In the numbers-obsessed sport of baseball, statistics don't merely record what players, managers, and owners have done. Properly understood, they can tell us how the teams we root for could employ better strategies, put more effective players on the field, and win more games. The revolution in baseball statistics that began in the 1970s is a controversial subject that prof...more In the numbers-obsessed sport of baseball, statistics don't merely record what players, managers, and owners have done. Properly understood, they can tell us how the teams we root for could employ better strategies, put more effective players on the field, and win more games. The revolution in baseball statistics that began in the 1970s is a controversial subject that professionals and fans alike argue over without end. Despite this fundamental change in the way we watch and understand the sport, no one has written the book that reveals, across every area of strategy and management, how the best practitioners of statistical analysis in baseball-people like Bill James, Billy Beane, and Theo Epstein-think about numbers and the game. Baseball Between the Numbers is that book. In separate chapters covering every aspect of the game, from hitting, pitching, and fielding to roster construction and the scouting and drafting of players, the experts at Baseball Prospectus examine the subtle, hidden aspects of the game, bring them out into the open, and show us how our favorite teams could win more games. This is a book that every fan, every follower of sports radio, every fantasy player, every coach, and every player, at every level, can learn from and enjoy.
One player, one election, an avalanche of controversy. That's the beauty of baseball. The game--its players, its teams, its history--inspires so much passion, so much heated debate, so many fun arguments. Those arguments form the crux of Baseball Prospectus' soon-to-be-released book, Baseball Between the Numbers. Deep into the offseason, long after the winter meetings but still weeks before pitchers and catchers report, the Hall of Fame debate suddenly gave fans a jolt of interest. On Tuesday, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced its voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame's Class of 2006. The entire class consisted of just one player, Bruce Sutter. "Finally!" yelled Sutter supporters. A late-inning force in the 1970s and '80s, Sutter was a star for the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, helping to define a new role for the ace reliever. From 1977 to 1985, Sutter averaged more than 30 saves a season. He won a Cy Young Award, was a perennial contender for the Rolaids Award given to the game's best relief pitcher, and provided late-inning assurance to his teams for about a decade. As if that weren't enough, Sutter also helped pioneer the split-fingered fastball, turning the vanishing pitch into a deadly weapon that would change the face of pitching in the 1980s. "You gotta be kidding me!" came from the cry from outraged fans and critics. Sutter's career was too short to be Hall of Fame-worthy. No player deserves to make the Hall based on just eight strong seasons. Sutter helped shepherd in an era in which top relievers had it much easier than their predecessors, pitching fewer innings and more often waiting for a ninth-inning lead before coming out to pitch.
Rich Gossage's career started earlier, covered a more demanding era, lasted far longer and included more impressive numbers--yet on the same ballot as Sutter, Gossage was denied. Sutter, it could be argued, was no better than Lee Smith, Dan Quisenberry and other relief aces of the time. His induction would lower the bar for Hall of Fame induction, making it a sad day for Cooperstown enthusiasts and baseball purists. Baseball Between the Numbers covers 29 seminal baseball debates that will get both casual fans and hard-core statheads whipped into a frenzy. The book includes the chapter "Are Teams Letting Their Closers Go to Waste?", which tackles the very topic that sparked huge differences of opinion in SutterGate. Following in the tradition of John Thorn and Pete Palmer's "The Hidden Game of Baseball," the work of Bill James and other influential thinkers, Baseball Between the Numbers brings new analytical tools to bear, with BP's unique writing style adding a twist. Some topics will strike a nerve. "Is Barry Bonds Better Than Babe Ruth?" asks tough questions about baseball before integration, baseball after the offensive explosion of the 1990s, and the challenges of comparing players across eras. Other topics will be new to even the savviest readers. "Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?" takes a close look at the marginal value of ballplayers, using new metrics and arguments to explore one of the biggest challenges facing all major-league teams. "What If Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia's Legs?" shines a light on baserunning, a hidden part of the game that could be exploited by a shrewd general manager. "Why Doesn't Billy Beane's S*** Work in the Playoffs?" discards previous attempts to examine playoff baseball and starts with a clean slate, looking for answers to the vexing predicament that has haunted the Oakland A's, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros and other frequent playoff participants that have fallen short of the big prize. Since this is a Baseball Prospectus publication, you'll know to expect plenty of numerical analysis in breaking down these debates and finding answers. At the same time, we merely use numbers as our framework for these answers. In a real sense, it's not arriving at those answers that is most important, but the journey, the way of thinking and the process you use to get there that leads to real understanding. It's the process of learning to think critically about the game that defines this book, and in a broader sense defines our experiences as avid fans of the game. It's the baseball between the numbers that we seek.
Among baseball analysts, sabermetricians are defined by their skepticism and demand for hard evidence: “You think pitching is more important than hitting? Why? By how much? How do you know? Why are you looking at me like that?”* They particularly focus on trying to prove or disprove the value of conventional wisdom—asking, for instance, whether traditional offensive statistics like batting average and RBIs, and traditional pitching statistics like ERA, are really useful ways of deciding how good a player is, and how big a role factors like luck and environment play in those statistics. It’s an indication of their success that stats like on-base percentage and slugging percentage are now shown regularly on broadcasts and at games, and that it’s now general knowledge even among casual fans that a player’s home park can have a significant effect on his superficial numbers (with Exhibit A being Coors Field in Denver).
Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong takes a series of questions about the game and tries to answer them with hard data and statistical analysis. Some of these are old sabermetric canards (whether the RBI is a useful statistic, whether there’s such a thing as clutch hitting, when teams should really use their closer), but others are just interesting questions that get to the heart of evaluating players; managerial strategy; the relative value of pitching, hitting, and defense; and even questions of payroll and stadium financing. Is Barry Bonds better than Babe Ruth? Does batting order matter? Is Alex Rodriguez overpaid? Do catchers really have an impact on pitching performance? And my favorite: Why doesn’t Billy Beane’s shit work in the playoffs? (For those who haven’t read Moneyball, this was Billy Beane’s famous answer for why the A’s did consistently well over the course of a regular season and consistently failed in the postseason: “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.”)
The answers to these questions are invariably interesting, but just as interesting is the discussion of what the questions even mean. Most people, if asked whether Barry Bonds is better than Babe Ruth, would go straight for their career numbers, and compare their batting average, home runs, RBIs, and so on. A more serious fan might also look at stats like their OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). But the discussion here starts asking the really hard questions: Wasn’t Ruth facing much easier pitching than Bonds does? Doesn’t Bonds benefit from modern nutrition and training methods? What about the different ballparks they played in? And how do their various core stats translate into actually helping their teams win—which is, after all, their purpose in the first place? This is how you end up with measures like EqA (Equivalent Average, a composite measure of total offensive performance) and adjustments like the Time Machine Effect and Timeline Adjustment, which are complex, but necessary to get at the truth of the question.
The book did have a few minor annoyances. The most substantial of these was that the discussion of VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), one of their fundamental concepts, doesn’t occur until more than halfway through the book, meaning every time it came up prior to then (which was often), you always being referred to a future chapter—an idea as important as that really should have been thoroughly explained much earlier. Less substantial but still bothersome was that the 27 chapters are organized into an innings-outs scheme, from Chapter 1-1 to Chapter 9-3. This is clever, but is also always producing things like “Table 1-2.7”—which, in an already numbers-heavy book, is just too many numbers to simply identify a table, and became a little tedious after 100 pages or so.**
Balancing these somewhat, though, is that this is the first book I’ve ever seen to cite the Onion in an endnote, which you’ve just got to respect.
If you love baseball and are at least willing to put up with the math, you’ll like the book—I liked it a lot, but Maria passed it over to me right around Table BP.7 in the introduction (“Babe Ruth’s EqA, Adjusted for Time Machine Effect”). It also helps, I think, if you’ve encountered at least some of these ideas before, either in Moneyball or from reading a sabermetrically inclined sportswriter or two, but there is a helpful glossary if you get lost in the maze of VORP and WARP and PECOTA and BABIP and WinEx and SNLVAR. Despite the complex subject, though, you don't have to be a mathematician to understand it and enjoy it. And even if you don’t follow all the details of every last regression analysis or take the time to examine every last line graph, when you’ve finished, you’ll undoubtedly look at the game differently than when you started.