When Rob Neyer agreed to discuss his new book (co-authored with Bill James), The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers A Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers and Pitches, with Batter's Box, the bottom-line question was put forth:
"Is this book-length biography of 'Pitchers, Pitches and Pitching' headed for a Hall of Fame career on the bookshelves of baseball fans, prominently displayed next to James' Abstracts and Neyer's Lineups?"
The one-word answer is ...
… well, maybe. Okay, that's two words. But this book isn't really comparable to previous issues from Neyer or James, so it's a bit like asking if Dennis Eckersley belongs in Cooperstown.
For the first half of his career, Eck was an above-average starter, but that didn't make him Hall-worthy. For the second half of his career, he was an elite "closer," perhaps the archetypical one-inning shut-em-down guy, and debate rages whether "saves" merit Hall plaques. But when you combine the two -- well, maybe then you've got a candidate for the pantheon.
Like Eckersley, this latest offering from Neyer and James has a bit of a split personality. For instance, the heart of the book is a "Pitcher Census," which lists specific information for nearly two thousand pitchers, spanning all three centuries of major league baseball. Each abbreviated entry addresses each pitcher's key pitch, pitch selection, the source for the listing, and often a brief commentary such as a comment from an opposing hitter.
Some of the pitchers -- curiously, often the types of hurlers even the most steadfast of current baseball fans might not know, such as Ray Kolp and Sam Gray -- merit half-page entries or more, but for the majority of pitchers, a short item no longer than a spring training box score in the newspaper's agate type section suffices.
"Who Would Buy Such a Thing?"
Sound interesting? A pre-press copy of the book was lying on my desk at work one day recently when the senior editor on my internal communications team at American Airlines wandered in and picked it up. A huge baseball fan, she was attracted to the cover images, Gibson-Koufax-Clemens among others. But, "who in their right minds," she wanted to know after learning of the "pitcher census" idea, "would ever buy such a thing?"
Then she, that most unusual of baseball fans who follows both the Yankees and the Mets, sat down and started to flip through it, curious to see what the book had to say about one of her personal favorites, David Cone, who had moments of glory for both of her teams of choice.
Now before we get back to her final reaction, keep in mind that her initial question was directed at the "do closers like Eckersley belong in the Hall of Fame?" non-traditional portion of the book; for so-called statheads and seamheads, it's the best and most riveting part, sure, but it will make some people scratch their heads a bit.
The rest of the book, meanwhile, is chock full of chapters with titles like "Lucky Bastards" and "Unique Records," a look at specialized styles such as "Submariners" and "Knuckleballers" and a concise but relatively complete study on "Abuse and Durability."
In addition, there are 10 articles about great pitchers who have been overlooked: Tommy Bond, Tony Mullane, Wilbur Cooper, Eddie Rommel, Mel Harder, Lon Warneke, Tommy Bridges, Bucky Walters, Billy Pierce and Bob Friend. These are defined by Neyer and James as "pitchers who pitched at least thirty years ago, are not in the Hall of Fame, have never been the subject of a book-length biography, but had careers of Hall of Fame caliber."
There's also a faint sprinkling of the debate-launching lists that have been among the highlights of Neyer's and James' previous works. Larry Andersen had the fourth-best slider of all time? Mike Scott had a better splitter than Jack Morris? Christy Mathewson's screwball is ranked behind Fernando Valenzuela's? Bert Blyleven's curveball was only the third-best of all time? Roger Clemens' fastball was the best in baseball from 1985-1989, then third-best the next half-decade, sixth-best the ensuing five years ... and now it's out of the top 10?
Maybe. But good barroom debates, all.
"I Just Try to Write Books I'd Like to Read"
Anyway, our doubting editor never got as far as the lists, as she started reading random phrases aloud. "Cone ... could've played linebacker. Heh, yeah ... eight different arm angles, no doubt ... what do they say about Mussina in here?"
Forty-five minutes later, without ever getting anywhere near the "solid, All-Star starting pitcher Eckersley" portion of the content -- the more traditional essays -- she'd tried to walk off with the book, then made me promise to bring it back so she could spend more time with it.
From "who would ever read this?" to "be sure to bring this back" in less than an hour for a potential customer representing the most dedicated of baseball fans who have no idea what "sabremetrics" is ... that's a book that has to be doing something right. Talk about nailing down the target demographic.
But hold on, said Neyer.
"We don't write books with a 'target audience' in mind," said the long-time ESPN.com columnist. "Personally I just try to write books that I would like to read, and then I hope I'm not alone."
Nonetheless, Neyer recognizes a potentially broad appeal for the book.
"Now that this book is finished -- or abandoned, if you prefer, since this particular project could never be 'finished' -- I honestly think it will appeal to any baseball fan who's got more than a passing interest in baseball history," he said. "I mean, aren't there a lot of people who would like to know what made Dizzy Dean so good? Or what it was like to be the plate umpire when Sandy Koufax pitched?"
Like his previous effort, the Omar-Vizquel-was-too-better-than-this-Lou-Boudreau-guy debate-fest Big Book of Baseball Lineups, much of the text of Pitchers seems tailor-made for an online, multimedia hypertext presentation -- a Web site or a CD with everything searchable and interlinked. So why not go that route?
"I've thought about it," admitted Neyer, "but there are a couple of very good reasons for presenting the information in the form of a book." The first is pragmatic -- "that's where the money is," he said. "And two, in my opinion, that's still where the audience is. I do hope, and even expect, that in five or ten years the book will find a home on the Internet, but I also hope that I'm still making a few dollars from the project then."
And Neyer does continue to use the electronic publishing world effectively, in the same way he did with Lineups. Information that was omitted from the book, for instance, is being published on RobNeyer.com as he becomes aware of it. Presumably, if there are errors -- and in a book of this length and type, that is a Beltran-will-be-traded certainty -- Neyer will acknowledge and address them on his site, as he also did for Lineups.
Yes, Mitch Williams is in the Book
An Internet home for this book in ten years or so would give it a virtual life span of more than two decades from conception to (online) connection; this project has been in the works since the Blue Jays were last World Series champions.
"The self-serving answer is that it took us twelve years to research and write this book," said Neyer. "And it's true that we first began compiling the data in 1992, when I worked as Bill's research assistant, and didn't 'finish' the project until the fall of 2003."
However, he said, there were entire years in that span of time when he didn't do anything with the project, and he and James didn't even discuss it. "I would guess that all of the work we did, while it stretched over nearly a dozen years, could be compressed into roughly two years if that were all we'd been doing," said Neyer.
In fact, he added, "It's worth noting that we didn't agree to put this stuff into a book until about two years ago. Prior to that, first it was just something fun to fool around with." Then James decided to include some of the material in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, but that, too, ended up on the cutting room floor.
"[When] there wasn't room in the Historical book ... Bill asked me to come aboard for a new book. Took me about eight seconds to agree," recalled Neyer.
The Neyer/James team -- it's presented that way in the title, while the byline splits alphabetically, as "by Bill James and Rob Neyer" in the ultimate democratic co-authorship -- may date back more than a decade, and Neyer admits "there will always be a mentor/student dynamic in our relationship." However, he said, "after twelve years -- I left his employ at the end of 1992 -- I don't have [many hangups] left. Bill's a friend first, a colleague second, and a mentor third."
"Hey, We've Known Each Other For a Long Time"
Because more than half the book is what Neyer called "a recitation of research," he said there wasn't much "writing" involved, at least of the collaborative let-me-take-a-whack-at-that-so-called-"draft"-of-yours type. Perhaps that's a good thing; at one point in the chapter on sliders, Neyer claims a difference of opinion on whether or not the breaking of the wrist was required in the pitch's definition nearly led to the demise of the book.
Whether that anecdote is purely hyperbolic is beside the point; when they could, the two co-authors simply divided up the "writing" part of the book into individually bylined chapters. "When we finished an article, we'd send it to the other for comments, but for the most part we didn't have many comments about the other's work," he said. "Hey, we've known each other for a long time."
For that matter, the bylines are almost unnecessary; it's pretty clear, stylistically, who's writing what.
Any one of James' chapters -- examining subjects like Warneke and Friend and tending to be slightly longer -- would fit neatly in a compendium of the historical-scientific essays on baseball famously penned by Steven Jay Gould. They seem to focus as much on the circumstance of a pitcher's career as his personality.
Alternatively, Neyer's chapters -- which rely much more on longish excerpts and quotes about subjects like Pierce and Harder -- are much more purely character studies. It's a good mix -- an effective use of the change-of-pace, to use the parlance of the book.
What readers won't find in this book is the caustic, sometimes self-deprecating tone that has become a familiar rhythm in James' and especially Neyer's previous work. "It's just not that kind of book," said Neyer. "In most of the work that Bill and I have done, on some level the subject, or at least one of the subjects, is us. You know, sort of 'I'm writing about this and here's what I think. So love me for being so bloody smart! Or hate me, but please have a strong feeling one way or the other, because that's how I pay the bills.'"
This approach to writing, which has been outlined and defended by several members of the Box Lineup in this space previously, does lend itself to -- perhaps even requires -- the more self-conscious "presence" of the writer or writers in the text; in this particular book, Neyer is quite correct. It would seem out of place -- an obstacle.
After all, he explained, "This book isn't really about us at all. It's about the pitchers. And while Bill and I both appear from time to time in the first person, that's as much out of habit as design. I won't mind at all if people enjoy the book but can't remember whose names were on the cover."
Is That Eck Trotting in From the Pen?
So, the key question in any book review, of course, comes down to this: should you buy it? Say, for Father's Day next Sunday? Like the earlier question, the one word answer is … well, maybe.
The bottom line is that Neyer fans are going to have to start paying to read his work at some level -- beginning tomorrow, his four-times-weekly column on ESPN.com moves to the subscriber-only "Insider" portion of the site. And the book -- remember, earlier, Neyer admitted, "in my opinion, that's still where the audience is" -- probably is headed for that "Hall of Fame" career on bookshelves of fans everywhere.
"I have absolutely no doubt that this book will outsell anything I've done before," concluded Neyer. "If only because if I hadn't written this book, I would have to own it."
The book is 484 pages and is currently listed with a cover price of CDN$24.50 and US$16.95, though prices on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca are running somewhat lower. If you're going to buy it and want to do Neyer a favor, pick it up through the associates link on his Web site.