I recently had the pleasure of visiting Zion National Park in southern Utah, and from the moment I drove the car into the canyon the immensity of that beautiful canyon was overwhelming. Standing in the shadow of the Navajo sandstone towering thousands of feet overhead, it was impossible not to consider the way the Virgin River carved those incredible domes and amphitheaters over millennia of slow, methodical work.
It just so happened the book accompanying me on my trip was the latest from Russell Carleton, The New Ballgame: The Not-So-Hidden Forces Shaping Modern Baseball. As I listened to guides and read signs throughout Zion, I couldn’t help but relate those to what Carleton set out to do in his book.
Baseball is our most conservative sport, famously resistant to change. Just ask an older relative and they’ll remind you that the game is perfect and doesn’t even need to change. But like Zion Canyon, the game of baseball is constantly shifting and becoming something new, and Carleton does a great job tracing the game’s Virgin River, be it Rob Manfred or analytics or just common sense, that slowly shaped the game into the glorious thing it is today.
Carleton is a long-time writer for Baseball Prospectus and previously authored The Shift in 2018. I’ve been a fan of his work for some time because he has a terrific ability to make complex ideas hard and to make big topics feel personal. The Shift was a great collection of essays about how the game had become what it was in ‘18, including (natch) the increased reliance on shifts, but as good as the writing was it was more like a deeper dive into his work at BP than a book-length narrative.
Where The New Ballgame succeeds is in Carleton’s deliberate decision to create a work that runs together to form a cohesive story. Starting from why modern pitching staffs have become so bloated to how that has led teams to develop players in multiple positions and how proper support for minor leaguers is still a crucial aspect of success, he weaves together a story that makes sense and better informs the reader. Throughout, Carleton uses ample statistics and graphs to illustrate and support his points, which breaks up the text and makes it more enjoyable and easier to digest.
Though there are some of what he might call “gory mathematical details,” Carleton is a talented writer — not least because of his ability to make the text relatable. He centers his writing around his “five facts,” or the mini-speech he might share upon meeting someone for the first time. This narrative choice allows him to come back to the fact he’s a father or a psychology researcher or lives in Atlanta in order to associate his personal details to something broad and connect with the reader. The most relatable of his facts for many of you reading this, of course, will be the fact that he’s a native son of Cleveland and has worn the heartbreak of the Guardians the same as the rest of us.
Though he knows our unique sorrow, his experience outside of Cleveland, including stints working for teams such as the Mets, has allowed him a great vantage from which to chronicle the changes in baseball. The New Ballgame is a terrific read because of the way he blends his experience and knowledge with great writing ability.
His personality is equally enjoyable, and I was fortunate enough to have him join me for an interview. You can listen to our full conversation here.
The New Ballgame is available now via Triumph Books. You can find it at your local library or purchase it from an independent retailer or via Bookshop.org.