Rob Neyer, “Power Ball”

One single game as prism for understanding today’s game of baseball, Power Ball is fascinating. It’s an ordinary regular-season game—September 8, 2017. Oakland A’s versus the Houston Astros.

Rob Neyer uses each half-inning of action to riff on a facet of the game. Written in a colorful, snazzy style—including a plethora of a footnotes; David Foster Wallace would approve—there is plenty of analytics here for the baseball geeks and ample good storytelling for less intense baseball fans.

“In many ways, this was a meaningless game,” writes Neyer in the prologue. “if you remember who won the World Series seven weeks later, you might think this was an important game on the way to that vicREtory. It was not.” The game is simply a window.

Neyer tasks himself with blending and updating George Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and Dan Okrent’s 1985 offering, Nine Innings.

“Will’s primary interest was in how the players did their work. Lewis’s on how management did their work, and Okrent seems to have been interested in everything. I’ll cop to all of the above, while leaning toward management and taking a great deal of interest in those managing the managers: the people who run Major League Baseball, and the people who run the union.”

Each half inning is a touchstone for a topic.  Usually, it’s a smorgasbord of topics. One thing leads to the next. Yes, there is a thread to the story of the game. Neyer picked a good one. The construct is a bit artificial, but who cares? Neyer clearly loves the game and loves thinking about it even more, the changes in starting pitchers to the use of the C-flap helmets (to protect the face), from the strange fact that there are no “out” gay major league ballplayers (only one ump), to the disappearing ranks of U.S.-born black baseball players. And on and on. Neyer injects ample opinion. He isn’t afraid to scold MLB for how poorly it supports youth baseball or weigh in on the various strategies being deployed to speed up the game.

Neyer goes micro and macro—even pondering the evolution of stadium styles and questionable locations in many coastal cities, where sea levels are rising.

The game has changed. The game is still changing. Neyer peels back the layers, takes us the behind the scenes, and occasionally just sits back and asks a question about the culture in the clubhouse, the future of umpiring (robots are on the way), or some simple question about why pitchers don’t wear protective helmets (comfortable pitching headgear exists).

Baseball has problems. Neyer points to all the reasons why change is hard, with billionaire owners and millionaire players more concerned about their welfares and futures, all at the expense of fans. Some teams are bent on mediocrity and go ahead and plan on losing 100 games because they can’t win ninety.

Neyer’s book certainly won’t convert non-believers into rabid baseball fans, but any baseball fan who reads Power Ball will watch the next game with a keener eye, a deeper sense of what’s going on down on the field, how the game got to this particular point in its history, and where it might be going. Like a pitcher with many options, Neyer throws great stuff.