Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Brooks on Books: Ahead of the Curve by Brian Kenny

Longtime ESPN/MLB Network personality Brian Kenny is often confrontational in his new book, Ahead of the Curve, but he does not attack individuals. He attempts to expose lazy analysis, using specific examples to lay out entertaining arguments against outdated conventional wisdom. Kenny's book is lively and entertaining throughout, and it never seems shrill nor unfair. Instead, it is a fun volume that ultimately stands for something more than it does against something--and what it supports is critical thinking.

It was particularly interesting to read Ahead of the Curve during this 2016 Major League Baseball postseason, when one of Kenny's big points--the benefits of revisiting bullpen usage--was being played out before a national audience as managers like Terry Francona summoned top relievers early in the game rather than waiting for traditional spots like the beginnings of late innings. This issue is a great example of what the book accomplishes--Kenny doesn't just try to persuade you that managing for the save stat (and holding your closer in reserve unless it's a save situation) is wrong. He demonstrates why using your best pitchers in high-leverage situations, even in the fifth inning, is optimal. If that isn't enough, Kenny also examines why so many managers DO refuse to use their best relief pitchers if it's not the ninth inning, showing the history of bullpen usage throughout baseball and how it changed.

Kenny does not just throw numbers at you, though he does use cogent advanced stats where they fit and explains them with clarity. He reaches back into the early days of the sport to show, for example, why pitching staffs were handled so differently then and why that traditional approach is no longer the best way. The result blends history and modern baseball with intelligent analysis, all with vivid real-life examples.  Although Kenny is sensitive to critiques of "statheads" ruining the game, he is not defensive; he anticipates common counterarguments and exposes them, often revealing that advanced sabermetrics helps the game rather than ruins it. Without modern analysis, many deserving players would be overlooked or perhaps not even get a chance because of our inherent human biases to certain physical types or things that our minds can see more easily.

Some of Kenny's big suggestions are: Throw away the win as a pitching statistic, ignore errors, deemphasize batting average. These ideas become more and more mainstream each season. Kenny also forecasts a day when  baseball teams are managed by committee, with the charismatic square-jawed traditional leader supplemented by specialists who focus on offense, defense, and other areas of the game.

My favorite chapters deconstruct MVP and Hall of Fame votes and make a case for reevaluating the way they are approached. Again, his ideas sound a lot less unconventional than they would have even 5 years ago, but Kenny's style is so lucid and--let me use this word again--entertaining that it will leave you thinking, "Yeah! Isn't this obvious?"

Kenny does not want you to think just like HE does, though. Quite the opposite--he wants baseball fans and especially sportswriters and analysts who are PAID to look at the sport to avoid groupthink. Ahead of the Curve makes an excellent case for rejecting old ways of looking at things, or at least for not continuing the same ways just because they have always been used.

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