You might already know the name Rob Neyer before you pick up the book Power Ball. Neyer is one of the baseball analytics OGs, having written for ESPN around the turn of the century, promoting sabermetric ideas at a time when that was not nearly as common or as cool as it is now.
Given the length of his career and the statistical revolution, you may also already have experience with the general premise of Power Ball by the time you are only a few pages into the book.
Power Ball is presented in the same vein as Arnold Hano’s A Day in the Bleachers or Dan Okrent’s Nine Innings. The idea is simple: take a random, seemingly meaningless regular season game and use it as the scaffolding to tell a grander story about baseball as a whole. It’s a brilliant idea for a set up, and it works exceptionally well as a storytelling device.
We get to see the Oakland A’s and Houston Astros play a meaningless game in September of 2017, but, of course, the meaning (and the beauty) is actually all around, surrounding and warming us like only baseball can do.
However, don’t let the fact that you think you know everything about Power Ball turn you off. It’s full of pleasant surprises. For one, Neyer is not afraid to speak his mind. This has never been an issue for the Portland, Oregon resident, and at times he has paid the consequences for that.
In Power Ball, in one of its better sections, Neyer speaks with incredulity to the fact that no active baseball player has ever come out as gay. This is something bound to turn off a (hopefully small) minority of readers. There are undoubtedly readers closing the tab on this article right now simply because they are uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality in the sport of baseball. Neyer is not one of those people, and I respect that he finds the time in his book to say so. That moment is also a perfect example of how broad and wide-ranging Neyer’s approach is in Power Ball.
Neyer “sticks to the game” even less than Hano and Okrent, and you get the sense that he will undoubtedly receive plenty of trolling, “stick to sports” tweets when readers get their hands on Power Ball. Neyer touches on basically every progression to the modern game you can imagine: shifting, statcast, launch angle, politics, the scope is wide.
At times, the book is like taking a stroll down memory lane, if memory lane were intersecting with Baseball Drive.
With Neyer’s knowledge and historical perspective, what could be a rote, rerun of any FanGraphs article you’ve read over the past decade pops instead. The reader learns that the “Williams Shift” was first used in 1877 by player-manager Bob “Death to Flying Things” Ferguson, while also getting behind-the-scene peaks into the front office of the Astros organization, all with Neyer’s typically engaging and easy-to-read manner.
The book flies by, with each half inning (or chapter) making its own distinct impression on the broader text. The book often reads like one of the endlessly satisfying baseball conversations you stumble into at a bar or riding on public transit. What begins with a light-hearted comment on a shared Evan Longoria shirtsey spirals into a good-natured debate over whether or not the ball was juiced, and if baseball history is truly cyclical or not.
Power Ball works as a Greatest Hits compilation album of the past 10 years of baseball analytics, but also works as a thoroughly engaging Baseball Story from one of the most informed and professorial baseball minds we have around today.
About the Author
Rob Neyer wrote for ESPN for 15 years from 1996 to January 2011. He has also been National Baseball Editor for SB Nation, a baseball writer for Fox Sports, and a researcher for Bill James. He’s a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. A native of Kansas City, Missouri, he lives with his family in Portland, Oregon, and currently serves as Commissioner of the West Coast League, the premier collegiate summer baseball league west of the Mississippi River. For more information, please visit www.robneyer.com and find @robneyer on Twitter.