15 February 2018

Book Review: Keith Law's Smart Baseball

We all can -- and should -- strive to learn something new. That's the main idea behind Keith Law's book, Smart Baseball.

The extended title of the book is Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball, and, well, that tells you plenty. Law undertakes the arduous task of explaining which traditional baseball statistics are misleading or not that informative (part one), and which numbers fans should be looking at instead (part two). Some chapters focus on topics like why batting average is flawed, why pitcher wins can be deceiving, and the issues with fielding percentage. Then, to close things out in part three, Law puts newer stats to use while painting a picture of what's next (including MLB Statcast and how scouting is changing).

If you've ever made your way to, say, the comments section under a MASNsports.com article, or maybe engaged in a debate about baseball on Twitter or *gasp* Facebook, then you know the number of fans who still rely on things like batting average, runs batted in, pitcher wins, and saves to win arguments about the value of current players. Because of the rise of sites like Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus, there aren't quite as many of those fans around, but there are still lots of them. And that's OK, because not everyone has to look at baseball the same way.

But for those fans who want to know more about the game and how to more approximately value what's happening on the field, this book is a tremendous help. For someone looking to simply jump headfirst into baseball analytics, I can't think of many better ways to get started. Even for those who already read lots of analytical writing about baseball, Law's work is still worthwhile and includes new ways to approach much-debated topics.

Law tackles complex subjects and breaks them down bit by bit, slowly adding to each part and showing you why things matter. Why is on-base percentage important? What the heck is WAR, wOBA, or wRC+, and why should you not avoid them? How do analysts even attempt to separate pitching and defense? What makes one fielder better than another, and what's the best way to measure that? Why is the clutch baseball player a myth? For those seeking to learn more about the game they love, Law's book is a quick and informative read.

The last line of the epilogue stuck with me: "Using the best knowledge we have right now while remembering that we may know a lot more in the future is the essence of Smart Baseball." There's always something else to learn, and that's especially true if you can't get enough baseball.


Smart Baseball
Keith Law
304 pages
William Morrow
Paperback available: March 13, 2018

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