How You Should Spend the Baseball Off-Season

Guest blogger and co-host of Waiver Wired’s Ducks on the Pond podcast Nick Sweeney has read both Moneyball and Three Nights in August and wanted to share what he knows with our reading public. We’re hoping that Sweens continues reading sports books and writes reviews of them for us, so keep an eye out for more to come…

If you know me, you know I’m that guy who says you should read the book before you watch the movie. I’m also that guy who plays his fantasy baseball team like a man possessed. I’m also an avid reader, and I’m thinking this off-season, after you wonder how Mike Trout got the MVP, how the Mets could get rid of a pitcher like R.A. Dickey, and try to understand why this last World Series between the Giants and the Tigers was one of the least watched in recently history, you should pick up a book. Two actually: Moneyball by Michael Lewis, and 3 Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger.

Yes, that Moneyball. The last movie before Jonah Hill got skinny. And yes, that Buzz Bissinger, who did us all a great service in writing Friday Night Lights. Go out and pick them up now.

Most baseball fans know about Moneyball, more or less. Either they agree with the new philosophy or don’t, they’ve seen the movie or they haven’t, or they’ve wondered why a movie made about statistics was a contender in the Oscars. The book talks about the changing financial landscape of baseball, the “adapt or die” attitudes small market teams have to make in order to win, and how players should and shouldn’t be evaluated. It talks about Bill James and the importance of a run and why bunting is strategic suicide. Some names pop up, recently retired players like Mike Sweeney and Miguel Tejada, well known players now like Kevin Youklis and Carlos Pena, and unknowns like Kirk Saarloos and Jeremy Brown. Make no mistake, this isn’t about the passion of playing a game, it’s about winning.

The book’s primary focus is on Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics and the most recent Executive of the Year. He was also a highly touted five-tool prospect who drafted by the Mets after they picked Darryl Strawberry. The value of the five-tool player, an albatross of a title for any prospect, is an obvious theme mentioned in the book. Billy was picked by the scouts for his talents, for everything one thinks of when you imagine a good ball player. What happens after is the most common ending for any prospect; long and dragged out failure. If the book later described here, 3 Nights in August, describes life in the big leagues, Moneyball shows the pitfalls of the journey to it. In baseball, there are no points for being humble, no rings for the losers. If you can’t afford to buy that five-tool player, make on. The idea was simple; create the five- tool player out of spare minor leaguer and washed up veteran parts; creating the MLB equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. Obviously, this doesn’t sit well with the majority of baseball. The book shows the battle of old school versus new school, how men that had never played baseball would soon run the game off laptops and try to play the game like a chess match. It is a book that will stick with the reader, causing you to analyze your favorite team and see what works and what doesn’t. Maybe you’ll even download one of those baseball managing games and take a swirl yourself.

It’s a side of baseball few ever really get around to think about. Instead of detailing how the system worked in 2002, let’s try this out. Billy Beane gets rid of his top three top pitching producers in Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, and Gio Gonzalez for Josh Reddick, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook, Tommy Milone, and Derek Norris. Not exactly names you throw around at the dinner table. All of the players he got in return are players that deserved to be on a fantasy team at any given point of this last season. In addition, as Jonah Hill says “like an island of misfit toys” Beane goes on a free agency frenzy and picks up Brandon Moss, Jonny Homes, Stephen Drew and Brandon Inge, among others. Small pieces, small names. Then he goes out and picks up the Cuban sensation, Yoenis Cespedes, who creates a damn good rookie season if it wasn’t for that guy playing for that Los Angeles team. Very few headliners on this team, and yet, well I’ll let you remember what happened just over a month ago. And even I had Texas pegged for the World Series. With the tools Beane has, this is how the new system works, and how it doesn’t. It showed that a team with little budget was able to mop up against teams like the Rangers, Angels, and even force a game five with the Tigers in a division series. The system is not perfect though.

Just this last year, I ran my fantasy baseball team with Moneyball being its bible. I read it cover to cover and looked up and down websites for prospects coming up that would change the entire season. Dan Straily, an Oakland product, was supposed to strike out everything in this hemisphere. He did what was expected of him. Trevor Bauer was too, but that didn’t work out as planned. This is how the game works, you are deemed a success if three out of ten moves are successful. I looked at stats and made over seventy roster moves throughout the season. Some were good (picking Mike Trout on the wire) and some were…regrettable (giving up on R.A. Dickey) and some were straight up stupid (threatening to dump Giancarlo Stanton for nothing because he wasn’t producing at the time.) But I had fallen into my own trap, I had overvalued my own players and that cost me bragging rights. I had also lost part of the game that excited me the most, the enjoyment of the game itself. Ironically, I made it to the championship, after being in first place by a considerable lead all season, only to get swept, absolutely crushed. Fitting, I suppose.

“It’s wrong to say that the new breed doesn’t care about baseball. But it’s not wrong to say that that there is no way they could possible love it”: that’s how 3 Nights in August starts, explaining how it’s the anti-Moneyball. In reality, the two books belong together. It even acknowledges how the game has changed since then, itself creating a genre of baseball books about small budget teams and their constant changes to the how the game is managed. Buzz Bissinger makes no bones about it, you can’t make a team based off stats alone, there must be a time and a place. La Russa even explains it himself, he is a stat addict as everyone else is by then, but he does so with knowledge of being in the game for nearly half a century. This is not left versus right politics, this is about growth, and this is about the multiple facets of the greatest and most complicated game on earth. This book shows part of the enormous reputation Moneyball has today.

3 Nights in August is exactly what it tells the reader it will be. It shows the readers the ins and outs of a three game series between the Cardinals versus their division rival Cubs during the hot days of summer. The book’s structure is without doubt a huge selling point. Its patient, it allows for tangents and side stories to suck in the reader and it allows the reader to enjoy the games as if they were actually there. When Mark Prior pitches in Game 1, Tony LaRussa thinks about his own prospect tragedy in the story of Rick Ankiel. At the time the book was written, both Prior and Ankiel had begun towards their descent into wasted talent. When Kerry Wood begins to pitch in Game 2, a considerable amount of page space is dedicated to the art, politics, and nature of the “retaliation beaning” that is controversial in baseball to this day. Tony La Russa explains his take on it, where it developed from, and the pros and cons of doing such a thing. The book is about managing the forced family of the 25-man team; it’s about managing injuries and egos and about pride. It’s about the use of the bunt and the hit- and-run and why being aggressive pays off.

Basically, it will make the Moneyball fans cry.

Readers will enjoy learning how pitching coach Dave Duncan transformed pitchers lost in their ways like Matt Morris and Woody Williams and understand why J.D. Drew’s big-money contract was his downfall in Saint Louis. The book covers everything important in baseball in the last two decades; including our addiction to the home-run and the player’s use of steroids. Tony La Russa talks about Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire and how the game changed after the strike in 1994. Baseball has a history like no other sport, a history that can be learned during the game, between pitches and between innings. The game itself is so intricate that we sometimes forget the stories that come along with it. We forget the Kerry Robinsons and Cal Elreds of the world. This is a book that would look like a good movie, no need to beef it up and make it a story like that of Moneyball; it’s already there.

The reason why I picked up these two books is simple: I remember (and still believe) that the Big Three of the Oakland A’s including Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder can rival and beat just about any starting three pitchers from their era, and I remember wondering how Matt Morris felt after Darryl Kile passed away suddenly. For me, those names mean something, just like Turk Wendell, Joe McEwing, and Benny Agbayani mean something (Greg Kaplan is surely tearing up at this point of the essay). I remember the rise and fall of Mark Prior and wish nothing more than for guys like him and Rick Ankiel to go out and just pitch one more time, just to prove they can. I remember the home-run chase and rooting for Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa because even on the field, they acted like friends chasing their childhood dreams.

But these are all just memories. Long story short, Moneyball is about the importance of statistics and 3 Nights in August is about the emotions and use of those statistics. It gives the casual fan something to understand, as opposed to just calling their favorite players bums. Together, they are a complete image of baseball today, and will change how you watch it drastically. For any fan of baseball that wants to walk down memory lane, when we were too busy playing Gameboy and laughing at Spongebob Squarepants or whatever you watched when you were young, I advise you to read these books. You’ll be happy to see some old names in there, names our fathers cursed for and against, names we heard just in passing on highlights during Sports Center. That alone will be worth it. So pick them up, match them up against each other, and eagerly wait for Spring Training, so we can see these stories unfold once again.