Baseball books

I spent a good many hours this winter in the 796.357 section of the Rutland Free Library. That’s baseball’s number in the Dewey decimal system.

I have to say I came away largely unimpressed, not with the library so much as the overall quality of writing. But there’s a special on-deck circle of hell saved for “Tim McCarver’s Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans: Understanding and Interpreting the Game So You Can Watch it Like a Pro.”

The title pretty much gives it all away. McCarver’s press agent has styled him the thinking man’s baseball announcer, and this book presents him as such. In fact, it’s a lot like listening to a McCarver broadcast. Have I mentioned I usually watch sports on TV with the sound turned off?

McCarver (as both author and announcer) makes his living off of recycling old stories about his glory days as a player. Given that his career highlight was with the St. Louis Cardinals’ World Series winners of the 1960s, that tends to date his stories. When he talks about modern players (even allowing for the age of the book), he tends to name-drop lots of examples. This would be more insightful if his list of admirable modern hitters didn’t tend to read like the All Star roster. Tony Gwynn can hit? Really? Ozzie Smith can play defense?

There are a couple of nuggets: Bob Horner held the bat (and shook hands) very softly, for instance. But then McCarver hoists himself on his own self-importance, time and again. For instance, analyzing Eric Davis, McCarver decides that Davis will struggle because he holds his hands too low while batting. Gee, and here I thought his career would be limited by the fact that, at 6’2″ and 165 pounds, every time Davis swung he swung from the heels to generate bat speed (hence power) from his skinny frame. I mean, having the single most violent hack seen in at least a couple of generations of big leaguers at every pitch would seem to be a defining characteristic.

But McCarver can’t point out the obvious, because then he wouldn’t be pandering to brain surgeons who don’t understand baseball, so it’s got to be that Davis’ hands are too low.

Even worse, McCarver takes apart Andres Galarraga’s (successful) attempt to revive his career by opening up his stance to start almost facing the pitcher. This followed three straight years of leading the NL in strikeouts, because every pitcher in baseball knew that if you threw Galarraga a two-strike pitch down and away he would try to pull it (and almost always miss).

The open stance, it seems to me, largely solved that problem by forcing Galarraga to step into the pitch, not bail out, thus closing the hole down-and-away. It worked until his bat slowed down enough that you could throw a high fastball past him, at which point he went back to leading the league in strikeouts, in his mid-30s.

McCarver’s analysis focuses on how the stance lets Galarraga see the pitch with both eyes during the windup. Then, like much of McCarver’s analysis, it descends rapidly into farce as he determines that the whole vision thing won’t solve Galarraga’s problems because, as he strides into the pitch, Galarraga’s head again moves toward the profile facing the pitcher, so that, in McCarver’s words, by the point of contact, Galarraga is only seeing the ball with one eye anyway.

Sort of explains McCarver’s issues as a hitter, don’t it?

Overall, McCarver’s book is a solid primer for the casual fan looking to understand the game better. But if you really want to delve the game’s complexities, pick up Keith Hernandez’s Pure Baseball.

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