Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

October 2, 2012

Baseball's Next to Best

Marc Normandin's Hall of Nearly Great examines the sport's second-highest tier.

Michael Gluckstadt

With the arguable exception of canonization in the Catholic church, membership in no other institution is scrutinized as is induction in baseball's Hall of Fame. The motives and persuasions of the Cooperstown Sanhedrin, the Baseball Writers' Association of America, are constantly guessed, with some cynics going so far as to suggest that one of the league's greatest ever pitchers is staging a comeback for the sole purpose of pushing back the five-year delay between retirement and Hall consideration until some of the BWAA's generation of scolds have died off.

Marc Normandin
"Baseball has a longer and richer history in this country than football, basketball, or hockey."

Marc Normandin

With all of that religious consideration, the Hall of Fame is ripe for some Monty Pythonesque gentle ribbing. Marc Normandin and Sky Kalkman's e-book, The Hall of Nearly Great, does something like that by taking an extended look at baseball players—not at the game's best, but at the tier just below it. The editors assembled their list of candidates, sent it out to a group of writers, and they contributed 43 essays on baseball's not-quite-cream-of-the-crop—including two by Normandin, on Ray Lankford and Bret Saberhagen.

Normadin, the co-manager of SB Nation's Red Sox Blog, Over the Monster, has contributed to a range of publications, including Baseball Prospectus, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Sun. In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, Normandin tells Gelf why baseball was uniquely suited for this project, where the sabermetric community is going, and what his Twitter followers think about how he marketed his own e-book.

Gelf Magazine: What are the criteria for inclusion in The Hall of Nearly Great?

Marc Normandin: It was both complicated and simple to qualify. Sky Kalkman and I set up an initial list with a floor for career value that we felt was appropriate. To get this floor, we tried to mirror the size of the actual Hall of Fame. It came out a little bigger this way, as expected, since the further from recognized greatness you get, the more players of a type you're going to see together. That was the tough part, in that we had to establish a barrier to entry. We never revealed the actual list of who qualified, though, because in the next step, we sent the list out to our authors, and asked them to choose who they wanted to write about. That shaved a couple hundred names from the list, and left us with those who are in the book itself. That part was easy, especially since there wasn't all that much overlap in the players our authors wanted to cover.

Gelf Magazine: What gave you the idea for the book?

Marc Normandin: Back in 2005 (and then again in 2006, when I was writing for Beyond the Box Score), I introduced the "Ray Lankford Wing of the Hall of Fame." It had much the same purpose as the Hall of Nearly Great, in that it was meant to recognize the careers of those who maybe didn't get the attention they deserved. It was just a list of players, though, with some career numbers and values. I had wanted to convert this into a series of essays at some point, but it was a pretty daunting task for one person. Sky and I had talked about joining up to work on the project for a couple of years, and after Kickstarter became a recognized way to try to raise money for projects, we decided that we would attempt that route.

Gelf Magazine: How has it been received so far? Have you learned anything about the marketing and economics of ebooks?

Marc Normandin: Everything we have heard has been positive, so maybe if some people didn't like it, the book didn't offend them enough to let us know about it. We'll take that as a win! We've had some calls for a sequel, even, but haven't talked much about that yet. If the demand was out there, we likely could, since we still have the rest of the list we created to get through, assuming those players all have their own stories to tell. (Or, as happened a few times in the book, our authors had stories to tell in regards to their respective player.)
As for the marketing and economics, it was all new ground for Sky and me, so essentially everything that went down was something we learned. We learned that you can build a book entirely from the use of the internet—Kickstarter, Twitter, Facebook, website ads, reviews, etc. We have also learned that, because of the way news and new things works online, that it's easy to get lost in the shuffle after some time. That's understandable, though. I think if we had posted about the book being for sale (or needing Kickstarter donations) on our Twitter feeds any more, our followers would have risen up in revolt against us. Totally understandable, but that's how you get word out in the world of social media, especially since we're our own marketing team for this project.

Gelf Magazine: Did any of the writers attempt to contact their inductees? Or sometimes are profiles better without an interview?

Marc Normandin: One thing we emphasized early on in the process is that there was no real wrong way to write the essays. We were intentionally vague about how we wanted them constructed, so that everyone we brought on board would just be themselves—be the writers whom we had asked to contribute. So, in some cases, you had authors write about their memories, or others constructed statistical arguments in the players' favor, or, you had a few attempt to contact their subject. In one case—King Kaufman's profile on Ron Cey—he did manage to speak to the player, and much of the essay is about a phone conversation in which he tries to convince him that he was underappreciated. Jeff Passan tried to get in touch with Andy Messersmith, but Messersmith did not want to be found. Not just by Jeff, it seems, but anyone. That desire to be out of the spotlight became part of Jeff's essay, so the failed contact still worked for his piece.

Gelf Magazine: Is there something unique to baseball that lends itself to a Hall of Nearly Great?

Marc Normandin: The sport has a longer and richer history in this country than football, basketball, or hockey. Despite this, access to information isn't the same as it is for, say, the NFL, where they seemingly have video of everything that's ever happened in the sport, or at least since the NFL became a thing. Maybe there's more room in baseball to discuss the past because of this, since for much of the game's history, all we have is the written word. It probably also helps that careers tend to be longer in baseball, too—there's more of a story to tell, on occasion, since there's more to cover. It's also a slower sport, in many ways, with more downtime to think, watch, and understand. Maybe that thoughtfulness translates well when writing about the past. The game has changed in many ways over the years, but the core of the sport remains the same, and that allows for easy understanding of the game's history.

Gelf Magazine: Any future books planned?

Marc Normandin: We haven't planned a sequel yet, but there's room for one if people want to read it. There are far more than 43 unappreciated players in the long history of professional baseball, so it's more about when and figuring out if we want to do anything differently than anything else. Maybe we'll try to come up with something new before then, but we haven't finished sketching out any ideas yet.

Gelf Magazine: You've been writing about baseball with a sabermetric bent for years. Now that it's widely accepted, what's the next stage in writing about it?

Marc Normandin: Accepted isn't the same as understood, which isn't meant to dismiss anyone's interest in the subject. But there's kind of a problem out there in the sabermetric world right now, thanks to easy access to information. All of that access comes before understanding for those who might be new to it, so even if fans are open-minded and accepting of that kind of bent, they still might need some help understanding the how and why. So, while sabermetric geniuses like Baseball Prospectus's Colin Wyers delve into new territory, or attempt to correct our understanding of worlds we thought we knew, it's still important for attention to be given to those for whom the past is still considered new. Acceptance has caused it to be someone's first day with sabermetrics every day. It's a good problem to have, of course, since it affords us the opportunity to have an audience, and one we can teach.

Gelf Magazine: Is there still a lot of development being done in advanced stats, or have they mostly been "'discovered" already? And which area of the game still has the farthest way to go in terms of our understanding of it?

Marc Normandin: Something like offense has been mostly "discovered" at this point. There's still work to be done—perfecting park factors, separating luck from skill accurately—but of all the areas in baseball, offense is the one measured most accurately at this stage. Defense, at this point, is in outline form. There's no perfect method out there yet, and in many ways, simpler might be better until we figure out how to appropriately account for the many things that go into defensive value, or could go into defensive value. There's a ton of work to be done in that field. Pitching continues to be explored more and more since PITCHf/x data became available. That's the area most ripe for further discovery, since there is just so much to pitching that we are still learning.
And, the more we learn about pitching, the more we learn about catching. Catcher defense has been a hot topic as of late, in the sense that numbers are finally being attached to things like blocking and framing pitches, or pitch calling. There's a reason someone like Mike Fast, who worked on catcher defense extensively, was snatched up by a major-league team in the past year. It's new information even for those in a multibillion-dollar industry.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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