Watching Baseball Smarter touches on so many aspects of the sport that it invites facile criticism for the many things it doesn’t cover. But I think this is missing the point. Watching Baseball Smarter would arguably be improved by graphics showing the typical path of various pitches — but there are plenty of other sources for pitch visualizations. Does he give short shrift to Sabermetrics? Kinda, although Bill James does warrant a passing mention. But there are other places to read about serious statistical analysis.
Instead, I think it’s fairer to accept that no baseball book can be comprehensive, and ask two things of Hemple’s book: that it deepen the reader’s understanding of (if not appreciation of) the game, and that it be entertaining along the way.
For me, it succeeds on both counts. I came late to baseball fandom, mostly through riding to band rehearsal with avid Sox fan singer Dave Kichen. I initially learned about the game from Dave, and from Jerry Trupiano and Joe Castiglione’s play-by-plays. I pestered Dave with endless questions, but there’s still a lot I don’t know. For instance, Hemple spends a lot of time on why lefty/righty matchups matter. This isn’t something you pick up on so much when your game education comes from the radio, since it’s mostly about sightlines and which way a throwing arm points. The acid test: the first time I watched a game after finishing this book, I really did feel I had a significantly better grasp of why certain base running, stealing, and position substitution decisions were made.
And Watching Baseball Smarter was an enjoyable, if not exactly compelling read. I have the impression that Hemple worked hard to avoid offending readers while still trying to let some of his personality shine through. Probably the most important aspect is that Hemple makes a real effort to portray both sides of baseball’s many debates, e.g, “The new [interleage] matchups, though limited to just a handful of games each year, boosted attendance but angered purists who felt that the World Series should have remained the only meeting between the leagues.” Sometimes he expresses forceful opinions, but usually uncontroversial ones like calling “Minute Maid Park,” “Coors Field,” et al “hideous names.” Hemple steers clear of outright team favoritism, although there’s a discernable amount of National League bias.
needs more demons? nah. but an index would have been helpful.