Ahead of the Curve by Brian Kenny (Book Review)

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Brian Kenny’s Ahead of the Curve is an outstanding baseball book.  It is, at once, engaging, thought-provoking, informative, and accessible.  Kenny focuses on looking at baseball statistics from a sabermetric view, and, while this is nothing new, the energy and thought he puts into his writing immediately engages the reader. 

What makes this book such a pleasure is Kenny’s easily accessible writing style.  Kenny uses almost all of the “new” stats,  but because of his conversational tone, and the fact that he doesn’t use the text (or footnotes) to explain the statistics, the reader can take his arguments as whole thoughts without getting lost in the algorithms.  This allows the reader to process the writer’s main point or argument. 

Brian Kenny is also, at heart, a true baseball fan and historian.  Kenny shares reflections on the current game while also citing baseball's past.  Through statistics and quality analysis, he is able to cross reference different eras, different players, and different trends.  All of these traits together combine to make the book enjoyable from the start.  That enjoyment carries right through to the very end.

The main point of the text is that the thinking brought on by some of baseball’s most critical innovators has changed the game in ways that even just now are just being discovered.  Other ideas that have been demonstrated over time are also not being fully utilized or embraced.  Brian Kenny argues that some of the biggest “revolutions” in the game have actually been a long-time coming and that other “innovations” just as quickly go out of style for forward thinking ball clubs that look to stay ahead of the competition.

One example of a seemingly new baseball innovation has been the increased use of defensive shifts.  Kenny demonstrates how this trend began in the 1940’s with Lou Boudreau and the famous “Williams Shift” which was employed to thwart Ted Williams.  It has always been logical to position fielders in the spots where certain hitters tend to hit most balls, but teams have been reluctant to break from what Brian Kenny calls the “herd” mentality.  In other words, most teams (and this includes ownership, general managers, and field managers) tend to stay with the pack and are less likely to embrace new ideas for fear of failure and ridicule.  This often comes at the expense of winning games and even fielding competitive clubs.  Kenny demonstrates this point clearly throughout the text.

In regard to “innovations” that go out of style, Kenny uses on-base percentage as an example, at least for teams looking to stay ahead of the curve.  After the Moneyball A’s (and the 1990’s Yankees) demonstrated the inherent value of on-base percentage, the cost of high OBP players increased a great deal as most clubs started to try to build with the same formula.  Teams looking to forge new territory in thinking, and trying to remain cost-effective, now have to discover other ways to craft a competitive franchise.  The recent success of the Houston Astros, Kenny demonstrates, comes from this type of forward thinking. 

In short, it is the teams that break away from the herd that often make the critical decisions that lead to success.  It is only when others follow, though, that the “radical” ideas become normalized.

One aspect of the book that was particularly enjoyable was how Brian Kenny introduced, but did not get bogged down, in the “new” statistics he was sharing.  Kenny would cite the statistic and encourage the reader to see the glossary for further explanation.  This allowed Kenny to make his bigger point without any distraction from the numbers or formulas.  If the reader cares to understand the new term and the mathematics behind it, the tool to learn more (the glossary) is easily accessible.  This was a brilliant way to present the material.  In contrast, too many similar books try to explain the math in the main text.  This just gets distracting and the main point is often lost in the details of computation.  Kenny’s book never suffers from that fatal flaw.  Along with this approach, Kenny doesn’t just assume that the reader will accept his points; he proves them with the tools (just see the glossary) that will allow them to support or challenge his assertions.  If, as the book supposes, we are to be thinking fans of the game, it is a fair assumption that, as such, we should do some work ourselves.  Using the glossary in this manner allows the reader to explore on his own, when he is ready.  In a way, this approach also makes the statistics more accessible while also asking a little more of us.  After all, a thinking fan should know that not everything will just be handed to us.  It’s good for the reader to have to work a bit for true understanding. 

One of the most enjoyable chapters was the one that examined the history of the MVP vote throughout history and how the old-time writers actually seemed to do a better job with fewer statistical tools than writers in recent years.  Brian Kenny’s analysis of the 1941 MVP vote between Joe DiMaggio (the year of his 56 game hitting streak) and Ted Williams (the year he hit .406) was particularly engaging and informative.  Kenny’s analysis is particularly outstanding in this chapter as he looks to big picture statistics but also demonstrates some in-game details to demonstrate how one must look at the complete ballplayer. 

A great book that reads much too quickly, the reader will continually find himself or herself rethinking and rereading many chapters.  The reader will probably not accept all of Kenny’s points or feel they are the best for the game’s enjoyment.  For example Kenny advocates for the use of what he calls “bullpenning” rather than having starting pitchers.  While this idea would certainly yield better results as pitchers tend to be more effective in shorter spurts, this approach would radically change the game.  Pitcher wins would be no longer (and while there are great arguments why the win is a (very) flawed statistic, it is part of the history of the game) and overall offense would also be greatly reduced.  The games would also probably be played quicker, but at the trade-off of a somewhat different sport than the one fans grew up loving.  On this, it might take fans a longer time to evolve and break away from the herd.

All that being said, this reviewer wishes current Yankees manager Joe Girardi (who he is quite confident in) would at least review the chapter on how to maximize the strengths of one’s bullpen.  As the Yankees continue to lose games with their best pitchers being left to specific innings rather than situations that best utilize their talents, this writer (and millions of other fans) knows there is a better way.  Kenny demonstrates this point effectively.  He also shows how this isn’t even new thinking.  This is precisely how the great relievers of the 1970’s were utilized.  In short, it makes sense for a manager to use his best relief pitcher when the game is really on the line, not just in the ninth inning.

In sum, Brian Kenny’s Ahead of the Curve is an outstanding baseball book for every fan who wishes to better understand the game.  The book is accessible for all fans but those who want to learn more about how to analyze the game will find the book particularly enjoyable.  It is an outstanding book that comes with my highest recommendation.