Book Review: ‘Intangiball’

Of more recent vintage but I still have many others to track down.

“Intangiball: The Subtle Things that win Baseball Games”; by Lonnie Wheeler; Simon and Schuster, 2015; 271 pages.

In 2003 the book “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis altered the way people inside and outside of baseball thought about the game. In a narrative rich in characters and texture, Lewis told the story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and how he used modern analytical data known as sabermetrics to almost beat a system built to defeat small market teams with lower payrolls.

The key word here is “almost.”

Using charts and numbers more closely resembling actuarial tables and eschewing the advice of old-time scouts in favor of computers, tech nerds and stats-crushers, Beane could, almost unthinkably, defy expectations and get his oddly configured teams, devoid of standard stars or high-performing athletes through highly successful 162-game regular seasons.

But the A’s repeatedly stalled in the postseason. Beane’s teams were good for the long haul of succeeding three-day series in sites from New York to Seattle and Texas to Detroit. Then they fizzled in the playoffs.

What was missing? What wasn’t being measured by that fleet of sabermetricians and their attention to inscrutable Pentagonesque acronyms like WAR, BAPIP, VORP and OPS?

That’s where “Intangiball” comes in.

Lonnie Wheeler, a longtime journalist and baseball writer whose books include collaborations on biographies with Hank Aaron and Bob Gibson as well as the excellent “Sixty-Feet, six inches,” a dialogue with Gibson and Reggie Jackson on the arts of pitching and hitting, takes on what seems to be an impossible challenge. Namely, he attempts to find some way to measure that which can’t be measured: Why some teams succeed while others of seemingly equal or more talent do not.

In many ways, finding the answer is like playing catch with Jell-O.

Determining, for example, what makes Derek Jeter, Derek Jeter is no simple matter. The now retired former captain of the New York Yankees and the unchallenged leader of a team that ruled the American League for nearly two decades defines what Wheeler is investigating. In fact, one chapter is simply called “Jetership.” It includes multiple references to the future Hall of Fame shortstop’s intangibles — here Wheeler creates his own acronym, PEQ or performance enhancing qualities.

Wheeler can summon the attributes that define Jeter’s unquestioned intangible greatness, something he calls “teamship” and breaks into yet another acronym comprised of specific team-enabling qualities: Toughness, execution, accountability, moxie, supportiveness, history, intensity, and passion. The problem arises in how a Derek Jeter is created — or a Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen or Yadier Molina for that matter.

Even more importantly, how do baseball talent evaluators find them?

Obviously more than physical gifts are involved and Wheeler pursues every available thread in his search for answers to these difference-makers when it comes to team success. He looks at the impact of players who are tremendously talented like Albert Pujols. He also studies those whose physical prowess isn’t so apparent but seem to crop up on winning teams. One example is shortstop David Eckstein who had a habit of contributing big plays at key moments and turning teams into World Series champions.

While Lewis used a storytellers approach to what might have become an academic pursuit in “Moneyball,” Wheeler ventures down the opposite path in “Intangiball.” He takes a very human side of the game and breaks it down in a more academic way. Wheeler’s is more of an examination into a fan’s nagging question — a question for which there are no black and white answers.

Wheeler interviews an impressive list of baseball executives, managers and players from the past and present. He cites an almost endless number of books, magazine, newspaper and online stories. It’s a book filled with expert observations, anecdotes and yes, statistics. There is a lot to be learned on nearly every page.

For all of that, though, Wheeler is no closer to a definitive answer when he reaches the end. But that’s not a bad thing at all. Part of the lore of baseball lies in its inherent mysteries. Not everything can be defined by a number.

Wheeler set out to write “Intangiball” as an answer to “Moneyball.” He does that and more. He’s produced an excellent baseball study for the thinking fan and a worthy companion to “Moneyball.”


One thought on “Book Review: ‘Intangiball’

  1. Pingback: Cool Papa Bell: New book looks for the man behind the baseball mythology | Madison's Avenue

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