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Published: Saturday, 7/14/2007

Baseball: Looking at the game from 2 different angles



HOW BILL JAMES CHANGED OUR VIEW OF BASEBALL. By Rob Never and Alan Schwart, edited by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce. ACTA Sports. 139 pages. $15.95.

This is a book with arguments redolent of beer and peanuts rather than meticulous statistical analysis - and Jayson Stark makes that work.

Stark is funny, folksy, and comfortable with the fact that framing his argument for Dave Winfield as the most overrated right fielder in baseball history is not akin to geopolitical analysis.

"These ratings are completely arbitrary,'' he writes in the introduction. "I could have gone by some strict mathematical formula - but everybody knows those mathematical formulas are overrated.''

Before he tells you Nolan Ryan is the most overrated right-handed pitcher in history, though, Stark wants you to know that's no insult.

"Nolan Ryan was great. In his own way. Just not as great as three-quarters of the planet seems to think he was."

Then he throws out enough stats to show why Ryan, who lost a lot of games as he walked small villages of batters, is overrated, and fellow fireballer Bob Feller, who lost his prime to World War II, is underrated.

If for no other reason, this book should be read for its resurrection of true greats such as Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, and Yogi Berra, the last of whom could play even better than he could talk funny.

And who can't love an author who hates the designated hitter and calls the save "the most overrated stat in baseball?"

Even baseball obsessives can learn something; Stark's argument for Babe Ruth as the most underrated left-handed pitcher of all time shows convincingly that Ruth was the equal of Walter Johnson when both were in their prime. But it's the overrated bunch (Pirates' Manny Sanguillen and Pie Traynor among them) who will spark the most debate. People don't want to hear their heroes were overrated, but many are.

It's like what pop music critic Ed Masley says about the Beatles:

"Without a doubt, the most important artists in the history of rock 'n' roll ... but no one's as important, or as good, as the mythical Beatles of popular legend.''

So don't feel so bad, Andruw Jones, that you've been declared the most overrated center fielder of all time.

This new title is another quick read that is worth a fan's time this summer. Bill James, who began self-publishing books of baseball analysis in the late 1970s, changed the way tens of thousands of seamheads look at the sport.

A gifted writer and a creative thinker, James is celebrated in How Bill James Changed Our View Of Baseball by more than a dozen people who can be described similarly.

James' distrust of conventional wisdom, faith in hard thinking, and desire to find for himself what wins and what loses is a thought process that need not be confined to the ballparks.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Brian O'Neill is a columnist for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: boneill@post-gazette.com.

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