Did George Will's Men at Work anticipate baseball's statistical revolution?

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April 27 2010 2:15 PM

Old Moneyball

Did George Will's Men at Work anticipate baseball's statistical revolution?

Men at Work by George Will.

It's a bit difficult these days to imagine a public intellectual—the kind of deep thinker who opines on financial regulation and the politics of Kyrgyzstan—writing a book about baseball. Soccer, maybe—novelists like Dave Eggers and Alexsandar Hemon will write about it on the least provocation, while New Republic editor Franklin Foer wrote a very good book on the sport and globalization. But it seems unlikely that Thomas Frank is going to write What's the Matter With the Kansas City Royals? any time soon.

This is probably George Will's fault. In 1990, the bow-tied pundit published Men at Work, a treatise on the inner workings of the national pastime. The book, one of the best-selling sports titles of all time, is often derided as fussy and overly intellectual. These qualities are parodied to great effect in the Saturday Night Live sketch "George F. Will's Sports Machine," in which Dana Carvey flummoxes Tommy Lasorda and Mike Schmidt by asking them what Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series "was not unlike." The answer: "It was not unlike watching Atlantis rise again from the sea, the bones of its kings new-covered with flesh."

A reissue of Men at Work on its 20th anniversary shows, though, that this parody elides Will's genius as a sportswriter. Easily caricatured as it is, Will's book holds up remarkably well. Far from being dated, Men at Work represents a way forward—a fine model for modern baseball writers aiming to make today's advanced statistical concepts approachable for an audience of casual sports fans.

The greater part of Men at Work consists of baseball men talking baseball. Will focuses on the four main aspects of the game through the lenses of four men who epitomize them, learning managing from Tony La Russa, pitching from Orel Hershiser, batting from Tony Gwynn, and fielding from Cal Ripken Jr. With better access to his subjects than ordinary sportswriters have, Will steps into the batting cage with Gwynn, takes in pregame meetings with La Russa, and sits next to Hershiser on a team flight during his record streak of 592/3 scoreless innings, watching unnamed Dodgers harass stewardesses.

In allowing these men to expatiate on the purported intricacies of the game, Will does a fantastic job portraying the charmingly delusional nature of high-level athletes and coaches. At one point, he allows La Russa to drone on for three pages about the eight possible plays he might call with runners at first and third. The manager actually throws himself down on a carpet to demonstrate how a runner on first should pretend to trip so as to allow the runner at third to steal home. This has probably never actually been done in a game, and one can only take it as proof of just how badly the Wile E. Coyote of major-league baseball needed the Pulitzer Prize-winner to think of him as a savvy strategic mind. (To La Russa's credit, it worked. "His conversation could spoil the creases in his jeans if they had creases," Will writes of the then-Oakland A's manager.)

But there's more to Men at Work than just making Tony La Russa look ridiculous. A lot of Will's material is terrific—learning how Gwynn reads a pitcher's delivery will change the way you watch the game, for one. Even more revealing than Hershiser's disquisitions on the subtle and artful nature of his pitch selection, though, are Will's own insights. After spending hundreds of hours reveling in the wisdom of baseball men, Will—a man who claims to have "tried to think through the DH controversy in the light of political philosophy, the queen of moral disciplines and the profoundest guide to the right way to live"—turns out to be, shockingly, a bit of a sabermetrician.

Coming to Men at Work 20 years after I first read it, this wasn't quite what I expected to find. There on the very first page, though, Will approvingly cites Bill James, described not as a computer geek or a stats guru or the resident of a dank basement but simply "the baseball writer from Winchester, Kansas." Over the next 300-plus pages, Will mocks the notion that you can tell much about a player from a few at-bats, notes that "won-lost records are not very revealing," chastises the reader who might think that batting average is a useful measure of a hitter's abilities, and muses about the effects of ballpark dimensions on statistics.

In an age when writing from admirable wonks like  Tom Tango and  Dan Szymborski fronts ESPN.com's baseball page, none of this is especially novel. But consider the alternative: In   3 Nights in August, Buzz Bissinger's book-length ode to La Russa, the old-school sportswriter writes that the "new breed" of statistically savvy baseball types could not "possibly love" the game. (Emphasis his.) It's impressive given Will's stature as an elder of the game—whenever commissioner Bud Selig draws up an august panel,  you're sure to find Will there—that he doesn't shrug off modern ways of thinking. Indeed, Will's thoughts on the larger issues surrounding the game wouldn't seem out of place on Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus.

For a supposed nostalgist, Will spends a lot of space stressing just how much better, how much more difficult to play, and how much more entertaining to watch the modern game is compared to that of the past. He insists that so long as baseball makes a lot of money, there's nothing at all wrong with players doing so as well—there is no yearning at all for the days of the reserve clause to be found here. And in a new introduction, while explaining why Kant would disapprove of steroid use and calling the numbers produced by it "garish," he also keeps his head on the issue, stressing that football has been even more grotesquely deformed by obvious drug use.

Will might be said to have self-interested motives for declining to get hysterical here. This is, after all, a man who wrote a solid 70 pages on the Canseco/McGwire A's without noting that the team picture seemed to have been drawn by  Rob Liefeld. But I doubt anything so base is at work. Just as the depth of Will's interest in baseball as an actual sport rather than a signifier is refreshing, so too is his method. It takes a regard for actual facts and a knack for observation to spend a great deal of time hanging out with Tony La Russa and Cal Ripken and come away sounding like a wordier Rob Neyer. It also takes some basic honesty.

The lesson for baseball writers in Men at Work comes less from what Will says than how he says it. Even the best baseball analysis of our day is often presented tediously, as if the great pleasures and mysteries of the game can and should be reduced to charts. Will is shrewd enough to present sabermetric findings as plain common sense, often coming from wizened veterans of the game. Just as clueless newspaper sports columnists can learn a great deal from Will's patient explanations of why it's better for runners to get on base than to make outs, baseball's Excel jockeys can learn a great deal from the way he assails conventional wisdom with clean prose and neat sourcing.

Early in the chapter on managing, for instance, Will tells the tale of  Kirk Gibson's walk-off home run in the first game of the 1988 World Series. Rumor had it at the time that Gibson was able to hit his famous shot because a Dodgers scout had noted that Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley always threw backdoor sliders to left-handed hitters on 3-2 counts. After sharing this anecdote, Will allows the impeccably credentialed  Tony Kubek, longtime broadcaster and teammate of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, to make the obvious point: Supposing that this scout had watched Eckersley an implausible 15 times that year, how many 3-2 counts could he possibly have seen given that the Eck walked only 11 batters all season? *

Will, it's clear, is perfectly aware of this. He even prefaces the riff with a reference to "a remarkable phenomenon, the Advance Scout Superstar," a bit of puckishness that might provoke thunderous denunciations from a holy writer if attributed to a blogger. That he was able to make the broad point that scouts tend to be overly lionized without coming off as anything but utterly conventional seems, 20 years later, a kind of triumph.

If Will hasn't been credited for this, that's natural enough—a consequence of his gentle deference to the truisms of the game and of his own schtick, to which Dana Carvey wasn't being entirely unfair. Behind the bow tie, though, there's always been a remarkably modern observer of the game, one whose insights will likely survive the next two decades as well as they have the last two. So long as he has a seat on those panels Bud Selig likes to convene, the game will probably be just fine.

Correction, April 27, 2010: This piece originally stated that Dennis Eckersley didn't run a full count on a single batter in 1988. Eckersley had 21 full counts that season. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Tim Marchman is the deputy editor of Deadspin. You can follow him on Twitter.