FanGraphs Book Club – The Shift

Russell Carleton’s book earned wide praise within the industry, including from Sam Miller, Keith Law and Travis Sawchik.

Hi everyone! Welcome to the third live chat of the FanGraphs Book Club! We’ll get started talking Russell Carleton’s book, The Shift, at 9 pm ET, and Russell will join us at 9:30. That’ll give us all 30 minutes to talk about the book amongst ourselves, and line up some really great questions for him. So, I would say, don’t put questions in for Russell now, let’s save those until he logs on to the chat.

I hope you all are as excited as I am to talk baseball books! As a reminder, if you want to join our Facebook Group you can do so here.

Chat Transcript:

Paul Swydan: Hi everybody!

Paul Swydan: Doing some polls. How is everybody doing tonight?

Paul Swydan:

I finished ___% of the book.

0-19 (0% | 0 votes)
20-39 (12.5% | 1 vote)
40-59 (12.5% | 1 vote)
60-79 (0% | 0 votes)
80-99 (25.0% | 2 votes)
100!!! (50.0% | 4 votes)
What’s a book? (0% | 0 votes)

Total Votes: 8
Paul Swydan:

How will you be spending Thanksgiving?

Eating and drinking too much. (40.0% | 2 votes)
Avoiding family members. (0% | 0 votes)
Reading baseball books. (0% | 0 votes)
All of the above? (60.0% | 3 votes)

Total Votes: 5
Paul Swydan: So, OK, we’re talking about Russell’s book tonight. This is the first of the three books we’ve done for the Book Club that I didn’t review for THT. But I loved this book. My favorite part was how Russell weaved in personal stories.

Paul Swydan: I thought it kept the book grounded. It also had the trademark touches, sharp wit about what people get wrong about the book without being acidic or bitter.

Paul Swydan: about the game, that is.

Paul Swydan: The other thing I really liked was his ability to use famous examples to kick start each discussion. Like the Gordon trying to score in Game 7 example.

Andrea’s Fault: Plus weaving in all the personal stories stresses one of the book’s key points–baseball players are people too. It’s too easy for us to think of them existing only in game time (and perhaps fantasy baseball makes that even more of a problem).

Paul Swydan: Yes, that’s a very good point. That comes across really well in the discussion about David Ortiz bunting. It’s not just whether it would be the optimal outcome.

Paul Swydan: It also comes across in the chapter, “Why Does It Feel So Icky?” It’s one thing to know the math, but it’s another to put it into practice. I thought he did a great job of conveying that.

Paul Swydan: One of the big problems with non-fiction books like this is that it can feel like old news by the time it comes out. I remember every year holding my breath for the two months between when people submitted essays for the THT Annual and when we published the book. I didn’t think this book felt stale though. What did you guys think?

Andrea’s Fault: After all, how many of us feel after each day at work, “Jeez, I nailed it today!” But if baseball players don’t nail it every day, fans aren’t happy. The psychology angle Carleton brings is wonderfully illuminating.

Paul Swydan: Absolutely. Closers are expected to never blow a save. Starters are expected to put up a quality start every game. Etc. We have  very little tolerance for poor performance, even in isolation.

Andrea’s Fault: And there are so many reasons to not do well–you might just swing through a strike, or you might be thinking about your mom and her ALS.

Paul Swydan: Absolutely. Or maybe the pillow in the hotel was too lumpy or firm. I find that hotel pillows are rarely to my liking, because I don’t like firm pillows. I couldn’t imagine having to travel all the time. I’d probably become one of those people who travels with their own pillow.

Scott Lu: Hi guys, I feel the same can be said about Mike Jirschele’s call in 2015 World Series, it could be the fear toward those little tolerance that he made a math proven poor decision to hold the runner.

Paul Swydan: Definitely. No one wants to be responsible for the final out of the World Series. If he sends him, and Gordon is out by a lot, is he fired on the spot? If he holds him, maybe something else good happens and everyone forgets about the decision.

Paul Swydan: I also liked the way Russell framed each discussion. For instance, in the “This Isn’t a Babysitters Club” chapter, he breaks down all the things a manager actually does during a game. I thought that was great.

Paul Swydan: I do think a lot of what makes a book effective is how it is organized. If you flit from one tangent to the next, it’s hard to keep people’s attention.

svan: russell’s technical chops are universally regarded, and part of what made the shift special to me was his ability to go beyond speculating about what implementation of saber ideas would do/mean/require psychologically.  that said, i think the point that has stuck with me most was his materialist take on why media, spectators, etc. grew to appreciate batting average over, say, plate discipline (page 215 or thereabout, i think).  it is [or was previousy] impossible for nearly everyone to tell how many pitches just off the corner a batter laid off of, whereas hits were very easy to observe.

Paul Swydan: Yeah, that is a great passage. If you didn’t make it that far, here’s my favorite part:

Paul Swydan: “By the time radio and television were widespread, baseball already had an entire language, poetic and numerical, that it used to talk about itself. The fundamental assumption of that language was what happened at the end of the at-bat was what mattered, with special preference given to things that the fans could see from the stands. Television might be able to show the movement of the pitches, but by the time television came around, there were few words to describe how pitch movement affected the game and the fans watching at home didn’t grow up speaking them.”

Paul Swydan: I think that last part is the most important. Our grandparents (or great-grandparents, depending on how old you are) simply didn’t grow up watching baseball the same way we do today. That’s certainly not something I had ever pondered before.

Russell Carleton: And good morning, good afternoon, good evening, as the case may be across these many time zones.

Paul Swydan: Hey Russell!

GYatch: Carleton does a great job at revealing a-ha moments. Why are we so results-focused as baseball fans, beyond, of course, we want our teams to win? We are certainly entering the great age of considering the process, thanks to Statcast and more. And it is a whole new language. For if you can’t speak about it, does it happen?

Russell Carleton: Paul told me that if I showed up, there would be cookies, but apparently, you have to accept their privacy policy for that.

Paul Swydan: Absolutely. It’s why so many people love Tampa Bay and Oakland right? They’re thinking about the game the right way, even if it doesn’t end with wins.

Paul Swydan: Wait, I thought you were making cookies, Russell?

Russell Carleton: I grew up making cookies with my dad, so I can whip up a batch.

Paul Swydan: Nice!

svan: thanks, yes, that exactly.  a blindspot induced by the inability to measure, and then also the inability to communicate the importance thereof.  actually also surely caused by the inability to think about a topic because we’re missing the words needed to do so, another carelton touchstone 🙂

Paul Swydan: Missing the words, and missing the perspective.

Paul Swydan: Speaking of, Russell, how did you go about selecting the topics for the book?

Russell Carleton: There’s a point to be made in that the goal is eventually to win the game, but I think there’s also some beauty in just watching a team punch above its weight.

Russell Carleton: The topics that ended up in the book were a mangled version of how I had originally laid things out. I was originally going to form them around different cognitive biases that people have, and use examples to show that… but it didn’t work.

Russell Carleton: If you read the first 3-4 chapters, you can kinda see me winding up toward that

Paul Swydan: Oh, interesting. Yeah, definitely. Why didn’t that approach work? Not relatable enough? Not enough material?

Russell Carleton: The material was there, but it turned out not to be a very interesting narrative

Andrea’s Fault: “There’s also some beauty in just watching a team punch above its weight.” Part of that is we like the underdog story, no? Plus, if you’re an Indians fan, or a Mets fan, or a Mariners fan….

Russell Carleton: I quickly realized that it just made more sense to use the boxes that people would already be thinking in (a chapter on managers, a chapter on roster construction, a chapter on GMs)

Russell Carleton: Oh sure, everyone loves an underdog story. Moneyball would have been just another book if it was about the Yankees using analytics (which they do).

Andrea’s Fault: Shouldn’t we all get footlongs?

Russell Carleton: Yes, but it would keep me quiet for two innings, and I’m supposed to be chatting

Paul Swydan: Hahaha. How did it feel to share personal stories in the book?

Paul Swydan: Did it feel different because it was going to be in print?

Russell Carleton: Yes/no/maybe… In the therapy room when I worked as a counselor, I would use personal stories because it put my patients at ease and I could make fun of myself. I didn’t realize how nervous I would be about them being in print until I realized that there were actually print copies out there. It’s being very exposed in a strange way that I hadn’t thought about when I was writing it

GYatch: It was interesting to see that Dave Roberts didn’t appear in any of the manager charts in that chapter. Psychologically, what does it “mean” to be a consecutive WS loser?

Russell Carleton: The therapist in me says that Dave Roberts can think of things two ways. He can see it as losing the WS twice or he can say “I guided a team through a grueling gauntlet to the World Series twice in a row… and then lost on some bad hops.”

Russell Carleton: I hope he picks the latter.

Paul Swydan: Me too. He could always talk to Ron Washington about it.

Russell Carleton: Tell ’em Wash!

GYatch: Is “bad hops” what they call Ryan Madson in the Dodger clubhouse?

Paul Swydan: Ouch.

Paul Swydan: Russell, here’s one for you – did you read up on a lot of baseball books before you wrote yours, or did you go in blind?

Russell Carleton: 10 years ago, Ryan Madson was the guy that you namedropped in a conversation to show that you were smart about baseball. It feels weird to me that was 10 years ago… and that he’s still a roster-able reliever on a playoff team.

Russell Carleton: The problem is that I don’t have a lot of time to read. I read a few just because I like reading books about baseball, but not in a “research-y” way.

Russell Carleton: I used the personal story then whatever topic model because it was the only way I really know how to structure a chapter.

Andrea’s Fault: Russell, how do you feel about TB’s use of the opener, as it sort of seems like they borrowed the idea from you…. And do you think it will grow as an option (and should it)?

Russell Carleton: Bryan Grosnick really laid out the groundwork for The Opener, at least publicly

Russell Carleton: I do think it will grow, but in a backdoor way. Teams are more wary of the third-time-through penalty, which means they know that they are going to need to get more out of their bullpens, which means more games in which they know a certain guy is 95% likely to pitch, which means that you might as well start him anyway, because it gives you longer to go into the game where you can see if your “starter” can stick around for the third time, because it’s 9-3 and why not let him soak up some innings if he’s already in the game.

Scott Lu: It was a great way to keep us engaged, really enjoyed those connections between life and baseball!

Russell Carleton: Thanks, eventually my wife started talking to me again, so apparently it worked all the way around.

Paul Swydan: Was there any material that you left out of the book? Or did everything make it in?

Russell Carleton: Are you asking if there’s going to be a sequel? 😉

Paul Swydan: Maybe!

Paul Swydan: (Is there?)

Russell Carleton: I’ll put it this way. My original author’s draft was 115,000 words or so. My publisher politely suggested that I find 20,000 or so of them that could be politely excused from the draft.

Paul Swydan: Was that hard to do?

Paul Swydan: I always found it easy to cut down other people’s stories, but I had a hard time cutting my own down.

Russell Carleton: It turned out to be easier than I thought it would be. Partly because I totally overly completely absolutely use too many words in my prose.

Russell Carleton: Some of it was just tightening stuff up, but there’s material on the proverbial cutting room floor

Paul Swydan: Awesome. So we’ll definitely be looking forward to the sequel then!

Russell Carleton: *wry smile*

Paul Swydan: Well, this was a lot of fun. I think it’s just about my bed time though, so we’ll call this a wrap. Thanks very much for hanging out with us, Russell!

Russell Carleton: Thanks for having me here. Thanks to the people who sent in questions. And most of all, thank you for reading my book and not thinking I was an idiot.

GYatch: Thanks, Russell for the great book and stopping by, and thanks, Paul, for holding these! Go, Silver Unicorn!

Andrea’s Fault: Thanks, guys!

Paul Swydan: Absolutely! Night everyone!

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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