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“Playing for a Winner” explains the media’s effect on players’ Hall of Fame chances

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A book came out recently — I just got my copy this week — that does something no other baseball book that I am aware of has ever done: it seeks to quantify the way in which media coverage impacts a player’s fame and, in turn, his Hall of Fame chances.

The book is called “Playing for a Winner” and it was written by Brandon Isleib. Brandon is a baseball scholar and writer I’ve known for several years — we both used to contribute to The Hardball Times — and he first told me about the idea for it in 2015. I was so taken with the idea that, after Brandon showed me early drafts of his work, I agreed to write the Foreword to it. I don’t get a dime for this, though. I’m recommending it because it’s a fascinating new way to look at players’ legacies that is in 100% keeping with the sorts of things we talk about here. Indeed, Brandon says in the book that part of the inspiration for it came from this dang article.

Hmm. Why am I not getting a dime for this again? Anyway:

playing-for-a-winnerWhat Brandon does here is to quantify the “spotlight” in which a given player played. Meaning, figuring out how long and how strongly a player’s team contended for the pennant in any given year, with the understanding that the stronger the team and more competitive the team is in a race, the more spotlight will be shone on the team. In turn, the players who play the best for that team will get more ink too and their accomplishments will be more well known and appreciated.

This explains a lot of weirdness in the Hall of Fame results for a lot of players. But it doesn’t just explain why guys who played for winners are more appreciated than guys who played for losers. For example, Dwight Evans and Jim Rice played for the same Red Sox teams and, in the aggregate, Evans was the better player. So why is Rice in the Hall of Fame and Evans not? Mostly because Rice’s best seasons came in seasons when the Red Sox won or challenged for pennants and Evans’ came in less successful Sox years. More attention was paid to a peak Jim Rice and less to a peak Dewey. Rice was simply in the spotlight more.

Isleib does not leave it to such summary explanations, however. He has quantified the “spotlight” factor and applies it exactingly. Rather than merely look at team records at the end of the season, he looks at each season as it unfolded. A team that was in a dogfight, day after day, in August and September, was going to be in the spotlight more and its best players highlighted more. A team which wrapped up its business for all practical purposes by the All-Star break was going to fade from the headlines.

Isleib’s book looks at something completely new and, even if you are skeptical of its premise, its season-by-season journey through history is massively rewarding for baseball history buffs. While a lot of people can tell you about, say, the 1969 pennant races, even the most hardcore baseball fans likely couldn’t tell you what was going on, specifically, each week and month of the second half. This book gives us that sort of thing and in doing so talks about players you either forgot about or never heard about at all.

“Playing for a Winner” is more academic and scholarly than a lot of baseball books on the market, but don’t let that scare you. It’s a fresh and rewarding look at baseball history which sheds light onto some of the historical conundrums we still argue about today. And its framework and approach, looking forward, will make you smarter when the inevitable arguments about a player’s Hall of Fame case comes up in the future.

The Red Sox start is ridiculous

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The red-hot Red Sox completed a sweep of the previously red-hot Angels last night, outscoring them 27-3 in their three-game series. Last night’s game was, relatively speaking, a close one, with the Sox winning “only” by six runs. They did manage to strike out Shohei Ohtani three times, though, so some style points help make up for the “squeaker.” Also worth noting that they held Mike Trout of all people to a 3-for-11 line in their three-game series. He did not score a single time and drove in no runs.

That series win puts the Sox at 16-2 on the year. They dropped their Opening Day game to the Rays, but then won their next six games against Tampa Bay, which I’d say makes up for it. In between those two series they swept a two-game series from the Marlins and afterwards they took two of three from the Yankees and three in a row from the Orioles. The only thing that even threatened to slow this juggernaut down is the weather, resulting in a postponement of Monday morning’s Patriot’s Day game.¬†Somewhere in here we should notice that they’re doing this with their starting shortstop and starting second baseman on the disabled list.

As we’ve noted many times, their 16-2 record is the best start in the Red Sox’ 118-year history. It’s also the best start for any team since the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers began 17-1 (let us just forget, for the time being, that those Brewers lost 18 of 20 in May of that year). They are the fourth team since 1961 to win 16 of its first 18 games.

The Sox aren’t simply getting lucky here. They’ve scored 116 runs and have allowed only 50, which is a Pythagorean record of 15-3. They lead all of baseball in offense, scoring 6.44 runs a game, leading individually in average, on-base percentage and slugging. They are only three one hundredths of a run behind the Astros from leading all of baseball in pitching, allowing only 2.78 runs a game. They’re winning all of these games because, in the early going, they’ve simply been that dang much better than everyone they’ve played.

No, the Sox are not going to go 144-18, as they are currently on pace to do. Yes, they are going to find a lot more trouble in their schedule once they play the Orioles, Rays and Marlins less, play a healthier Yankees team more and face off against the Astros, the Blue Jays, the Indians, the Twins and some tougher interleague opponents. This is baseball, obviously, and no one makes it through a season without rough patches, long, short and numerous.

Still: this has been one whale of a start for Boston. Those wins are in the bank. It’s been quite the thing to see.