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Book review: ‘Power Ball’

It’s not about the lottery. It’s about baseball and its future.

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Rob Neyer’s new book ‘Power Ball’ is about a single baseball game, played between the Athletics and Astros at Oakland on September 8, 2017. Inning by inning, Rob chronicles what happened in the game in detail, all the way up to... well, I won’t spoil the ending.

Except that’s not what this book is about at all. When situations come up in each inning, they spur a tangent that’s about how baseball is played, coached, managed and run in the latter part of the second decade of the 21st Century. From the height of players (an idea spurred by the presence in this game of the five-foot-six Jose Altuve) and how those players did and how that fits into the modern game, to the massive amount of shifting in today’s baseball, to the way front offices are constructed, to the way Statcast has influenced how both roster construction and game play happen today, to bat flips and bat manufacturing, to roster construction, to the use of starting pitching and bullpens, to how African-Americans have declined in numbers in MLB while the number of players from the Dominican Republic has soared, to attendance and how the stadium boom has affected that and TV viewing of games, Rob Neyer has put together a chronicle of just about everything that is part of baseball in 2018.

If it seems like a mishmash, it’s not. Rob’s prose, as you likely read while he worked at SB Nation as national baseball editor, is really accessible and these are the kinds of things you might, as a serious baseball fan, talk about with a fellow fan while watching a game and thinking about the way the game is played now as compared to what it was when you were younger.

About that comparison, Rob writes:

I just watched Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, and there was very little that didn’t seem perfectly modern. Aside from a player they called the Little Round Man, anyway. When my wife’s uncle Bruce tells me the stories about seeing Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers in Brooklyn, it’s not like trying to imagine Gettysburg or the Pony Express. I can relate to a baseball game sixty-some years ago at Ebbets Field. They’ve now been playing baseball at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field for more than a century, and a time-traveling baseball fan from 1917 would not need long at all to perfectly understand a game in 2017.

But even as the dimensions and the necessary skills and a few of the ballparks have remained largely the same for so many decades, virtually everything else is radically, dramatically, tremendously different than it was.

(According to this article, the “Little Round Man” was Smoky Burgess, a catcher who began his career with the Cubs, was a solid backstop for the Pirates from 1959-63 and later became one of the American League’s best pinch hitters with the White Sox.)

Anyway, the last paragraph of the quote above is what this book is about: the radical, dramatic, tremendous changes going on in the game today, summed up by what you see on the field in one single game. It’s an easy read and definitely worth your time if you love baseball and want to understand where it’s headed in the future. Highly recommended. The book was officially released earlier this week and here’s the Amazon link to buy one.

I had the opportunity to ask Rob a few questions about “Power Ball” and here they are, along with his answers.

AY: What gave you the idea to do this book in this format (the game, then the questions that arose from situations in each half inning)?

RN: Oh, the idea wasn’t mine at all. My editor (who wasn’t my editor, yet) reached out and said, “Rob, I would love for someone to write a modern-day version of Dan Okrent’s book, Nine Innings. And I think you might be the someone.” Turns out, I was.

AY: Why this particular game? Did you choose it at random in advance, or later after the idea for the book?

RN: Later. When my (now) editor and my (now) agent finished working out the book deal, I just assumed I would be zipping off to Seattle for a few games, then writing about one of those. But no, my editor had something else in mind. Instead of seeing a few games — by now, it was late September so “a few” was the best we could have done — and choosing from what was likely to be a weak crop of games, we would actually choose a contest that would be ... well, a bit easier to write about. If still not easy. Anyway, my editor wound up sending me a list with four or five games, and this was the one I chose. We wanted something with plenty of power, both hitting and pitching, and we wanted something with two particularly interesting teams. And I think we got all those things, in this game.

AY: Of all the changes that you document in this book, which is in your opinion the most important?

RN: The trending prevalence of power pitching has utterly changed practically everything. Well, that and the technology that brought us PITCHf/x and Statcast data.

AY: If you could make any one change to the way baseball is played right now, what would it be?

RN: More. Batted. Balls. In. Play. Now, how you get there, I’m not sure exactly. But a lower mound and a deader baseball would probably get most of the job done.

AY: If you could make any one change to the way baseball is run right now, what would it be?

RN: Gosh, I dunno. I do wish everyone would agree on incentivizing winning, at least somewhat more than now.

AY: Lastly, what’s your view of what happened to the Cubs this year (their early playoff exit), and what can they do to return to World Series contention in 2019?

RN: Stay the course. Well, except maybe admit that Jason Heyward’s contract is a sunk cost, and stop giving him ~500 plate appearances every season. And frankly, I do think it’s fair to wonder if Kyle Schwarber’s really well-cast as an every-day position player. And yes, the rotation could use some help. Even with Cole Hamels aboard. But much the same could be said about nearly every other team in the majors. They’ll figure that part out.