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State of Play - TGP Book Review #1

A new semi-regular series of reviews of baseball-themed books, beginning with Bill Ripken’s State of Play.

State of Play author Bill Ripken
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Welcome to the first of what will hopefully become a semi-regular series here at The Good Phight, featuring reviews of newly released books about the Phillies or baseball in general, or just whatever I feel like. First up is Bill Ripken’s State of Play: The Old School Guide to New School Baseball.

Ripken, best known for his older brother, Cal Ripken Jr., the Iron Man, had a twelve-year MLB career himself, compiling 674 hits in 912 games for four different AL teams, retiring in 1998. He now serves as an analyst for MLB Network, having won an Emmy award for his work on MLB Tonight. He and his brother operate the Ripken Foundation and are the minds behind Cal Ripken Baseball. State of Play is his look at how the “new school” of baseball analysis looks from an “old school” perspective.

Ripken offers 25 chapters on different topics. Beginning with his father, Cal Ripken Sr. and the Ripken Way, he then moves on to an examination of more than twenty supposed new-school concepts and their impact on the game. Spoiler alert, he does not like most of them.

Some, such as “Tunneling,” (the idea of a pitcher delivering each of his pitches with the same arm angle and from the same release point) have been around forever, but without a name. Ripken points out, correctly, that Greg Maddux delivered all of his pitches from nearly identical arm slots; but then asks how this was possible if the word “tunneling” hadn’t been invented.

On other topics, Ripken is far more directly critical. He absolutely trashes WAR, and notes that pitcher wins and RBIs are both meaningful concepts. He also has few kind things to say about Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), though to be fair, those are not as widely trusted by the analytic community.

Lest I give the impression that Ripken filled an entire book with complaints, he did not. He has positive things to say about many new concepts and personalities. He is most positive about OPS, not least because it numerically values a hit more than a walk, but also has positive thoughts about other topics as well.

The book is interesting, and an easy read, but it does have some flaws. He misunderstands the definition of WAR, for instance, interpreting the “replacement” to mean that any given AAA player should be worth 0 WAR. Therefore how is it possible that Albert Pujols’ 2017 101 RBIs were worth -1.2 WAR, when seemingly nobody at AAA was capable of doing that in the big leagues. Or when Gary Sanchez was promoted from AA to the Yankees in 2016, because he was at AAA himself, how could he be more valuable than a AAA player?

Now, one needn’t understand the minutia of a concept to have an opinion on it, but it seems that if one is going to go so far as to write a book about a concept, one should understand the basic definition.

Ripken’s conclusion is the best part, in my opinion. Baseball, he writes, has evolved for more than a century and a half and it will continue to do so. The new school seems destined to take an ever greater interest in and control of the game, but as long the old and new coexist, the sport will be in good hands. After all, the game remains based on “pitching and hitting and catching and throwing the baseball.”

I give State of Play two stars out of five. It’s not bad, but it isn’t great, either.

Note: I received a free copy of State of Play from the publisher in exchange for this review. The commentary and rating provided are my own, and were not influenced by the above.