'In Pursuit of Pennants' dissects history of difference-making discoveries in game
By Paul Hagen
There's not much in baseball these days that isn't measured, computed, analyzed, collated, compared, studied, crunched and entered into a database. But as analysis has reached an increasingly granular level, one element missing is a big-picture view of why some teams win and some don't.
Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt have addressed that in "In Pursuit of Pennants." It is both scholarly -- featuring charts, graphs and references to WAR -- and eminently readable.
While there is obviously no single foolproof blueprint that guarantees winning the World Series every year, the authors have identified the areas in which successful teams have tended to excel over the last 100-plus years.
The impact a single brilliant individual can have is examined, starting with Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss at the dawn of the 20th century. And while the details vary, these men tend to be strikingly similar in many ways, all the way up to Pat Gillick and Billy Beane today. Sometimes an advantage can be found in building a better model for an organization, such as when Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert became one of the first to employ professional baseball management around 1920. The general manager was born.
One common theme is that teams that quickly identify trends and take advantage of them often gain an edge that can last for a decade or more. Integration is a classic example. Later, some teams were ahead of the curve while tapping into the Latin American and Asian markets. The Cardinals, under Branch Rickey, are credited with developing the first modern farm system. Some teams found ways to adapt better than others when the Draft was instituted in 1965.
As the authors note: "How teams adapt to changing circumstances can affect their fortunes for years to come. The Red Sox, Orioles and Tigers, dormant franchises in the 1950s, all successfully revamped their front offices and became regular contenders by the late 1960s. The three clearly diverged, however, when the first-year player draft became the principal means of acquiring amateur talent. Some of the most important skills of the predraft era -- money, hustle and the ability to sell the benefits of one's Major League franchise -- no longer mattered to the same degree. The remaining skill -- talent evaluation -- was all that mattered now."
The arrival of free agency in 1976 led to opportunities to create separation. In recent years, teams like the Athletics and Red Sox have become known for employing advanced metrics.
Some of these themes overlap, of course. One strong individual may construct a superior operation, or he may see around the corner to find the next area that can be exploited.
Royals owner Ewing Kauffman was a visionary who established his Baseball Academy in an attempt to turn great athletes with no experience in the sport into ballplayers. The idea had mixed success, but this book goes behind the scenes to explain that it wasn't just money but also internal opposition within the organization that helped sink his brainchild.
Kauffman, it seems, was ahead of even the "Moneyball" revolution that was later popularized by Beane and sabermetric pioneer Bill James.
"He kept on his desk a copy of Earnshaw Cook's 'Percentage Baseball,' the first serious statistical look at the game written by an outsider. Though many of Cook's specific conclusions have since been shown to be in error, the book convinced Kauffman that analytical thinking could offer a competitive advantage," the authors note dryly.
Another nugget: The Royals used a computer system as early as 1971 that logged every pitch thrown by a Royal, the result and even the humidity.
And while George Steinbrenner is widely credited with helping restore the Yankees to glory after buying the team in 1973, a compelling case is made here that there is much more to the story -- particularly that the franchise was already on the upswing due in part to a Yankee Stadium renovation that had been negotiated by the previous ownership.
This book is packed with similar anecdotes and insights. It entertains and informs. And while no book can provide a step-by-step guide that guarantees winning, it certainly demonstrates the common traits that successful organizations tend to have and how they've evolved over the years.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.