Baseball Between the Numbers review

DMZ · March 5, 2006 at 4:50 pm · Filed Under Book reviews 

Disclaimer: while I haven’t been involved with Baseball Prospectus for a year and change, I used to be. I know some of the people who wrote chapters. Jonah Keri, who edited this book, is a friend of USSM (and mine). So this review is totally biased and unreliable. More than usual.

Baseball Between the Numbers is a different sort of baseball book. It’s not the story of one or three games, or a player, manager, or team, it’s not a history or even a subject-themed book. It tries to answer or at least move towards a better understanding of a series of current baseball questions that dominate discussion.

For instance, “How much is a player worth?” is discussed in “Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?” by Nate Silver. In it, Silver goes through what a win is worth to a team, how a win can be worth more or less to one franchise compared to another, and how a win can be worth more or less to the same franchise depending on where they are, why it can make sense for a team to overpay, how the Winner’s Curse effects player valuation, finally wrapping back around to “yeah, that was way too much money.”

That, of course, ignores the scarcity argument, which is odd, since the chapters on replacement level do a good job of explaining that there are many scrubs and only one Alex Rodriguez. It’s a glaring omission, but as a straight “how much is so many wins worth to a team?” discussion, it’s informative and interesting.

Silver has three other really good chapters. The introductory “Is Barry Bonds Better Than Babe Ruth” is a long walk down how we can use performance metrics to compare players across wildly different eras. “Is David Ortiz a clutch hitter?” features a novel way to think about what clutch means. “What Do Statistics Tell Us About Steroids?” treads carefully, and we find:
– unexpected performance changes are historically common
– overall, steroid use seems to have a small, noticeable performance impact
To go along with things we knew (few players are or were steroid users, it’s much more marginal players using than stars).

The other chapters are a lot like those. If you’ve read the Baseball Prospectus annuals, it’s like having 400 pages of the back-of-the-book essays. There’s a ton of meat to chew on. Or if you remember the “Baseball Prospectus Basics” series of articles they (well, me too) wrote attempting to answer basic questions, it’s many of those issues blown up and done in great depth. For example I did “How to run a bullpen” and here Woolner writes a far better chapter on “Are Teams Letting Their Closer Go to Waste?” which goes so far as to attempt to answer the question of when it’s worth taking the risk of putting a pitcher in, not knowing what’ll happen later or tomorrow.

The book does a good job of attacking these topics in chunks that are substantial but not too weighty.

Other standout chapters from my first reading:
“Is Joe Torre a Hall of Fame Manager?” James Click attempts to define how a manager can help (or, as it turns out, least hurt) his team. The results are a little shocking. Lou Piniella, for instance, turns up in the “Best Manager Seasons by Strategic Decisions, 1972-2004” table (for 2001 with Seattle, and 2003 with Tampa) and in the “Worst” table (Seattle 1993).

Neil deMause has three in a row (“Do High Salaries Lead to High Ticket Prices?” “Are New Stadiums a Good Deal?” and “Does Baseball Need a Salary Cap?”) that make me want to take this book with me when I go watch games in local watering holes (“Here, read 207-214 and get back to me. Don’t leave with the book.”).

“Do Players Perform Better in Contract Years?” by Dayn Perry comes to the conclusion that yeah, they do, but the perception also stems from age-related decline, as most free agents are in their thirties. That there is an effect, though, raises a whole other issue – if we accept it’s true that players can have better years for reasons unrelated to normal influences like park, age, and so on, isn’t this the best argument to look into chemistry ever? If a player can perform significantly better through better focus, or workouts, or whatever they’re doing that year, shouldn’t teams hunt this down and spend whatever it takes to figure out how to better motivate their players, be that the manager, the coaches, the color of the clubhouse, even the psychological profiles of their teammates? That’s huge!

James Click’s chapter on when one-run strategies make sense (almost never, and certainly not when we’ve been told they do), “When Is One Run Worth More Than Two?” shocked me a little when I finally got far enough into it.

There’s also a really nice glossary of stat terms in the back that runs about twenty pages. People ask me all the time to point them to a good explanation of this stuff, and generally I point them to ESPN, or BP’s increasingly comprehensive one, but if you want something to keep by the desk for clear, readable explanations, it’s your book.

There are only two serious downsides to the book:
– A lot of it’s dry. You may wish to get some decent coffee before you sit down for some of these chapters. There’s a lot of stats talk in some chapters that’ll weigh heavily on your eyelids. A couple times in reading it, I said “I’ll take your word for it, Keith, I trust you,” and skimmed ahead (or whoever). Now, it’s necessary to get you to the fairly shocking stuff, but I want to be clear: you’re not going to read this in one sitting.

– If you’ve obsessively kept up on baseball research over the last couple of years, there’s not a great deal here that’s new or shocking. But if that’s you, the stuff that’s going to seem dry to the newly introduced is, and even when they walk through the current view on pitcher effects on balls in play it’s well-down as it follows the evolution of an argument into a better understanding of the way baseball works.

Rob Neyer’s “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups” is grinningly referred to as “bathroom reading” in that it’s easy to pick up, read a couple of pages, read something interesting, and then put it down. Baseball Between the Numbers is session reading: you might only read a couple chapters that are immediately interesting to you right away, and then return to it to pick off another chapter every day (or week, or when something sparks your interest). Each chunk of knowledge only takes ten, twenty pages, and even the most dense stuff shouldn’t take an hour to get through. I hope that it proves accessible enough that baseball fans can all get a little smarter about the things that are clear, and have a better idea of what they don’t really know as well. It would certainly improve fandom.

Check it out.


31 Responses to “Baseball Between the Numbers review”

  1. Mat on March 5th, 2006 5:27 pm

    Thanks for the review. I was likely going to get the book anyway, but you basically said everything I was hoping you would say about the book.

  2. Baseline on March 5th, 2006 7:37 pm

    Interesting like #1 I had already planned on getting it, but this just reaffirms that fact.

    And I love Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups.

  3. CCW on March 5th, 2006 8:16 pm

    I’ll have to get this. I really wasn’t a big fan of Mind Games, which tainted my view of BP non-annual books. This doesn’t sound at all like Mind Games, though. Chapter after chapter of end-of-the-annual articles… what could be better?

  4. DMZ on March 5th, 2006 8:25 pm

    Mind Games? You’ve been suckered by a cheap knock-off. You want to read “Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning” (featuring several chapters by me), and not “Mind Games”.

  5. CCW on March 6th, 2006 7:39 am

    Yeah, I meant “Mind Game”. I didn’t think that book contained quite enough analysis. It sounds like “Baseball Between the Numbers” may have gone in the other direction, with a lot of analysis. I like that, though, because, as DMZ says, it’s easy enough when you’re reading a very technical statement of facts just to say, “I trust you” and skip to the conclusion.

  6. Evan on March 6th, 2006 9:20 am

    I’ve certainly been tempted by that one. A succinct analysis of how much players are worth would be really valuable. But, Nate ignoring scarcity is a bit surprising.

    Which raises an interesting question. There are trained statisticians over at BP. Is any of them an economist?

  7. Jonah Keri on March 6th, 2006 9:49 am

    Thanks DZ.

    Don’t want to bias the proceedings or anything, but on Evan’s point, wanted to note that we don’t have any economists by day on staff. Neil deMause is a terrific writer on the business of baseball, though, as worthy a successor to Doug Pappas as you’re ever going to find, given the amazing example Doug set.

    As far as the scarcity issue, it’s a very valid point. There’s a bit of “We describe replacement level in Chapter 5-1, ‘Why Is Mario Mendoza Important?'” going on here. The Mendoza chapter explaining scracity and replacement level is the one that immediately precedes the A-Rod one, and the A-Rod chapter is already pretty lengthy and substantial, so there was a nod toward not repeating ourselves too much in this instance. As Derek said, reading packets of 2-3 related chapters in a sitting works really well with this book. I recommend Mendoza and A-Rod together, the three deMause chapters together etc.

    Book signing of both BBTN and BP06 a week from today, I believe Herr Shaw should have details up at some point. We’ll do lots of M’s riffing, lots to talk about.

    On another topic, thanks to all those who came out yesterday for the Peoria BavasiTowersPalooza. A good time was had by all, weather was perfect, Bavasi and Towers were extremely generous with their time and had lots of interesting stuff to say (Bavasi on the WBC cracked everyone up, for one), and our section booed the heck out of Bloomquist. 🙂

  8. gwo on March 6th, 2006 9:51 am

    Well, what about the book I bought : “Mind Game : How the result of the 2004 World Series definitively proves we were right and you were wrong, even if the results of the 2002, 2003 and 2005 series are completely at odds with that inference.”

  9. DMZ on March 6th, 2006 9:55 am

    Yeah yeah yeah, look, if you’ve got a beef with BP’s titling, please go take it up with them. I didn’t pick it.

  10. zzyzx on March 6th, 2006 12:15 pm

    Is this book out anywhere yet? This forums could be an interesting place to discuss some of the ideas in the book. It might be interesting to have a discussion in a forum about some of the chapters, like an USM Book Club.

  11. DMZ on March 6th, 2006 12:17 pm

    Uh, yes, it’s available from Amazon right now. Click the links!

  12. zzyzx on March 6th, 2006 12:20 pm

    I clicked that link a few hours ago and got, “This product has not yet been released.” I didn’t know that the shipment arrived since then.

  13. DMZ on March 6th, 2006 12:30 pm

    Dunno what to tell you — I read my copy over the weekend, and it’s available now. Maybe Amazon was just messing with you. They do that, you know. They’re drunk with power.

  14. Jonah Keri on March 6th, 2006 12:46 pm

    zzyzx, the book is definitely shipping from Amazon, they just send out conflicting messages sometimes with books that are popular pre-orders. Today was the nationwide launch of the book, and it had already started shipping to many markets last week. You can also pick it up at Third Place Books in Bothell and a bunch of other local bookstores.

    Oh and regarding book titles, while the author(s) obviously have a say, in the end it’s always the publisher that gets the final word. That was the case with both the subtitle of Mind Game and of Baseball Between the Numbers. Anyway, hopefully the contents of the book will speak louder than anything else.

  15. Deanna on March 6th, 2006 12:52 pm

    Hey, I’m totally into the idea of a real-life baseball book club, but I’ve just been too lazy to make it happen. If a bunch of people wanted to read this and hang out in the afternoon discussing it at Elliott Bay Book Company (or elsewhere near Safeco) before a Saturday Mariners game (hmm… April 8th against Oakland, maybe?) that’d be pretty cool.

    I was hoping to get a copy of this book before this coming weekend since I’ll have a decent amount of travel time to read it, although I have to admit that Mind Game wasn’t such a great bus book, so I wonder if this one will be a reasonable plane book.

  16. zzyzx on March 6th, 2006 1:09 pm

    Jonah – thanks. 3PB isn’t far from me (especially the one in Ravenna), so I might swing by on my way home from work so I have something to read tonight.

  17. Jonah Keri on March 6th, 2006 1:13 pm

    I’d recommend calling first, just because whether or not copies will be in stock seems to vary from store to store. Look forward to hearing your thoughts!

    And if y’all decide to do a book club thing at Elliot Bay, let me know. I’d be happy to attend if people want, and/or I can ask the book’s publisher to finagle some assistance for the event from the bookstore.

  18. zzyzx on March 6th, 2006 2:27 pm

    Don’t go to 3rd Place Books for a while; the power is out in Lake Forest Park dagnabbit.

  19. Ed on March 6th, 2006 8:56 pm

    Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell recently discussed on, among other things, the issue of players doing better in contract years. Gladwell’s talking about basketball at that point, but his argument is 1) effort plays a big part in talent, 2) most players’ performance is quite variable, and 3) good coaching can help motivate players to put in more effort. Earlier in the article, he talks about how people rarely play (and, perhaps, live) up to their full potential because, perversely, the fear of doing your best and failing is worse than failing when you know you could have tried harder. I don’t think he ever says as much explicitly, but it doesn’t seem like much of a jump to conclude that, if he’s on to something, many players do better in their contract years because the immediate and enormous financial incentive to do so overcomes the resistance to risk playing up to their full potential (and thus risk naked failure).

    First part of the article’s here:

    As a good USSM reader, I was wondering whether the whole contract year thing even really existed, but if that chapter in Baseball Between the Numbers supports it, it sure makes Gladwell’s argument more interesting.

  20. DMZ on March 6th, 2006 9:28 pm

    So another interesting thing: there’s an entirely different book (“Inside the Book, not to be confused with “The Book on the Book” which covers many of the same subjects and is out at the exact same time:

    “An in-depth analysis of:

    * The sacrifice bunt.
    * The intentional base on balls.
    * Optimizing a batting lineup.
    * Hot and cold streaks.
    * Clutch performance.
    * Platooning strategies.
    * Batter/pitcher matchups.
    * Much more. ”

    I’d be interested to see where that book differs from the conclusions in BBTN.

    Also features Tangotiger using what I have to suspect is HIS REAL NAME!!! OMG WTF BBQ!

  21. tangotiger on March 7th, 2006 7:17 am


    Very kind of you to post that link. Thank you.

    The book is actually called “The Book – Playing the Percentages In Baseball”. I suspect that the BP book and ours has very little overlap. I’ll be getting my BP book tomorrow, so I’ll report back how much overlap there is. I encourage everyone to buy *both* books.

    We discuss the book at Fanhome a bit, so those looking for more perspective can go there. I’ll also end up talking about BP’s book in that same thread, once it comes time.

    Thanks, Tom

  22. Jonah Keri on March 7th, 2006 9:40 am


    You’ll have to read the chapter to find out. 🙂 I will say that basketball and baseball don’t equate well in many ways. The ability of one player to dominate in basketball, the constant motion/hustle aspect of that sport, as opposed to baseball, where your skills revolve around focusing on a pitch as a hitter, occasional running down a ball in the field, or hitting the catcher’s mitt on the mound. In other words, the book aside, I’d argue that it’s easier to loaf and have that affect your performance in hoops than on the diamond.

    Best of luck with your book, Tom! Feel free to drop me a line with your thoughts on BBTN if you like as well.

  23. tangotiger on March 7th, 2006 10:45 am

    Jonah, thanks. And same to you, of course! (People here probably don’t know, but we’re both from Montreal, and both consider Tim Raines our favorite player. I guess the Mariner equivalent would be Edgar. That seems like an interesting topic on its own. Dwight Evans in Boston, maybe?)

    I have to tip my hat to you, and any editors out there. We self-edited (or more like, one guy wrote a chapter, and the other two did the editing), and we were all very happy. Then, when we put the whole book together, we did what we had hoped was our first and last read-through from start to finish. We found over 1100 defects! That’s the biggest blow to the face and stomach we came across. And after we did that, we did our second and last read-through. We found several hundred more! I’ll spare you the rest. It took five iterations to get it down to where we didn’t find anything else. Then, after we print, my wife found three by randomly picking pages, and a reader wrote in one.

    Being an editor is like being an umpire.

  24. Jonah Keri on March 7th, 2006 11:10 am

    My mantra as editor: “If the book’s awesome, our talented authors deserve all the credit. If it sucks, blame me for screwing it up.”

    Seriously, working with a group that includes Nate Silver, Keith Woolner, Neil deMause et. al., a lot of it was just getting out of the way of their fantastic work.

    Oh and on Deanna’s Book Club BBTN possible meeting, it’d be great if it was in May as you suggested, Deanna. I can’t do that Sat April 8 day as I’ll be out of town, but I’d like to attend if it’s a different date. Plus like you said, that’d give people time to read the book. It’s a biggie.

  25. Ed on March 7th, 2006 1:02 pm

    Well, if it’s easier to dog it in basketball, but you guys found there’s something to the contract year thing even in baseball, wouldn’t that reinforce the notion that a lot of a player’s talent comes from how much effort he puts in?

    Man, I don’t really ever buy any books but novels, but I may need to make an exception.

  26. Jonah Keri on March 7th, 2006 1:45 pm

    The difference in baseball contract years is noticable but not huge. I haven’t studied this in the NBA, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a much bigger discrepancy there. 28 other comparable baseball-argument-type chapters on top of the contract year one, btw.

  27. tangotiger on March 7th, 2006 2:18 pm

    I would guess in a sport like hockey and basketball (always moving), that the effort of the athlete plays more of a part in his overall performance than in baseball, and maybe football. I’m thinking guys like Jaromir Jagr and Vince Carter as guys who can go from top to middle of the road back to the top. You can’t really “dog it”, or coast around your teammates, as much in baseball, since when it’s your time to perform, you are in the spotlight. My guess is that a baseball player will cost (or earn) as much as 1 win, relative to his normal exertion rate, but that in hockey, that number is more like 2 wins (in half as many games), and probably at least 5 wins in basketball.

  28. Deanna on March 7th, 2006 4:49 pm

    Jonah – Yeah, I’d definitely want to do BBTN in May. I know how long it took me to read Mind Game. 🙂

    I hope we can work in Tango’s book as well, although I’m hoping to try to vary things between some stathead books and some history/biographies along the way.

  29. Jonah Keri on March 7th, 2006 6:00 pm

    FWIW, I’m out of town May 8-14, and over Memorial Day weekend. Otherwise it’s wide open.

  30. DMZ on March 7th, 2006 6:01 pm

    Yes folks, USSM: baseball commentary, social calendar

  31. tangotiger on March 9th, 2006 11:06 am

    As promised, I said I’d report back on the overlap issue.

    First off, I have only flipped through the book, and read about 30 or 40 pages. I think it’s fair to say that there is a bit of overlap, but not much. I’d probably peg it at 10% overlap right now (though once I finish the book, I’ll tell you exactly). The analytical approach in both books however is different enough that any overlap in content really doesn’t feel like any overlap at all. The BP book is certainly a worthy sabermetric book.

    I think it’s important that people do support sabermetric books (whether BP, or ours, or others), as this is the only way to ensure that the Bill James and Pete Palmer legacy will live on. Think of part of the price of the book to go to research and development (and in our case, that’s literally true, as a portion of the proceeds will go to Retrosheet).

    I apologize if any of the preceding sounded like a sales pitch.

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