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Book Review: "Behind-the-Scenes Baseball"

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Baseball statheads of the world, rejoice. Here is a book just for you.

"Behind-the-Scenes Baseball" is written by Doug Decatur, who has been a stat consultant for several teams, including the Cubs, over the last fifteen years.

As most of you know, statistical analysis isn't my thing. That's not to say I don't know what OPS, the Pythagorean Formula, the Law of Competitive Balance, etc. are, because I have read all of Bill James' books. One of the things that people forget, since James has been out of the business of writing baseball annuals for more than a decade, is that James is a wonderful writer in addition to being a wonderful statistician, and is able to thus explain his statistical formulas so well. That, to me, is the primary reason that sabermetrics found such a wide audience -- not strictly because they make sense, which they do, but because James was able to explain WHY they make sense.

The book is divided into three sections. The first contains some anecdotes about Decatur's attempts to get into baseball, and then his life within the game, which at times resulted in his statistical methods having goofy effects on ballclubs. Consider, for example, this story he tells about the woeful 1994 Cubs, and in particular, pitching coach Moe Drabowsky:

Drabowsky had come up with a chart for the Cubs' bullpen that used different colored stickers to signify the status of the pitchers: one color if a pitcher had just warmed up in a game, and others for outings of different lengths and/or pitch counts.

At one point we were in Atlanta to start a three-game series. [Manager Tom] Trebelhorn and I were going over my statistics scouting report on the Braves when Drabowsky came in wanting a place to set up his chart where his bullpen could see it. Trebelhorn wanted it some place they couldn't to avoid any grief from the pitchers. Drabowsky started to unfold and set up his chart right in the middle of the office, but Trebelhorn suggested Drabowsky set it up in an adjoining room -- the manager's office bathroom. Drabowsky tried to resist, but Trebelhorn insisted that was the best place for it. So, disappointedly, Drabowsky set up shop in the bathroom.

A few minutes later, the Cubs' rubber arm reliever Jose Bautista came walking into Trebelhorn's office holding his arm, saying, "I no can pitch." "Why not?" Drabowsky demanded. Bautista replied, "I no can pitch." And then, referring to the now infamous chart and stickers, said, "I have two reds, a green, a blue and a yellow. I no can pitch." Drabowsky then tried to go through game by game with Bautista to figure out what colors he did have. Bautista would ward off every explanation from Drabowsky with a shake of the head and a "I no can pitch". He proceeded to argue the color of each outing with Drabowsky and finally summed it all up by flatly stating, "Too many colors. I no can pitch." It became painfully obvious to Trebelhorn and me that Bautista was doing and saying whatever he could just to mess with Drabowsky, who took his colors and chart very seriously. Drabowsky stomped out to the bathroom to look at his chart. He came yelling back at Bautista that all he had in the last five days was one yellow. To that Bautista replied, "Oh, OK. One color. I pitch." At this point Drabowsky said, "That's exactly why we need the chart right in here where everyone can see it."

There are other funny stories -- including another one about Bautista that you should get the book to read, and the final section of the book is a look at the 36-10 run that the Astros made in 2004, leading them to the playoffs over the Cubs. I'm sure I don't need to remind you how that happened, but Decatur makes a point of mentioning how the Steve Stone incidents began, as Stone kept saying each time the Cubs lost one of those late-August games at Wrigley Field to the Astros, "all the Cubs needed was to win one of those games", and they might have put the Astros away, which led to all the Dusty Baker-inspired comments about how "negative" Stone had been. This is a good reminder of where and by whom the germination of the seed of Stone's departure was planted, and perhaps with the sea changes going on in the Cubs' front office and on the field now, perhaps the way is also being paved for Stone's return.

The middle section of the book is titled "The GM IQ Test", and it contains multiple-choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, and essay-style questions that, in theory, will tell you how "in tune" with the way modern-day GM's think. Decatur says that he gave this test to Astros manager Phil Garner, and Garner scored 97%. Many of the questions are answered by studies done in various Bill James books, or by Baseball Prospectus.

I took it -- and didn't cheat -- and scored 72%, which I thought was pretty good, considering, as I've said, that stat stuff really isn't my thing. According to the scoring scale, 70-80% makes you a "Major League Coach" (Over 90 is a GM, 80-90 a major league manager, 60-70 a minor league manager. Read the book to find out what you are if you score less than 60%!). I'd love to put this test to Jim Hendry.

This is an entertaining read, and reminds us that while statistical analysis is key to putting together a winning team in modern baseball, that baseball is still a game and a business played and managed by human beings who also have to get along with each other -- as shown in the Bautista anecdote above. Fun and enjoyable, a good off-season book.