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Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Cooperstown Casebook: A Review

Everybody loves a good debate, and in the baseball world such arguments are typically most spirited when it comes to discussing the Hall of Fame. From who should be in to who is overrated, the number of points of contention are practically endless. Jay Jaffe has written the next great primer on this topic with his The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, who should be in, and who should pack their plaques (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press- 2017).

Jaffe, a writer for Sports Illustrated and creator of the JAWS player rating system, has long been at the forefront of conversations about who should be in and out in the Hall of Fame. He uses “new stats” (think WAR, park adjusted offense, defensive runs saved, etc...) instead of relying on the counting statistics that so many used heavily to measure Hall-worthiness in the past.

Although this book does rely heavily on advanced baseball statistics, it does a fantastic job of not only explaining what they are but why they matter. Additionally, there is no assertion that these numbers are the end-all, be-all, but rather a newer way to examine and appreciate the impact various players have had on the game’s history. Jaffe also discusses a fair amount of the politics of previous elections, especially those related to the Veteran’s Committee. It certainly appears that some players had extra boosts because of former teammates or friends who were involved in the voting.

Debating the merits of baseball hall of famers is a cottage industry. It is perhaps the one thing that most consistently keeps the sport in the headlines, as there has never been unanimous agreement over whether or not the correct candidates have been enshrined. The first quarter of the book examines how players have been elected in the past; what criteria has been used; biases that may have played roles and how new stats are starting to turn things on their head. It is an excellent primer to familiarize readers with all previous levels of knowledge of such things.

Baseball junkies will likely go gaga for the second portion of The Cooperstown Casebook, which takes a position-by-position look at a sampling of players both in, out and upcoming for election to the Hall of Fame. Although the synopsis for each player is brief (typically no more than 2-3 pages), there is an incredible amount of information packed in to give the reader a lot to think about. Players who have thus far been snubbed (i.e. Dwight Evans, Alan Trammell and Larry Walker); elected but over-celebrated or underappreciated (i.e. Phil Rizzuto, Bobby Doerr and Kid Nichols); and those with compelling cases for induction once they are eligible (i.e. Adrian Beltre, Bobby Abreu and Chase Utley) are presented in ways that fans may have never seen before.

While Jaffe’s work will not remove anyone from the Hall of Fame, it's very possible it could help sway some voters who may have held previous stances on candidates who would have not received future votes otherwise. At a minimum, readers should delight in rehashing players and reviewing evidence that has not been presented in such a way before. The Cooperstown Casebook is not only ground breaking; it’s well researched, well written and a heck of a lot of fun. In a genre that often struggles to reach new heights, that is no problem for this book, which soars and looks by all accounts to be a first-ballot hall of famer itself.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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