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Book Review: Ahead of The Curve: Inside The Baseball Revolution by Brian Kenny
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Book Review: Ahead of The Curve: Inside The Baseball Revolution by Brian Kenny - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Ahead of The Curve: Inside The Baseball Revolution by Brian Kenny

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Ahead of The Curve: Inside The Baseball Revolution by Brian Kenny

In case you haven’t been paying attention, professional sports in the United States is in the middle of a strange, beautiful transition: the place where traditional wisdom and big data (and their respective proponents) are banging their heads against each other in athletes’ perpetual fights to get ahead of their competition. Baseball teams are moving their best hitters to the second spot in the batting order, football teams are winning with pass-first offenses, and basketball teams have all but done away with the mid-range jumpshot.

In 2014 we reviewed Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2%, a book about how Wall Street strategies applied to professional baseball were turning the Tampa Bay Rays into contenders despite dwindling attendance and one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues. This approach from an economic, spend-wisely place is one way teams are rethinking the players they pay and the value these players add. But there are (so far) countless other ways to rethink the traditional wisdom, and today every team in pro sports has a group of metrics analysts to interpret the ever-growing data accumulated by the newest technology.

The transition hasn’t been smooth as traditionalists, some of them admitting they shun statistics and advanced technology, accuse analysts of not understanding the game, the heart and sweat that inspire the greatest achievements from the greatest players. Meanwhile, the analysts, pointing to their numbers, seem to insist that everything we valued in our athletes and their performances is wrong.

It’s not that simple, of course. It’s never that simple.

In his 2016 book Ahead of the Curb: Inside the Baseball Revolution (Simon and Schuster, 2016), baseball journalist and TV host Brian Kenny lays down a solid but uncompromising argument for throwing out many of the tried-and-possibly-not-true statistics by which we measure excellence. The RBI, the save, and the stolen base come under particular fire, but also what makes a good baseball manager.

In one very memorable section, Kenny breaks down the traditional (and then-current) managerial qualifications. “To become a major league manager,” he writes, “you need to be one or more of these three things: (1) large, (2) a former catcher, (3) ruggedly handsome. He takes it a step further, categorizing 2014 managers as either “large, catcher, ruggedly handsome” or “not large, not a catcher, not ruggedly handsome.”

On the surface, it’s a silly exercise with an extremely small sample size (there are only 30 managers in baseball at a time), but it’s an excellent example of how in baseball, in business, and in other areas where meritocracy supposedly rules, people hire leaders who look like the leaders they’ve worked for. Kenny quotes a baseball executive who said to him, “We pick from the same talent pool again and again. Ex-players, no college. They coach and teach the same way they were coached and taught. It’s an unending cycle of the game.”

Here is why Kenny’s book is worth examining even if you’ve only a passing interest in pro sports. As a non-athlete who’s been around the game his whole career, he’s not beholden to any conventional wisdom but is clearly very familiar with baseball’s culture and history. While some teams continue to do well operating under old systems, a few teams in recent years have challenged these old systems and succeeded a completely different way. It isn’t just a new look at the old non-diversity in leadership (although we cite this example here because workplace diversity is an issue we champion), but a new look at what we call success and how we measure it.

Because Ahead of the Curve is a baseball book through and through, it will not be for everyone, but if you’ve got a grip on the basic lingo of the National Pastime, you may find a lot of application for success in other realms. Recommended with reservations only about its baseball-heavy content.

 

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Book Review: Ahead of The Curve: Inside The Baseball Revolution by Brian Kenny - Executive Leadership Articles

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