Hey, Mets fans, not so fast. Your team is getting a lot of ink, Matt Harvey is for real, and how about Bartolo Colon? But the Amazin's haven't yet proven they can go the distance, whatever general manager Sandy Alderson has said about a 90-win season.
In "Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26), journalist Steve Kettmann looks at the GM's storied career. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Alderson was a new breed of baseball executive who geeked out on obscure and underappreciated stats (such as on-base percentage) and crunched numbers to squeeze every ounce of talent out of players otherwise consigned to the scrap heap.
If Kettmann is overly reverential, his lively chronicle tracks Alderson from his days with the Oakland A's, where he mentored Billy Beane of "Moneyball" fame, to his ballyhooed 2010 arrival at the Mets and his "vigorous effort to unite players behind an offensive philosophy that combined aggressiveness and patience and, above all, success on the field." Alderson has been called robotic -- he's known for his "crisp, clean, orderly and reproducible process" -- but this is not quite fair: he just operates on a subtle frequency. He's pushing the team to be better, but after a hot start, the Mets are up to their old tricks -- their defense is suspect, and their lack of offense is going to catch up to them -- so I'd treat any claims about a "revival" with the utmost skepticism.
Mets fans have had some competition in the long-suffering department over the years. Just take the Pittsburgh Pirates, who, until 2013, endured 20 straight losing seasons. In "Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak" (Flatiron Books, $26.99), baseball writer Travis Sawchick details how the Pirates used "perhaps the most unconventional, systematic, and inventive plan the game had ever seen" and got back to winning. Where the tactics perfected by Alderson stressed getting men on base through walks, the Pirates, aided by number-crunching on a vast scale, complex algorithms and a daring analytics department, deployed radical defensive tactics to keep opponents off the bases. This is baseball as newfangled as it gets, and it worked: the Pirates made the playoffs the past two years.
Fear not, fans of the old school: there's plenty for you in this season's crop of baseball books. It doesn't get any more old-school than the subject of Bill Pennington's supremely entertaining "Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). A legendary member of the Yankee fraternity as player and manager, the second-baseman-turned-manager was one of the game's all-time feistiest, most fiercely competitive characters.
Hired and fired five times by George Steinbrenner, the volatile, thin-skinned Martin was notorious for his drinking, womanizing and scraps with his own players. (Mickey Mantle famously said of Martin, "Billy is the only guy in the world who can hear someone give him the finger.") He once duked it out with a Yankee pitcher in a booze-fueled brawl, and he had a notorious dugout confrontation, in a game broadcast on national TV, with Reggie Jackson. Martin comes so alive on these pages its hard to believe he actually died in a car crash on Christmas Day, 1989.
There could be no greater contrast to the fiery Martin than another famed player-turned-manager: the staid and sturdy Gil Hodges. A beloved star for the scrappy Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, when New York was the center of the baseball universe, the first baseman with huge hands put up some pretty good numbers over the years -- a .273 lifetime batting average, 370 home runs, and 1,274 RBI -- and then managed the Mets to victory over the mighty Orioles in the 1969 World Series, still one of the greatest upsets ever. Mort Zachter's dutiful biography, "Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life" (University of Nebraska, $34.95) brims with detail but is flawed in its strained advocacy of Hodge's alleged Hall of Fame credentials. Hodges was an honorable man, but his numbers just don't make the Hall of Fame cut.
This season's flush of New York-centric baseball books also brings Jorge Posada's fine memoir, "The Journey Home: My Life in Pinstripes," written with Gary Brozek (Dey St., $27.99). The consistently solid catcher, who, along with Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite and Mariano Rivera was one of the "Core Four," poignantly reflects on what it was like to come up through ranks of the famed Yankee organization. Because of his attitude and his steady play, Posada was a winner to the end, even if he expressed some bitterness over how his Yankee career ended.