in pursuit of pennants

Reviewed by G. Louis Heath, Ph.D., Ashford University, Clinton, Iowa

21 april 2015       archive

It has been a dozen years since Armour and Levitt published Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got that Way. Their 2015 book In Pursuit of Pennants resumes where their 2003 work left off. Based primarily on interviews and research at Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the current volume offers fresh, detailed insights into the "how" of baseball greatness. It draws (especially Chapter 9) on their research published on the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) website.

Armour and Levitt's survey of 140 years of pro baseball is organized around 4 advantages successful teams develop: 1. creative leadership; 2. professional management; 3. adoption of new attitudes to seize new opportunities; and, 4. taking advantage of circumstances unique to a team (for example, more money in the bank than others). Among the strategically crucial silos the authors examine are: the creation of the GM role in the 1920s; the establishment of the first farm systems in the 1920s and 1930s; integration of MLB from 1947 on; the first-year player draft begun in 1965; the 1976 advent of free agency; and, the emergence of baseball analytics this millennium based on high-speed computing and video technology.

A single bright idea or innovation can confer advantage; to wit Billy Beane's application of analytics—"moneyball" to use the vernacular—to his Oakland A's in the 2000s. New talent pools can also accrue advantage; to wit, the acceleration of player signings in the Dominican Republic in the 1990s. Integration has proved another determinative factor: the Dodgers, Giants and Braves of the 1950s began winning pennants with African American and Afro-Latino players, a formula for success that continues today.

Perhaps the most striking development adduced by Armour and Levitt is the development of a highly complex organization to run each team. Getting a bureaucracy to produce a pennant morphs more into the purview of an MBA who is a serious student and fan of the game rather than a GM with a solely baseball background. Teams are turning increasingly to managers who can apply their operational skills to the business of baseball. Baseball is becoming less about intuition borne of experience and passion for the game and more about rationally calculated management techniques informed by data-fed statistical models. So goes one hegemon of success examined in the book.

However, a major point I took from the 458-page book is that the Moneyball Strategy based on sabremetrics is not the only way to pursue success, even in our modern MLB era. For example, Pat Gillick cleverly exploited Rule 5 Draft in a traditionalist, old-school approach. (Rule 5 allows a team to claim a veteran Minor Leaguer, not protected on a club's 40-man roster, who is often not good enough for his current team, yet good enough for an expansion franchise like Gillick's Blue Jays). Later, Gillick would blend tradition with new ideas at Seattle, then Philadelphia, where he inherited his best team. Accordingly, he had only to fill in the seams with old-school scouting and networking to build a successful Phillies squad.

The book also explores the role of player personalities. Some energize a team to live up to its potential while others dampen that effort; Phillies star right fielder Bobby Abreu, for example, exerted a depressive influence on his teammates while his utility replacement, Shane Victorino, helped galvanize the club to the playoffs.

From the 1936 Yankees to the 1963 Dodgers to the 1975 Reds and 2010 Giants and the recent nuanced complexities of the "modern game," this book tries to untangle the Gordian knot of MLB success. It succeeds in cutting a few strands in a well-documented, scholarly tome. It also underlined to me the inscrutability and vagaries of success in a sport where, if your team can make it into the playoffs, "anything can happen."

I finished In Pursuit Of Pennants wondering whether the Moneyball Model had worked more as a statistical outlier (and media darling) for a brief falling-star lifespan rather than as a validation of sabremetrics. Perhaps the National pastime has become such a monetized, complex organization that statistics are about as useful for the MLB as betting on equity markets or dusting off the old Ouija board.

Read this book for its treasure trove of baseball history and because it is a damn good read. Don't book on it in Vegas.

Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt, In Pursuit Of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 458 pages.

Copyright © 2015 by G. Louis Heath

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