Sunday, February 05, 2006

Book Review: Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Won A World Series

Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning, by Baseball Prospectus Writers

(I feel a little weird reviewing this book, since I sort of know a few of the authors, which is why I've procrastinated on it)

The amazing part about this book is how it's written by 20 different people, but it flows really well, for the most part, as if one author wrote it. Towards the end of it I almost felt myself playing a game with the book -- I'd be reading a chapter and come across a particularly witty phrase (for example, "...ever since Bill James discovered America...") and immediately think "Okay. Who wrote this chapter?" Sometimes I'd be right, sometimes I'd be wrong. The fact that I was more often wrong than right says something about the quality of editing and the ability of most of the authors to keep to one style and produce a homogeneity of writing quality.

The unamazing part of this book is the numbers. While I'd say about half of the numbers in the book were genuinely useful, interesting, timely, and proved a point, I'd say there were plenty of superfluous ones as well, which mostly just interrupted the flow of the book for me as I paused to look at them; often they were based off Prospectus equations which aren't easy to find or remember, even if you're familiar with the results and the use of the statistics. Fortunately, most of the time the gratuitous numbers segments were at the end of chapters, which meant you could look at them, decide whether you wanted to spend the time to really grok them, and then either go on to the next chapter or immerse yourself in math for a few minutes. I have to admit that I just skimmed the 40 pages of lists at the end.

As a result, this was a terrible bus book for me; it was slow-going and had a lot of context to keep, if I didn't finish a chapter on one ride. I have a feeling it'd be a bit better if I had read it at home and was able to look up the stats that I didn't recall offhand, although that too would have interrupted the reading flow, I think.

However, despite this, it was a genuinely interesting, informative book. I learned a lot from reading it. It was sort of cool to see them apply prospectus-isms to some older Red Sox teams, and some of the number-crunching actually really helped me better understand some points (the chapter on deconstructing Mariano Rivera was particularly good). I thought some of the tangents felt unnecessary (there seemed to be a lot about baseball brawls, although maybe that was a bigger part of the 2004 Sox than I personally recall?), but overall, things were good.

The "Caveman Cleans Up" and "Holy Gospel of On-Base Percentage" chapters were particularly amusing to me since I recently read "Idiot" and revisited "Moneyball". Infact, in general, this was a very odd book to read right after reading "Idiot", because it was a complete 180 on viewpoints. Johnny Damon would tell you something about a player being a great guy, and BP will give you the numbers about exactly how great he was.

So, while "Idiot" is a pretty quick read if you want to revisit the 2004 Red Sox for fun, "Mind Game" will be a much longer read, but you'll learn a lot more. If you enjoy reading Baseball Prospectus articles in general, you will probably adore this book. If you're the sort of baseball fan that goes "Ack! Numbers! Whatever, you gotta have HEART!", then you probably won't like it.

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