts of it, you will learn something, which is something I require of almost every book that crosses my path in order to get a recommendation. There is a wealth of information and insight in its 380 pages – some might even say there is too much, or at least too much for one sitting. This is closer to the equivalent of a college course than a day read, if you ask me. Just be glad they don’t require quizzes and a final exam at the end of it.

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Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball: A History – by Joel S. Franks

Ichiro, Dice-K, Matsui, Okajima, Nomo – all names that most baseball fans are well aware of, and all names that come from Japan.

But the history of players with Asian ancestry goes much farther and deeper than just those who we see on the big league diamond today, which is the jumping off point for Joel S. Franks’ new work, Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball: A History from McFarland Publishing.

Franks takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of baseball in the Pacific Islands, pre-statehood Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, the Phillipines, as well as China, Japan and other Asian countries. Baseball found roots in numerous places throughout the Pacific Rim, and the book does a thorough job finding different footholds that baseball took root in. Whether it was internment camps, military bases, high schools, or other situations, the spread of baseball across the Pacific Ocean is a pretty remarkable story, and certainly a tough one to chronicle.

Franks takes on the task admirably – he uses a solid mix of newspaper and magazine articles, interviews, and other historical records to piece together a history of baseball in the Pacific Rim.

However, it is this area that sparks my one gripe about the book – it was hard for me not to get buried under the mountain of information that Franks offers. At times I felt like keeping track of all the names, places and accomplishments got to be a bit much. You might have the same experience – or if you’re more adept at keeping track of those kinds of things, you might have a much better experience.

Certainly to bring together over 100 years of baseball history in a region to which is was not native and which only resulted in select players assimilating into American organized baseball is a tough task to undertake. Franks has compiled a tremendous amount of information – some of which has already come in handy in recent discussions – his book will certainly be a tremendous resource for those who will further research in this area. However I think that the majority of readers would get a tremendous amount more from this book if it were to be slightly reorganized to help the readers see the connection to modern the modern day game.

Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball is a remarkable resource for those readers who want to get a much deeper look into the people that played baseball and the various places that the game developed.

The book is available for purchase via www.mcfarlandpub.com or by calling 800-253-2187.

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The Portland Sea Dogs by Wendy Sotos

As part of their ‘Images of Baseball” series, Arcadia Publishing presents The Portland Sea Dogs, authored by Wendy Sotos.

This 127-page look at the history of the team that returned baseball to the state of Maine in 1994 is a photographic tour of the people, players, and ballpark that has become one of Minor League Baseball’s most successful franchises. Unfortunately the pictures are all black-and-white, which does leave some of the vividness of the story out.

Sotos took this compilation of phots and added text to highlight some of the many players that have come through this double-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins from its inception until 2002, and the Boston Red Sox from 2003 until the present.

An interesting read for those seeking an analysis of this particular club, or for those from the Portland area.

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Red Sox Rule by Michael Holley

(I’m catching up on some books that came out in 2008 that I wasn’t able to get to during the regular season…a bit shorter review than normal, but hopefully enough to give you some insight to the book.)

Without question, the Red Sox have been one of the most dominant teams in the past five years, which is coincidentally when Terry Francona took over as manager. Brought to Beantown following the Grady Little incident in the 2003 ALCS, he has managed to step into the fire of Red Sox Nation without burning his feet.

Michael Holley is quick to recognize the apparent connection of Francona’s arrival and the success of the Red Sox, and offers 202 pages on the man who has been at the healm of the club since 2004.

This is a good read for Red Sox fans looking to learn a bit more about Francona, both on and off the field. Like many, he’s taken an interesting route to get where he is, and like most, it hasn’t been a straight or easy path to the manager’s chair. Having met Francona on several occasions, I wouldn’t say he’s the most dynamic fellow I’ve ever come across, and the book didn’t do anything to change my opinion of him. It provides quite a bit of information on him that I didn’t know before, but given that he’s 3,000 miles away from me, its immediate relevance is a bit tougher to discern.

For non-Red Sox fans, such as myself, the insight into Francona may be a bit more than most folks would like to spend 200 pages on. He’s a darn good manager, but it’s more of a biopic as opposed to a strategy book, although there are some nuggets scattered throughout about how he approaches the game from a strategic sense. You might read this and end up really liking Francona…or you might get to the end and say to yourself, “ok, nice story – now what?”

By no means is Red Sox Rule a bad read – I’d just want to know your interest in the subject matter before giving it a whole-hearted recommendation. If you cheer for the Red Sox, read it – you’ll enjoy it. If you’re not a Red Sox fan, proceed at your own risk — I can’t guarantee you’ll get that into it.

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Fans of the World Unite! A (Capitalist) Manifesto for Sports Consumers – by Stephen F. Ross and Stefan Szymanski

What better day than Election Day to talk about a book calling for an uprising of sports fans and a major reform of the four major sports leagues in the United States?

Thus we have Fans of the World Unite! by Stephen F. Ross and Stefan Szymanski, and published by Stanford University Press.

Now while this isn’t a baseball book per se, I thought I’d take a look at it for two reasons — it’s the off-season and I have a bit more time on my hands, and it does provide a pretty engaging critique of the setup of Major League Baseball and how fans are adversely affected by its structure and policies, which are ultimately intended to protect and profit the owners.

The premise of the book is fairly simple – the major professional sports (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL) are setup in such a way that encourages and rewards monopolistic behavior while ultimately hanging fans out to dry by limiting their choice while exploiting the relationship that fans have with their favorite sports teams.

To remedy this problem, Ross and Szymanski propose a two-pronged approach that would more or less turn the current American leagues upside down.

Using NASCAR and the international soccer leagues as examples, the authors propose that the leagues be reworked with a clear separation between league orgazniers and ownership while instilling a promotion and relegation system that rewards accomplishment and punishes failure.

The first piece would require each league to have a governing body that is completely separate from the teams and owners, similar to how NASCAR is structured. It would be their responsibility to maintain the health of the league, through marketing, broadcasting, competitive balance and opportunity, scheduling and playoff management, and so forth. There would be a person ultimately accountable for the well-being of the organization who would have both ultimate responsibility and ultimate jurisdiction.

The second piece would bring merit based participation into the fold – in other words, if you want to be a Major League team, you had better play like it, otherwise you’ll be demoted to a minor league. This system is already in place in international soccer leagues, and the authors argue that it would work well in the United States as well, by providing the ultimate motivation for a team to succeed and invest in their players and coaches.

Certainly approaches to sport that, while not new in practice, would represent a major change in the way the major sports operate in the United States.

The authors argue that such a change would result would in a reduction in the power that owners have when it comes to corporate welfare. With an increase in teams and a reduction in the exclusivity of having a team that could compete at the Major League level, owners would be forced to shoulder more of the load themselves. No longer would be cries of “I’m moving this team to (fill in the blank) unless I get a new stadium paid for with tax dollars!” be tolerated because odds are that city would already have a team.

Ross and Szymanski reveal and highlight the leverage that professional sports teams have been allowed to have under the current setup, and that is where they find fans over the proverbial barrel. If you want to be a sports fan you have to play by their rules – and that means watching the teams the league has decided to put on TV, accepting blackouts of your favorite team’s games unless certain conditions are met, tolerating and even encouraging teams not to get better by rewarding poor performance, and so on.

Before I started reading Fans of the World, Unite!, I was sincerely thinking this was going to be a rallying cry along the lines of “no new taxes!” or “bring the troops home!” — something that would be able to be distilled down so much that it would fit on a button, or a 3’x5′ picket sign and would be something that would be marched in front of stadia and arenas around the country.

Would it be a chronicle on injustices brought on fans by professional sports teams? Price-gouging, baiting and switching, hoodwinking? Would I be fired up after reading it and march down to my local teams’ offices and demand change?

No.

Rather, the authors bring a much more academic approach; Ross is a Professor of Law at Penn State and Szymanski is the MBA Dean and Professor of Economics at London’s City University. Both readily admit to writing the book from the ivory tower of academia – and while it’s not written at a level unreadable to most folks, you will definitely be invited to think and analyze the problem at hand as the authors see it. Processing the book left me feeling like I had been involved in a trial, listening to the prosecution make its case. Given that it’s Election Day and I’ve been listening to countless ads and reading propositions and ballot measures, this does fall in line with that in a certain way.

And while those ballot measures are interesting in their own way and I care about them on behalf of my civic duties, this was something that appealed to my recreational side.

At 184 pages of text, the authors keep their argument succinct, which keeps the book moving along and the reader engaged in the work. An interested reader could easily finish this in a day, while a more casual pace should allow this to be completed in a week or so.

The question that remains though, is: what now?

Assuming you read the book and agree with the changes the authors are calling for, how do we make that happen? Ross and Szymanski provide several scenarios in the final chapter, including one for fan revolt. While I could see them happening under the right conditions, I just don’t see those right conditions among us. The NFL continues to basically print money and MLB is on an upward trend, even though attendance was flat from 2007 to 2008.

The old saying of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” certainly comes to mind when thinking about the situation. It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen…I’m just thinking something will have to fall apart before it can be put back together in the way that the authors suggest. While we do live in a fast-paced society where things can happen fairly quickly, there are a lot of things that are too firmly rooted in place to make these changes feasible.

But that doesn’t mean their ideas are bad. If anything, their ideas are very good and should be read by more and more fans across all sports. The authors readily admit that the fan-driven scenario is the most hopeful, with fans demanding a political course of action and involving their elected officials. So how do we make that happen?

Maybe the authors need to launch this campaign with the tools of change – buttons,  bumper stickers, signs you can put in your window, t-shirts, and celebrity endorsements. Put someone in the spotlight – develop a website and make it easy to take fans from indecision to action. They’ve already explained the why, I wonder if Ross and Szymanski will follow up with the how?

Fans of the World, Unite might just be slightly ahead of its time, but it’s a book that merits reading and consideration, and as I’m sure the authors would hope, action on the part of the reader.

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All you need to know today.

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