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The Diamond Appraised
by Craig R. Wright and Tom House
Simon & Schuster, 1989

"A world-class theorist and a major league coach square off on timeless topics in the game of baseball."

That's what the cover blurb says, anyway. But that's not really what the book is like. It's less an ongoing debate than a series of essays by sabermetrician Craig Wright (the "world-class theorist" in question) with small, usually dull responses from Tom House (House was the Rangers pitching coach at the time the book was published in 1989.)

The book is divided into 13 chapters, each of which actually is a separate essay. Topics range from catcher ERA (Wright's a big proponent) to Pete Rose's quest for Cobb to home-park advantage. Wright is very much in the Bill James mold, though his writing is not as accessible (which probably explains why James is much better known.) On the other hand, his style is not as clunky as that of many guys who make their living crunching numbers.

And make no mistake, crunch numbers Wright does. Statistical analysis is at the heart of "The Diamond Appraised," so if you're uncomfortable with that kind of thing, it's probably best to stay clear of this work. I enjoy statistical analysis, but at times I found some of Wright's charts impenetrable.

That's a small complaint, however. For the most part the book is readable and engaging. The three-chapter essay on the history of pitcher use (in terms of innings pitched, pitches thrown) is particularly interesting. Wright makes a strong case that organizations should use pitchers very carefully in their formative years to avoid arm problems later on. I ve read a lot about this topic in recent years, but I believe Wright was one of the early advocates of the idea. I also suspect his work may have something to do with baseball's current obsession with pitch counts (pretty much every broadcast focuses on counts now, something I don't think was true 15 years ago.)

A chapter on Honus Wagner and a sub-chapter on Joe Morgan also are entertaining. Wright, like most sabermetricians, loved -- and I mean absolutely loved -- Morgan's combination of skills. The author digs up some rather fascinating scouting reports on Morgan over the years that show scouts continually underestimated Little Joe because of a perceived lack of physical gifts:

Going back to the idea that old scouting reports die hard, I came across another report on Joe Morgan written in 1977 after he won his back-to-back MVP awards. Under Player's Weaknesses the scout put, "Somewhat limited because of small body." Fortunately, the Hall of Fame does not have size requirements.

Later, Wright says: "[Morgan's] climb from no-prospect to blue-chip Hall of Famer is one of the most amazing stories in the history of the game."

The chapter on ball park effects won't tell you much you don't already know about the subject in general. But even here, some of the specific topics -- Reggie Jackson vs. Jim Rice, the huge advantage Graig Nettles got from playing in Yankee Stadium -- are pretty interesting. Wright also makes a convincing argument that the lively ball era actually began in1919, not 1920 as is universally accepted. The beginning of the era was masked, Wright concludes, because Babe Ruth was playing in a poor hitting park in 1919 and moved to the homer-friendly Polo Grounds in1920. With the change in home parks, Ruth of course hit the previously unimaginable total of 59 round trippers in '20. Alas, Wright does not discuss Chuck Klein or Mel Ott.

Though the book was written in 1988, the subjects still are mostly relevant. I didn't find myself constantly aware that the book was more than 10 years old. I guess the cover was right at least in its claim that the topics are timeless.

House's mini-essays are by far the biggest weakness of The Diamond Appraised. House is not a good ol' boy coach, and his ideas are generally forward-thinking. But for most part, his writing is dull and he seems a bit intimidated by Wright and all his numbers. House does get in a couple of good shots, though. In one chapter, Wright espouses the idea that MLB organizations should make a more sustained effort to develop knuckleball pitchers. House responds:

From Craig's perspective, nothing is impossible because he and his friends don't have to implement his suggestions. The theoretical validity of Craig's hypothesis is solid, but looking at implementing it from a management/coaching perspective and a teammate/athlete perspective, possible suddenly becomes significantly less probable.

The book could have used more of that: A guy who actually works in the confines of an MLB organization throwing a little reality on the often pie-in-they-sky world of sabermetrics. If House had used this approach more regularly, The Diamond Appraised would have been more interesting and would have been unique in the annals of sabermetrics.

As it is, the book is good. Overall, I would recommend it to people who generally like the Bill James/STATS school of analysis. For those less interested in that approach, I would give it a thumbs down.

The Diamond Appraised may be available for purchase on the net at one of these sites.

--Justin, March 1, 1999