Pictured below, among the ephemera of my bedroom office, is a First Edition (Fifth Printing, though) copy of A Thinking Man’s Guide to Baseball (1967) by Leonard Koppett, lent to me by a friend. In subsequent editions the title was changed to A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball, because, well, people who aren’t “men” are baseball fans, too.
In the introduction, Koppett makes explicit his assumptions about his readers:
That you would enjoy knowing more about Baseball, as it exists in the middle 1960’s, than daily newspapers and broadcasts can convey.
That you would prefer the realities, even if they seem complicated and sometimes incomplete, to myths and clichés, however neat.
That you take baseball fairly seriously — but never too seriously — and feel some curiosity about its techniques as well as its personalities.
And that, no matter how familiar you may be with certain aspects of this complex industry and fascinating sport, there are other aspects that having come to your attention. (7-8)
This precedes Bill James’s first baseball abstract by ten years, but it smacks of the same attitude. You can imagine that I had high hopes for what was to follow.
Of course, the book lacks the statistical heft of a Jamesian volume; that was to be expected. Instead, Koppett attempts to parse the psychology of the game in ways that are not, or at least were not obvious, and this the process he traces famous baseball lingo and clichés to their roots.
The first two chapters — “The Artist At Bat” and “The Other 75 Percent” — being the only two that I’ve read thoroughly to this point, detail what a batter and a pitcher will — or should — be thinking in any given matchup. The former chapter begins with a one-sentence paragraph: “Fear.” The first thing every batter must learn, Koppett imparts, is to conquer the fear of a solid object flying at towards his head at 90 MPH. This can only be done through repetition. Likewise, because a human cannot consciously think about all the things that his/her body would be doing in attempting to hit such an object with another equally narrow object, the physical process of hitting must be learned through repetition until it becomes a subconscious act. Similarly, the physical delivery of the ball on the part of the pitcher must also be perfected through repetition.
However, precursory to either of these physical acts (delivering a pitch or swinging the bat to hit a pitch), is a unique and, ideally, conscious psychological interplay between the hitter and the pitcher, wherein each consciously considers several mitigating factors and each plays a guessing game…
I wonder how much of this — i.e. how many of Koppett’s ideas — are now second nature to the “thinking fan.” Having never been coached as a player myself, having never been a baseball insider, I’ve never had the execution of the “game on the field” explained to me. I haven’t read books on coaching or strategy. Still, nothing that Koppett wrote for the first 70 or so pages of A Thinking [Fan’s] Guide has seemed new to me (though that’s not to say it’s uninteresting). Furthermore, I didn’t even begin seriously consuming analytical writing on baseball until after Bill James had quit the abstracts and started with The Bill James Handbooks.
For my own part, then, I feel as though I’ve absorbed at least some basic awareness of on-field psychology and the physics of baseball through a mostly stats-focused bibliography. I’m interested in how other smelly, mother’s-basement-dwelling nerd feel about their own experiences; I realize that this might be a confusing inquisition without having read Koppett’s book/chapters.
I suspect that the proliferation of statistical analysis in baseball is starting in a fan base that is more informed, more “thinking” — not only with regards to player value/performance, but also regarding the economic, historical, scientific, judicial, and strategic aspects of the game. I want to write a book on this, penultimately.
But, ultimately, I won’t write that book, because I am a lout.