02 April 2018

Book Review: Russell Carleton's The Shift

About ten percent of living an adventurous life is living that adventurous life with the remaining ninety percent relying on the ability to convey how adventurous that life really is.  One of my friends, Richard, is incredibly fascinating.  He grew up in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain.  He found himself in a tiny coastal Japanese village teaching English after college.  From there, he quickly earned a law degree and then sort of just globe-trotted to all sorts of destinations to teach a little English, dig a few wells, and whatever else was needed.  Richard has experienced amazing natural and human phenomena, but you need to spend hours and hours with him to figure any of it out because he is completely unable to tell you about it in any interesting way.

Richard really does not know what is actually interesting to share.  He will discuss rather mundane aspects of going to a grocery in Tanzania and completely glossing over running into a band of rebels while he was in Senegal doing work with primates.  His stories have no sense of urgency or trepidation.  Things just happen.  Things resolve themselves.  Nothing ever appears to be at stake.  It is fascinatingly frustrating.

I am reminded of Richard when I read Russell Carleton's offering, The Shift: the Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking.  There is a great story in there, but I do not think he quite knows how to tell it.  Willfully, his analytical approach in the book is light on numbers.  In order to reach out to those who have yet to incorporate data science into their baseball appreciation, a soft approach can be useful.

This increases the difficulty for Carleton.  If you are familiar with his work, you can readily find it at Baseball Prospectus and other places around the internet.  He is a stunningly good analyst.  Carleton is comfortable with numbers, he is comfortable with merging different kinds of research together, and he is comfortable with uncertainty.  He has done incredible work and tackles great questions.  Carleton's online writing sets up his exploratory data science efforts well and the data move forward on their own to drive the stories he tells.  By stripping that away in the book, it removes familiar aspects of his writing and replaces them with what I largely would refer to as language akin to a therapeutic intervention.  While the statements are definitive, they are carefully brought along and padded well in order to try to keep the audience as open-minded as possible and accepting of the journey.

In The Shift, Carleton takes the guise similar to a friendly counselor.  He is there to help guide your journey and uses very infrequent and quite gentle tongue-in-cheek condescension to seemingly establish that he knows what he is communicating to the reader.  It is a style that feels somewhat familiar to me.  My parents, though educated decades before, carry a similar demeanor and I figure it might well be related to their and Carleton's experience in child psychology.  There are gentle rebukes.  There are gentle statements.  There is a lot of hand holding.  The whole process is to move the audience in a direction deliberately, yet not quickly enough to cause anyone to plant their heels firmly onto the ground and refuse to budge.  I would be surprised if anyone threw a tantrum or locked down while reading this book, which is a compliment.  Other writers do not play as nice.

There are actually quite a few introductory data science books you can read with quite varying styles and I will note a few.  Keith Law, for instance, is the crown prince of sarcasm and other barbs.  Ben Lindbergh casts himself often as a babe in the woods who invites you to come and explore with him.  Jonah Keri's several works are done up in a cheerleading style whether the focus is on the Tampa Bay Rays or the Montreal Expos.  Jeff Passan's brand is one of a comrade-in-arms with the players he writes about. The father of this sort of work would be Michael Lewis in his smartest-man-in-the-room-let's-contort-these-facts-into-a-narrative approach.  Pretty much, there is a writer for whoever reaches your soul best.

So, there is merit in what Carleton is doing.  He has found an entry point into what has become a crowded baseball data science field that no one has covered.  In there, he creates a safe sandbox that is light on judgment and filled with muted lights.  For those left unconverted by the existing offerings, this is probably the approach to take to court the rest of the willing.  However, the style falls short for me as it probably should as I am already in the flock.  The examples Carleton provides use minimal data and so the points they address remain vague and abstract.  The slow pacing to bring a doubting mind into the fold is slow and can last for pages with conclusions that come succinctly without much gravity.  The argument is almost wholly in the journey and less so in the destination.

The exploration of baseball data science is half the book.  The half is spaced with personal asides from Carleton on the things he has learned over the course of his life.  The challenges he faces with telling a story about data without much data echo in these sections as he tells stories about his life without telling you much about his life.  His personal story largely is without much introspection or the process toward personal growth.  Carleton's story is largely without adversity.  The greatest adversity that Carleton speaks in detail about is when he watches an Indians game which leaves him exhausted for his flight to see his girlfriend in Atlanta who kindly lets him sleep that afternoon.  The greatest adversity he barely mentions is him effectively ending his career as a therapist.  For someone who offers a process or solutions in how the game of baseball is evolving, he appears reluctant to provide any of that concept to his own personal experiences.  It is a wonder why the stories are actually there.

Carleton largely speaks of a blessed life where things just happen without much consequence.  There is no order.  There is no teasing apart of the world.  The audience is often told to simply accept his word.  For instance, a story is set up about gossipy tales from his father's parking lot business over dinner.  It is a nightly affair, but the stories expressed are in only the broadest of strokes.

His Al Capone's vault style of story telling includes an amazingly improbable run in with a future baseball executive.  It is perhaps the least interesting two ships passing in the night story I have ever heard.  It is a long setup about Carleton looking for colleges and winds up settling down at a school where he eventually goes.  There he runs into an admissions officer who happens to be Jed Hoyer.  Carleton notes how they talked about baseball and wanting to be in baseball.  I am not leaving out any specifics there.  That is it.

His writings about his family bring across everyone as quite lovely and wonderful people without any of the details to explain why.  Carleton is quite smitten with his wife.  That is wonderful.  Carleton calls her the most interesting person he has ever met.  I believe that he holds that as a conviction even though that statement is one offered for us only to be taken upon on faith.  He provides us no stories about her.  He does not try to explain what mesmerizes him.  He keeps us at arm's length.  We are only invited to the sidewalk to peer into their home from across the front lawn.  We have the outcome, but none of the inner mechanics.  The personal stories run so counter to the data science stories.

And so when I finished the book, it felt so much like a sandbox.  Lines were drawn, but they did not carry much definition and they were too easily lost.  The author spoke from his heart and communicated personally, yet what information was I really left with that I had not already possessed before?  Perhaps the intent is to provide a path for the journey devoid of specifics so that we are free, without being led, to provide our own ideas and thoughts along the way.  A kind of therapeutic intervention for those who fear putting a measurement (or a kind of measurement) into a conversation about baseball.

I think it would be fair to say I really wanted to like this book.  Carleton's writing and research is absolutely wonderful and I suggest everyone to read everything he puts on your computer screen.  This effort... I think there is an audience that would greatly appreciate and connect with it.  I do not know who that audience is.


The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking
by Russell Carleton
Triumph Books
368 pg

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