Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB

Pulling back the curtain on how Los Angeles baseball legends are made

Two books on Los Angeles baseball — one on the Dodgers’ World Series season, one on the electricity of Shohei Ohtani — give L.A. fans much to ponder.

It would be overstating things to say that baseball is in a state of emergency, though it has been  in a bit of an extended identity crisis for a while. With teams embracing a number of new methodologies both on and off the field while popular interest in the sport wanes, there is reason to wonder how much correlation there is between these two trends. What does it take for teams to succeed today? Has efficiency outpaced enjoyability? And yet on an individual level, there are still players whose own athleticism and talent renders such questions irrelevant.

Two new books explore different elements of the modern game. Pedro Moura’s “How to Beat a Broken Game” focuses on one of baseball’s premier teams and many of the problems facing the MLB, while Jeff Fletcher’s “Sho-Time” is a biography of the game’s most unique, and perhaps brightest star, Shohei Ohtani.

Did the Los Angeles Dodgers truly beat a broken game?

Moura’s book looks at the Los Angeles Dodgers and the path that they took to win the 2020 World Series. Much of it takes place behind the scenes, focusing on various Dodgers executives and staffers who work with the team to scout and develop players. However, these sections — informative as they are — may read as too granular for all but the most heavily invested readers. It also looks at how the players have taken advantage of the new information available to them. For example, we see Justin Turner adjusting his swing on his way to becoming an All-Star and Clayton Kershaw finding ways to compensate for an apparent loss of velocity while also working to fight against predictability in his pitch selection.

What goes unsaid in these sections is the advantage the Dodgers have in not only hiring these staffers, but in having the financial ability (and concomitant desire to spend) that allows Los Angeles to then acquire and pay the players they desire. After all, by the time they traded for Mookie Betts or signed Freedie Freeman, it was not as if they were nabbing unknown prospects or betting on their team’s developmental capacities to improve flawed players. In fact, this may be one area where Moura may have explored more when writing about what ails baseball today — the gap between owners willing to spend money to invest in a winner versus those that will not. How can the major leagues be great as a whole when so many teams appear uninterested in doing the work to consistently field a winning team?

The book does pick up some speed in the latter half as it moves to the field. There is a sense of forward movement in these chapters that is lacking in the more technical ones that precede them. It is here that all the planning and strategizing described pays off, with the Dodgers defeating the Rays for their first championship in 32 years.

The Dodgers team Moura covers has not beaten the broken game — they have not overcome the context they find themselves in — but simply exploited it. He asks near the end: “Would any rule changes amount to more than a momentary fix until the highest-powered teams processed a new way to exploit them?” There may be potential changes that can make baseball more entertaining while retaining the core elements that make it so beloved, but for now, the genie is out of the proverbial bottle. There is no unlearning what has been learnt, no way that teams are going to forget the statistical and developmental leaps that have occurred in the last two decades. Until the game is potentially livened up by rule changes and strategic adjustments, it will be a matter of who can best exploit the current rules. And for now, the Dodgers have figured out how to do so as well as anyone.

For Dodgers fans, as well as serious baseball lovers interested in the direction the game is heading today, Moura’s book will be a welcome addition to their library. He offers well-reported insights on the Dodgers organization and what has made them perhaps MLB’s model franchise over the last several years. However, casual fans may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information and its focus on behind-the-scenes details. Also, with the book’s lack of propulsion from chapter to chapter, it lacks the gripping narrative that would draw in those simply looking for a good story.

It’s Sho-Time: A timely celebration of Shohei Ohtani as trade rumors swirl about

A handful of miles east of Dodger Stadium, Shohei Ohtani has been, for many fans, an antidote to (or at least a welcome reprieve from) much of what has disenchanted many baseball fans. Ohtani, simply by being a member of the Angels’ pitching rotation while also playing daily as a hitter, has become one of the most fascinating and unique players in baseball history. This is to say nothing of how good he is at both, being one of the best pitchers, as well as one of the best power-hitters, in all of baseball. In “Sho-Time”, longtime baseball writer Jeff Fletcher offers up a biography of Ohtani, covering his rise as a player, his early success in the MLB, his subsequent injury struggles, and eventual triumph in 2021 when he won AL MVP.

Ohtani himself is a bit of a blank slate throughout Fletcher’s book. At no point do readers get a good feel for his personality outside of his achievements on the baseball field. Accordingly, the book focuses less on Ohtani’s inner life than on biographical details and his on-the-field achievements. This is mostly forgivable in light of how spectacular and unique those feats are, but disappointing nonetheless.

Because of this, “Sho-Time” shines when Fletcher expands the scope, going beyond Ohtani to those who have preceded — and may follow — him. There are capsule histories of players who both pitched and hit in the past, with the section about Negro League stars such as “Bullet” Joe Rogan, Leon Day, Martin Dihigo, and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe” being particularly welcome. Also, near the end of the book there is an interesting explanation of why there have been so few players to both pitch and hit in the major leagues and the reasons that Ohtani may, or more likely may not, be the start of a trend.

This means that while “Sho-Time” does a good job of contextualizing Ohtani’s achievements, he himself remains a bit of an enigma — all we can bear witness to are the achievements and the work that went into it. And perhaps the most fascinating sections of “Sho-Time” are the looks at what Ohtani went through between his 2018 Rookie of the Year campaign and his 2021 MVP season — the injuries, surgeries, and training that went into his capitalizing on his potential. What, apart from greater health, enabled him to have such an astonishing season after two largely disappointing campaigns? Fletcher, in some of the most intriguing sections of the book, provides the answer to that question.

While Moura’s book is more likely to be enjoyed by serious baseball fans, Fletcher appears to be aiming more at casual fans who are generally aware of Ohtani and want to learn more. While he has covered the Angels as a beat reporter, there are not a ton of revelations here, but “Sho-Time” is breezy enough to make it an engaging enough read for those wanting to learn more about the most singular baseball player to appear in ages.

While neither book is likely to become a new classic, both Moura and Fletcher have provided imperfect, though often engaging, books for baseball fans looking for something to read in between their favorite team’s games.

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