7.22.2007

BOOK REVIEW: 'Baseball Between The Numbers'

Back in the saddle today with the first HWTN book review!

In the interest of full disclosure, let me start with a confession. I did not finish "Baseball Between the Numbers: Why everything you know about the game is wrong" before I had to return it to the public library.

But in not finishing the book, I came to this conclusion: This is not a book that is meant to be finished -- at least not in a couple of weeks. This is a book that is meant to be owned, perused, contemplated, poured over and thought about.

"Baseball Between the Numbers" is a collection of articles written by the experts at Baseball Prospectus, the guys best known for their analytical look at the game through numbers and statistics. And we're not just talking run-of-the-mill statistics like batting average or even OPS; we're talking hardcore sabermetric statistics such as VORP, WARP, and runs created.

In an attempt to keep potential readers from being scared off, editor Jonah Keri writes:

"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."
In my experience, however, most baseball fans fall between these two extremes:
  1. Those who swear by these numbers, believing there's no better way to look at the game and its best practices and strategies than through data and evidence culled over decades of games and seasons. Most of these people fall here because they can actually understand what the BP guys are talking about;

    and

  2. Those who think they're full of crap and that they rob the beauty, aesthetics and human element from the game. Most of these people fall here because they never got past algebra in high school and can't follow the concept of win probability to save their lives.
And that's the main problem with this book, from a widespread appeal standpoint. It still relies heavily on numerical analysis, to the point that even casual fans that are willing to have their preconceived notions about baseball challenged may not always be able to follow the logic, and in turn will be frustrated and turned off.

But since I fall much closer to fan No. 1 than fan No. 2, I enjoyed this book. I was pretty good at math in high school, and can follow (for the most part) what they're talking about. (Although the concept of "regression analysis," used often in the text, still eludes my higher order thinking skills.)

Some of the chapters are a bit tedious and dry, but there were other chapters I found absolutely fascinating, such as "Why is Mario Mendoza So Important?", "Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?" and "Do High Salaries Lead To High Ticket Prices?" It's great for reassessing what you think you know about baseball, as each chapter centers around an accessible question and attempts to reason through the answer with available data. You might not always agree with the conclusions -- for example, I think the free agency analysis in the A-Rod chapter ignores some important concepts -- but you can't ever walk away from a chapter without having had to think about why you believe what you believe about that topic.

A word of caution: This is a book that is best bought, put on the shelf, and brought out to read from time to time. I plowed through about 100 pages yesterday, and by the time I was done, my brain hurt. It's just too much to try and digest all of those numbers in such a short amount of time. You're better off reading a chapter here and there, and then taking some time to ponder what you just read. It would even make for a cool "chapter of the week" discussion point for you and your baseball fan friends, if you're (apologies to the ladies) manly enough to do that.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who doesn't mind really thinking while thinking about baseball, and isn't afraid to have what they think they know challenged.

And while you'll never look at a sacrifice bunt the same way again -- you'll think to yourself, "How can they just give away an out there? Don't they know that it drops their chances of scoring more than one run this inning by nearly half?" -- you will be rewarded for your efforts with a more well-rounded view of the game, something I'm enjoying already.

Rating: 4 out of 5; worth your time

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