More than anything, I like to read articles and books with insightful writing and analysis. I enjoy them all the better when I also know the author. In Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think), I have found a book that offers everything dear to me.
Dayn Perry, the author of Winners, is not a new name to those of us who spend time reading baseball articles online. He writes for FoxSports.com and Baseball Prospectus. Dayn has also contributed two guest columns to Baseball Analysts.
Winners is a detailed look at the 124 teams that made it to the playoffs from 1980 through 2003. Dayn sorts out the myths from reality by examining the strengths, weaknesses, and common threads of these successful ball clubs. He shares their strategies and principles while entertaining readers with stories of great teams and players.
Courtesy of Wiley, the publisher of Winners, you can read the first chapter (pdf file) in its entirety to get a flavor for Dayn's storytelling ability and analytical prowess.
I had the chance to interview Mr. Perry during the past week. I hope you enjoy it as much as I liked his first book.
Rich: Winners. How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones. Nice title. Why couldn't you have left it at that, my friend? I mean, was the parenthetical comment (and It's Not the Way You Think) really necessary?
Dayn: That was the publisher's decision. I'm with you, though--I'm a little put off by haughtiness in titles, and I think the whole shtick is a little played out. However, I think the book itself is substantially more modest in its delivery.
Rich: The book is more than modest. The book itself is a great read. I'm not even against the parenthetical subtitles in the chapters as I believe they help frame the discussion at hand.
Dayn: Yeah, I think those were actually a bit helpful in terms of giving the reader the lay of the land. What can I say? I suppose subtitles are a tricky business. I do, however, prefer the humble approach when it comes to titling. My affection for Philip Roth's "The Great American Novel" notwithstanding.
Rich: Being a St. Louis Cardinals fan, what made you choose Derek Jeter as the coverboy of Winners?
Dayn: Another publisher's decision. Still, when you think of quintessential winning ballplayers in the modern era, Jeter's bound to come to mind. He's also eminently recognizable--even with his nameless back to the lens.
Rich: You claim there's no such thing as a player who "knows how to win." If so, how can Jetes be considered a "winning ballplayer?"
Dayn: Actually, that's mostly a marketing flourish found on the back flap. I don't think I've said anything like that. If you want to conflate this topic with clutchness, I'll say I do believe players respond to pressure situations with varying degrees of success. I believe in clutch performers; I just think it's difficult to identify them mid-career.
Rich: Let me ask you this: are there players who "know how to lose?"
Dayn: On the other side of this, I think there are players who wilt under the glare of, say, Yankee Stadium or the World Series or the All-Star Game or against Roger Clemens or whatever. We all have situations that gum up our ability to respond with poise and efficiency. So, yeah, I think there are players out there who might be quality "low-leverage" ballplayers but might not be ideally suited to the wide stage, however the wide stage is defined. Reminds me of a great line from a Tom Drury novel I read in grad school: "I'm not a loser, but I've lost things."
Rich: In your opening chapter, entitled "The Slugger," you make the case that hitting for power is more important than getting on base. Has anyone banned you from sabermetric circles yet?
Dayn: Not as of yet, but I don't know that I ever had strong bona fides in that regard. In terms of correlating with the scoring of runs, yeah, SLG is more important than OBP, but both are substantially more important than AVG. We knew the latter point already, but some may be surprised to see SLG's superior correlation over the years. I was.
Rich: You make the point that isolated power (ISO), which is slugging average minus batting average, has an even stronger correlation to winning than SLG. That means extra base hits are really the most important, single stat of 'em all.
Dayn: Yeah, I thought that was curious. ISO doesn't correlate well with run scoring (worse than AVG, in fact), but it's common to winning teams. That is, winning teams generally post higher ISOs than non-contenders. So, yeah, as you surmised, doubles and homers are where it's at for winning offenses.
Rich: Your work points out that winning teams were better at preventing runs than scoring runs. Does that mean pitching and defense are more important than hitting in building a successful team?
Dayn: Yeah, but it's by a rather narrow margin. Specifically, since 1980 teams making the playoffs have ranked higher in their league and bettered the league average by wider margin in runs allowed than in runs scored. Please forgive that crime of syntax right there. That sort of dovetails with the traditional notion that pitching and defense win games, but the vehemence with which that's parroted overstates the relationship. They're both vital, of course, and most teams can't get by if they brazenly neglect one or the other. One of the recurring discoveries was that balance is vital--a balanced rotation, a balanced bullpen, a balanced lineup, and a balanced team. Winning teams tend to be solid to very good at everything as opposed to unfathomably awesome at one element of the game and rather lousy at another. There are exceptions, of course, but those are, well, exceptions.
Rich: I agree with you. I think balance is the key to a winning baseball team. Heck, I think balance is the key to life. That said, which championship teams have been the most unbalanced?
Dayn: Interesting question. I wouldn't call them a championship team by any means, but the wild card-winning '95 Rockies were almost completely carried by their bullpen. Other examples ... the '01 Yankees had an awful team defense; the '95 Red Sox, on a park-adjusted basis, didn't have much of an offense; the '90 Red Sox were painfully slow; and the '87 Twins--who, of course, won the World Series--had a pretty awful pitching staff, as winning teams go. So there are a number of exceptions to the "balanced" principle, but it's nevertheless generally how things get done.
Rich: Oh great, Dayn. That'll do wonders for Bert Blyleven's chances of getting elected to the Hall of Fame.
Dayn: Well, let me amend that. Blyleven was above-average that year, Frank Viola was excellent, and Les Straker was solid, but the back of the rotation and almost the entirety of the bullpen (save Juan Berenguer) were not optimal, to say the least. Incidentally, I'm somewhat heartened by the progress Blyleven made in the most recent round of balloting.
Rich: I am, too. And don't think for a moment that I didn't notice the two full pages you devoted to Bert in "The Veteran and the Youngster (or, What Teams Can Learn from a Bottle of Wine)."
Dayn: He certainly warrants them. Like you, I'm a shrill advocate for Blyleven's election to the Hall of Fame. And I hope, at the very least, I demonstrated that he's the greatest Dutch-born player in the annals of the sport.
Rich: Your book is much more narrative than just numbers. Although I love stats, I really liked how you told stories about so many different players, from Pedro Guerrero in the first chapter to Darrell Evans in one of the later chapters. Those were fun reads.
Dayn: Thanks, Rich. That was certainly by design. I don't enjoy reading books that are driven by something other than a narrative, and reams and reams of numbers, while useful for reference purposes, aren't all that interesting. So the book has stories, anecdotes and profiles throughout. The numbers undergird all the conclusions, but stories make the book, I hope, an interesting read.
Rich: Kevin Towers gave Winners a ringing endorsement. If he hired you as assistant general manager, what words of wisdom would you have for Kevin in the aftermath of your studies on how to build a championship ball club?
Dayn: Well, Kevin already has a highly capable and skilled assistant GM in Fred Uhlman Jr., but I'll bite anyway ... (Let's keep in mind that many of these suggestions are best implemented early in the gestation period.) I'd bolster the middle-relief corps, I'd be less hesitant to platoon veterans like Ryan Klesko and Vinny Castilla (Russ Branyan would've been a great fit for this team), and I'd spend some dough to shore up the back of the rotation. Vague enough?
Rich: All of your ideas sound like winners to me.
* * * * *
Dayn Perry's new book "Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think)" is now available at Amazon.com and major bookstores.