Note: Special thanks to Adam Rifenberick of Press Box Publicity for providing me with a advance copy of State of Play for this review.
Although sabermetrics have been around since the mid-twentieth century, it was two men who gave them a one-two punch up to the masses—Bill James and Michael Lewis. Both men produced classics in the field, James with his Abstracts, which first came to mainstream attention in the early 1980’s, and Lewis with his iconic 2003 book Moneyball. In recent years, MLB broadcasts have been positively littered with stats like WAR and DRS and launch angles among others. Baseball fans love to argue anyway, and nothing will start a war of words faster than a young fan dismissing ERAs and an older one retorting that exit velocity is BS.
In his new book, State of Play, being published today, former major leaguer turned MLB Network analyst Bill Ripken examines the new statistics to see if they are truly useful to judge a player or just buzzwords for today’s 24/7 baseball media. He also takes a look at popular recent trends in play and gauges their effectiveness as tools in determining lineups and substitutions.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ripken, a self-described “crusty old baseball guy” (at the doddering age of 55) does come down somewhat hard on the newer stats. He uses our own Josh Bell as an example of how launch angles really don’t play into why a particular hitter is doing poorly or well. He notes that in Bell’s 2017 rookie season, his launch angle was measured at 8.6 degrees. When Bell faltered the next season, many blamed a bad launch angle. While it was below the 11.7 league average, it had still increased to 9.2. In 2019, his launch angle continued to increase, ending at 16.8 even as his stats faded. Ripken argues that it was more likely nagging injuries that have made Bell’s seasons somewhat erratic, rather than his fairly steady launch angles.
The early nineties Bucs teams also come up in the chapter about lineup construction. Ripken shows that the traditional batting order—speedy guy, good bunter, best hitter, cleanup guy, guy with slightly less power than Cleanup Guy—worked very well for the Pirates then. Today, however, the best hitter is often placed in the second spot in the order, and Ripken questions whether getting a few more plate appearances at the expense of RBIs is worth it. He lists MLB’s RBI leaders as of August thirty-first, 2019. Out of the eight players listed—and Josh Bell was first at the time—the top five all batted third or fourth. The bottom three, which includes Mike Trout and Pete Alonso, all batted second. Granted, there’s not a huge difference in numbers, but it’s interesting.
Although he’s a bit guilty of cherry-picking certain statistics and riding the coattails of his brother and father the Cals a little too often, Ripken has written a very readable treatise about how analytics and traditional scouting can blend to improve both teams and players. If nothing else, State of Play can spark a lot of fun arguments among baseball fans and should definitely be given a read.