Book Review: Questioning a “New Blueprint for Winning”

The folks at Baseball Prospectus like to set lofty goals for themselves as they constantly challenge the long-time paradigms in baseball thought. There latest book is no exception, and with a lengthy title – Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning – this opus on the 2004 Red Sox serves as an interesting inside look into one of the game’s most storied teams.

Mind Game, edited by one of the foremost Yankee bloggers on the Internet, Steven Goldman of Pinstriped Blog fame, is a joint effort with bits and pieces written by all of the BP members from Jim Baker to Derek Zumsteg. The book catalogs the 2004 Red Sox season chronologically, highlighting different sabermetric aspects of this team as they created an alleged “new blueprint for winning.” For the most part, this joint authorship approach works well as each writer offers a unique spin on the Red Sox season. Will Carroll, known for his “Under the Knife” columns, discusses the famous (or infamous, depending upon at which end of the Merit Parkway you happen to reside) Curt Schilling Cadaver while Baker brings out his favorite lists, this one of happy moments in Red Sox history.

While sharing the writing load worked to a certain extent, the books, switching from author to author, loses some of the flow that a single author would have brought to the table. Maybe this is the fault of the overall editing, but hearing another BP writer define VORP or EqA for the fifth time in six chapters gets a little tedious. Each chapter could stand on its own this way, but for those who choose to read the book chronologically, the repetitiveness gets a little, well, repetitive.

Overall, though, I can’t fault the writing. For those readers familiar with Baseball Prospectus, the book offers the same high level of insight and research found on the writing. Rather, my main complaint with the book lies in the overall premise: Did the 2004 Boston Red Sox really establish a new blueprint for winning or did they simply use a pre-existing blueprint, along with a whole lot of very good luck in Games 4 and 5 of the ALCS, to win?

Mind Game starts with the premise that the Boston Red Sox were not the cursed. The curse was a marketing ploy made up by Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe. Rather, the Red Sox simply suffered through years and years of poor upper management. The team suffered through racist owner Tom Yawkey and his desires to please his favorite players rather than allow better men onto the team.

Leaving Yawkey and the past behind, the book arrives at the Theo Epstein Era. Epstein is clearly the Golden Boy of the book, and by the end, I was left wondering if maybe Epstein wasn’t too prominent of a character in the story. While he had a big role in putting the team together, a lot of his moves – such as the Nomar trade – were gambles that could have easily backfired. In my mind, it wasn’t so much Epstein’s sabermetric mind that allowed the Red Sox to succeed. Rather, it was his willingness to pull the trigger on unpopular deals that could potential benefit the Red Sox. No one knew Orlando Cabrera would .379/.4242/.448 against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.

The book then charts the 2004 season through a series of seemingly outside-the-box and sabermetrically-minded innovations. The writers explore how closer-by-committee didn’t work and how Keith Foulke was, through certain metrics, more valuable than Mariano Rivera during a five-year stretch. It explores the machinations of the A-Rod trade and the Red Sox’s willingness to pursue high-ceiling, low-salary guys like David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, and Kevin Millar in an effort to develop an OBP machine that could test whether or not an oppressive offense could make up for a less-than-stellar pitching rotation. The book dispels the notion that the Jason Varitek-Alex Rodriguez brawl made much of a difference in the season and explores how the Red Sox were able to wear down Mariano Rivera enough to make him merely good instead of great.

Yet, for all of the analysis, all of which I found to be dead on, I thought the book was missing a few glaring needed explanations. First, it’s undoubtedly the case that the Red Sox won in 2004 because they had Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez pitching 40 percent of their games. Yet, the book virtually ignores the Curt Schilling trade. I still have never heard a satisfactory explanation of that trade. The Red Sox gave up four guys who will never amount to anything near a Curt Schilling. They seemingly pulled the wool over the eyes of the Diamondbacks, and no one has blinked at this very lopsided trade. How do baseball economics end up in a such a state that one team can basically give away their best pitching all in the name of shedding payroll?

Meanwhile, as the book went on, I kept returning to this idea of a new blueprint for winning. Have no teams ever thought to put together an on-base machine using some homegrown talent, some discarded parts, and some chances? I thought back in baseball history all the way to the 1998 Yankees, a team that assembled a mean on-base machine and actually sustained their winning ways for nearly four years in a row.

The 1998 Yankees were first in the AL in runs scored and on-base percentage, and they accomplished this with a mixed lineup. They had homegrown talent in Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada. Paul O’Neill, their cornerstone, number three guy in the lineup was acquired via a trade that at the time it was made in 1992 was something of a gamble. Their third baseman, Scott Brosius, was actually a player to be named later in a trade for Kenny Rogers. He would go on to have his finest season that year hitting .300/.371/.472 and would garner World Series MVP honors that year. While critiques could say this Yankee team achieved greatness through spending, I say the Red Sox in 2004 with the second-highest payroll in baseball did the same as well. Does spending a lot qualify as a new blueprint for winning?

Finally, there is this issue of luck involved in the 2004 Red Sox World Championship run that is hard to capture in statistics. Had Dave Roberts been a half a step slower, the Red Sox would have lost in four games to the Yankees. Had Tony Clark’s ground-rule double hit the wall, Ruben Sierra probably would have scored the potential game-winning run in extra innings of game five. Had the Yankees challenged the knuckleball-challenged Jason Varitek or dared use Kenny Lofton as the Red Sox used Roberts, the outcome of the series could have swung back in favor of the Bronx Bombers. Luck led the Red Sox over the Yankees; pure talent got them to the World Series.

In the end, my complaints of Mind Game may come from my biased perspective on the 2004 Red Sox. As a die hard Yankee fan, I died hard when they lost games four and five of that ALCS. But as an objective baseball fan, I think history is littered with teams who pursued a plan similar to the one the Red Sox followed in 2004. Mind Game, then, offers great insight into the methods of statistical analysis and the minds of baseball front officer administrators. It’s an interesting tale honoring an incredible team. While I think it’s safe to say the Red Sox got smart and it’s undeniable that they won the World Series, I just don’t think they created a new, groundbreaking blueprint for winning.

But that’s just my opinion. Go read the book and find out for yourself. It’s well worth it and a fun read during the dark days of the offseason.

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