This week, even earlier than usual, the Baseball Prospectus 2014 annual hits bookstores. (The copy I pre-ordered from Amazon actually arrived at my house today.)
In part as a response to reaction to last year's edition, the book has been changed up a little bit this year. The team chapters are bylined -- with contributions from outside authors, including myself and Sports On Earth's own Emma Span (Cardinals and Mets, respectively) -- and the player comments are a little pointed and more biting. It's also just livelier: It pops off the page in a way some of the last few annuals haven't.
In many ways, it feels like old-school Baseball Prospectus, back when the whole group was run by outsiders -- before many of them became insiders, part of the game itself. I loved last year's book, like I love every copy of the annual, but I love this one even more because it sort of feels like 2005-era B-Pro. You can read it front-to-back, and even though it's still invaluable as a reference book, the writing (other than the Cardinals chapter, anyway) is as sharp as the insights. It remains the best baseball annual ever made, and this year it's even better.
To get a more solid feel for what they were up to, I talked to the book's editors, Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski, about what they kept in this year's edition, what they changed, and where Baseball Prospectus stands in the year 2014.
Oh, and buy the book here.
WL: So you've made some big changes with the whole organization of the book this year. It feels different than the last few years: It feels less like a "season preview" than an examination of the franchises the way the book used to be. It's sharper than the last few years, wittier … maybe a little more cutting. Why did you decide to change up the formula?
Jason: Simple hero worship on my end. I started reading BP about 15 years ago, when the website was basically just a haven for a bunch of people who'd been yelling for years on rec.sport.baseball. Sheehan, Kahrl, Law, Jazayerli, Zumsteg, Huckabay, and I'm leaving people out -- they were extraordinarily influential on my understanding of what baseball analysis and writing was. In particular, they were not afraid to be harsh and they enjoyed being funny. We're in a happier place these days, as the Murray Chasses and Ruben Amaros dwindle, so the harshness has become unnecessary to the point where its use can feel gauche, but I still want to laugh when I read about baseball, and sometimes the best way to be funny is to be a little cutting.
Sam: I don't know that it felt like we were changing the formula while we were working on it. We were just keenly aware that a lot of people (including me) read this book all the way through -- it's not just some reference book you pick up and flip through casually. Therefore it was important that it have energy and topography. Otherwise it can get sloggish. The whole goal, by the writers as well as in the editing, was to have each comment be unique and be a reason to want to keep reading.
For the first time, the authors of the individual team chapters are bylined. What was the mindset on making that move? How did you decide which outside contributors to go after?
Sam: Well, we couldn't really go with outside contributors without bylining them, I don't think, so I'm not sure which decision came first but they were inextricable.
We wanted to have the essays bylined because it's more fun to read something when you know who wrote it, and it's more fun to write something when you know you're going to get credit for it. Also, and this was the crucial admission behind both decisions: The essays had gotten stale and templated. I don't just mean in 2013, when the essays followed a literal template that absolutely nobody (in the end) really cared for. Even before that, they had moved away from the expansive, tangential essays that Jason and I loved so much in the old days -- where a team essay would actually turn into an excuse to conduct a deep study on the effects of new ballparks on payroll, for instance. As the years went on, the unbylined essay was getting more conservative, as uncredited writers dutifully mimicked a perceived house style.
So that sort of sucked. We wanted 30 essays that couldn't be mistaken for each other. We went after contributors who would represent different roles in the sport (one team's announcer, another team's Triple-A announcer, some beat writers, some outsiders, etc.) and who would write in dramatically different styles. It's really exciting to see how broad the approaches were; some that are extremely lyrical, some that are historical, some that are thickly mathematical, some that are strongly narrative, some that are insidery and well reported, some that are almost devastatingly incisive. They draw from different disciplines: economics, statistics, linguistics, business, etc.
I wrote last year that one of the reasons the book felt a little tamer was because Baseball Prospectus has become such a part of the baseball culture that there's less to criticize than there used to be: The people in charge read your book now, and therefore there a fewer punches to throw, and maybe more to pull. Do you agree?
Jason: I agree that there are fewer punches to throw. I'd like to think that we're not pulling any. But teams and outside analysts have certainly moved toward each other -- we don't yell at them about OBP anymore because they're paying for OBP, and we don't yell at them about failing to call up some muscle-bound Triple-A slugger because we've realized how important defense is. The balance is that while it's harder to be angry, it's easier to do analysis -- our stats are better than they were, we have PITCHf/x, and we have a more advanced understanding of what to do with these things.
What this amounts to is that the humor, the liveliness, the edge has to come from a different place than it used to. We can still analyze (perhaps more to explain than to criticize), but we have to find different ways to keep that analysis from being dry and rote. I don't think it's a coincidence that we've seen a rise of a sort of gentle ribbing and absurd humor in the online baseball community. Look at Lana Berry's Twitter feed, for instance. (She wrote our Rangers essay.) Lance Berkman twerking and pitchers making ridiculous faces mid-pitch and batters getting hit in the beans may not be for everybody, but I'll take it over righteous indignation.
What's the next step for you guys? Is there more to revolutionize? When you are assigning pieces for the site now, what's the main way you try to differentiate yourselves?
Sam: It's a good question that we probably don't spend enough time asking ourselves. The big ongoing thing is the establishment of what has essentially become a full scouting department, headed by Jason Parks and ever-growing. (Thanks to major-league teams' poaching of our guys, ever shrinking, too.) So we've got our own scouting guys putting eyes on every level of the sport from high school to the big leagues. Along those lines, we're generally present at a lot more things than we used to be; not just the scouting guys, but the handful of us who have BBWAA credentials. Our founder, Gary Huckabay, wrote a piece in 2007 in which he argued that baseball analysis is dead. I think we try to do analysis but also more than analysis; we want to be more like -- well, you know how when you get into something as a kid, like say you're really into the Ninja Turtles, you want to consume Ninja Turtles in every possible format? Video games, movies, cereal boxes, collectable stickers, action figures, fruit snacks, a hand-crafted bo that you made yourself out of an old broom handle, hand-to-hand combat with your Ninja Turtle-loving friends? We sort of want to cover baseball like that, for people who want to read about baseball like that.
How do you decide which people to put on the cover? I've always wondered this. Will you put Josh Phelps on there again, for old times sake?
Sam: Such a banal process. We sent about four emails back and forth, quickly suggesting players who were provocative and whose provocativeness we could capture in 12 words. That was it. Sorry!
Is there any particular essay from this year's book that jumps out as indicative of the book as a whole? (Excluding mine, of course.)
Jason: What jumps out to me is less one particular essay and more that we achieved the variety that we set out in search of. The distance between the essays in terms of tone and approach is probably bigger than it's ever been. As Sam said, we've got studies in the classic BP sense (Russell Carleton did math about the Rockies), beat writer insights (Andy McCullough on the A-Rod saga for the Yankees chapter), smart fans whose regular gig is not in the baseball-writing world (Matt Welch, who edits Reason, described where the Angels have gone awry), a complete slash-and-burn takedown of what is clearly the worst organization in the game (David Roth on the Marlins), and a couple of great pieces that I can't really summarize in a few words because the writers really ran with the near-total freedom we gave them (Ken Arneson on the A's; Jorge Arangure on the Nationals).
I loved the essays in the old Annuals, but I bought the book to read the comments. That's where the best jokes were, the best insights. This year, and I hope I don't come off like a snake-oil salesman, I think the publisher could accidentally ship you a book without any of the player comments and the book would still be worth the money.
Sam: Mike Curto wrote the Mariners' essay and his opening anecdote is pretty spectacular, and I like to think it captures the combination of insidery-plus-outsidery that we try for across the entire company. Tommy Bennett's essay, which has my favorite first sentence -- "Here's the argument: Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is as good a reason for reviving the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as I have heard." -- completely dismantles that front office's performance. Without overstepping at all, it recaptures that energy that we used to have when we ripped teams, before we learned to generally appreciate that most teams are pretty smart and they have big informational advantages on us.
Do you remember your first B-Pro book experience? Mine was loving someone -- it wasn't bylined, but I just know it had to be Sheehan -- just destroying Tony Womack.
Sam: Was that the one that went: "As a child, I might have believed that Tony Womack was a great leadoff man, but I learned to be skeptical at an early age. It was probably because I noticed that Cookie Monster never eats the cookies, despite making a lot of noise and carrying on. Tony Womack doesn't eat the cookies."
I don't remember my first experience. I remember riding my bike home from work during lunch breaks to see whether my 2005 Annual had arrived yet. I remember being in a two-person fantasy league with my best friend and hiding the book when he came over so that he wouldn't discover my secret weapon. I remember being totally convinced that Chad Orvella was going to be a star.
Jason: Weirdly, it's an essay for me. My 1999 through 2003 books are in storage, so I can't nail down when it was, but the Giants essay one year was a study suggesting that Dusty Baker might actually be helping old players hit better than you'd expect. It blew me away, in large part because the prevailing sabermetric narrative at the time was that you'd be better off with a computer in the dugout than a human manager.
Are you guys having events this year, like on the road, to promote the book?
Sam: Not sure yet, as far as book events go, but we have a number of ballpark events where, among other things, we'll arrange Q&As with various front office folks and watch a ballgame with you. A list that continues to be added to.
I have you here, so let's get a World Series pick.
Jason: A's over Braves. I'm a much better homer than I am an analyst.
Thank you. Thank you for everything. Take my hand, and know my gratitude.
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