Baseball Between the Numbers review
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. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not the story of one or three games, or a player, manager, or team, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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, Ã¢â‚¬Å“How much is a player worth?Ã¢â‚¬Â is discussed in Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?Ã¢â‚¬Â 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 WinnerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Curse effects player valuation, finally wrapping back around to Ã¢â‚¬Å“yeah, that was way too much money.Ã¢â‚¬Â
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. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a glaring omission, but as a straight Ã¢â‚¬Å“how much is so many wins worth to a team?Ã¢â‚¬Â discussion, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s informative and interesting.
Silver has three other really good chapters. The introductory Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is Barry Bonds Better Than Babe RuthÃ¢â‚¬Â is a long walk down how we can use performance metrics to compare players across wildly different eras. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is David Ortiz a clutch hitter?Ã¢â‚¬Â features a novel way to think about what clutch means. Ã¢â‚¬Å“What Do Statistics Tell Us About Steroids?Ã¢â‚¬Â 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, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s much more marginal players using than stars).
The other chapters are a lot like those. If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve read the Baseball Prospectus annuals, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s like having 400 pages of the back-of-the-book essays. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a ton of meat to chew on. Or if you remember the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Baseball Prospectus BasicsÃ¢â‚¬Â series of articles they (well, me too) wrote attempting to answer basic questions, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s many of those issues blown up and done in great depth. For example I did Ã¢â‚¬Å“How to run a bullpenÃ¢â‚¬Â and here Woolner writes a far better chapter on Ã¢â‚¬Å“Are Teams Letting Their Closer Go to Waste?Ã¢â‚¬Â which goes so far as to attempt to answer the question of when itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s worth taking the risk of putting a pitcher in, not knowing whatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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:
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Is Joe Torre a Hall of Fame Manager?Ã¢â‚¬Â 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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“Best Manager Seasons by Strategic Decisions, 1972-2004Ã¢â‚¬Â table (for 2001 with Seattle, and 2003 with Tampa) and in the Ã¢â‚¬Å“WorstÃ¢â‚¬Â table (Seattle 1993).
Neil deMause has three in a row (Ã¢â‚¬Å“Do High Salaries Lead to High Ticket Prices?Ã¢â‚¬Â Ã¢â‚¬Å“Are New Stadiums a Good Deal?Ã¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“Does Baseball Need a Salary Cap?Ã¢â‚¬Â) that make me want to take this book with me when I go watch games in local watering holes (Ã¢â‚¬Å“Here, read 207-214 and get back to me. DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t leave with the book.Ã¢â‚¬Â).
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Do Players Perform Better in Contract Years?Ã¢â‚¬Â 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 Ã¢â‚¬â€œ if we accept itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s true that players can have better years for reasons unrelated to normal influences like park, age, and so on, isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t this the best argument to look into chemistry ever? If a player can perform significantly better through better focus, or workouts, or whatever theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re doing that year, shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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? ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s huge!
James ClickÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s chapter on when one-run strategies make sense (almost never, and certainly not when weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been told they do), Ã¢â‚¬Å“When Is One Run Worth More Than Two?Ã¢â‚¬Â 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 itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s dry. You may wish to get some decent coffee before you sit down for some of these chapters. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a lot of stats talk in some chapters thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll weigh heavily on your eyelids. A couple times in reading it, I said Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll take your word for it, Keith, I trust you,Ã¢â‚¬Â and skimmed ahead (or whoever). Now, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s necessary to get you to the fairly shocking stuff, but I want to be clear: youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re not going to read this in one sitting.
– If youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve obsessively kept up on baseball research over the last couple of years, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not a great deal here thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s new or shocking. But if thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s you, the stuff thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s well-down as it follows the evolution of an argument into a better understanding of the way baseball works.
Rob NeyerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball LineupsÃ¢â‚¬Â is grinningly referred to as Ã¢â‚¬Å“bathroom readingÃ¢â‚¬Â in that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really know as well. It would certainly improve fandom.
Check it out.