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Cut4 Library: 'Big Data Baseball' is the feel-good story about sabermetrics you've always wanted

Hey, remember this scene from "Beauty and the Beast?"


Now imagine that every single one of those books is about America's pastime. Since that library is basically a Mobius strip of printed material, we're here to guide you through it. When we find a fascinating baseball book, you'll be the first to know. Today: "Big Data Baseball." 

The Cut4 Library is a safe space, so let's all just admit something right now: we're a bunch of nerds. At least I am, but you already knew that. After all, I write about books. This book, Travis Sawchik's "Big Data Baseball," is a particular kind of nerd heaven and if you're even vaguely interested in advanced analytics, you should already be halfway through the second chapter by now. 

But even if acronyms like FIP or BABIP make you nervous, this book about the underdog 2013 Pirates' race to the postseason is for you. Sawchik's real achievement is making the sabermetrics story accessible to everyone, even people who might have been scared off by it at first.

"I still hear resentment against this avalanche of analytics," Sawchik told, "but in Pittsburgh, there was a real two-way conversation going on. The analytics guys knew that these coaches and players had life experience they didn't have and used that to ask better questions of the data."

It was those "better questions" that led the Pirates to their first winning season in twenty years, and Sawchik ably makes them accessible and interesting, like the story of Charlie Morton's love affair with PITCH f/x, or the Pirates' quick adoption of the subtle art of pitch framing and its Picasso, Russell Martin.


But nowhere is the intersection of the traditional and the new clearer than in this story about the Pirates celebrating clinching their playoff berth in 2014:

On that celebratory night in Atlanta, as the party wound down and the champagne was exhausted, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker found [data analyst] Mike Fitzgerald standing quietly in the corner of the clubhouse away from the epicenter of the celebration, where the players and coaches were massed. Walker took a Budweiser from an ice-filled bin and walked toward Fitzgerald, dousing the analyst with beer. Fitzgerald, the math genius who had never played professionally, and Walker, drafted out of high school and having spent years in the minors before emerging as an everyday major league player, laughed and celebrated together. The dichotomy between them and yet their acceptance of each other was a snapshot of how far the Pirates had come in creating a culture of respect, a culture that would allow important data to be embraced.


"There's a more casual general audience that isn't necessarily as interested in stats as the niche fan," said Sawchik on making analytics more accessible. "But I also think it's the obligation of the writer to tell the story with the best tools you have. I do think we'll see a change [in baseball writing]. It might be a slow change, but you never saw WAR mentioned five years ago, and now it's almost commonplace." 

The Pirates also embraced the defensive shift in 2013 as well as worked to increase their pitching staff's groundball rate, both of which you can read about in great detail. But if you can read about it in this book, it's a fair bet that other teams can access this information too. There's always a new frontier when it comes to smart use of data, and for the Pirates, it might be preventative health. 

"That's something I'd like to dive into more," said Sawchik. "The next big leap is coming in injury prevention, in keeping players healthy and efficient. The Pirates are studying rest rate of NBA and NHL teams, so you might see something with that in the future." 

Here's hoping there's a director's cut of "Big Data Baseball" that's all about high-tech compression shirts and wearable devices that test a pitcher's elbow stress. Or an actual director's cut; when asked who would play Clint Hurdle if his book got the "Moneyball" treatment, Sawchik said he didn't know anyone who could capture his "big booming voice and physical presence." But if you have any suggestions, let us know.