on 17 September 2008
Baseball as a sport lends itself very much to statistics. Although a team game, it boils down to the confrontation of two individuals: the pitcher throws to the batter and one out of a set of defined outcomes occurs (the batter is out, the batter gets on base in one of several defined ways, or the batter fights the pitch off and lives to face another). Each game, then, can be summarised as a series of numbers, and the seasoned baseball fan can run his or her eye over the statistics in the box-score and get a feel for what went on in the game, how it compares to others, and how players compare to each other.
So far, so simple. Let's look at that again though: each game can be summarised as a series of numbers. But which numbers to collect? And which have value in assessing the worth of players? What, indeed, should people be looking for in a player? The search for accurate ways of assessing value is something many fans would associate with recent developments in the game, as summarised in Michael Lewis's justly-celebrated "Moneyball" - the reassessment of batting average as a statistic and its partial replacement by on-base percentage, which finally gave some value to a player's patience and ability to work the pitcher into walking him. In this book, however, Schwarz demonstrates that baseball has been engaged in tinkering with its statistics from the word go: inheriting initial assumptions from cricket score-keeping, the game has fine-tuned what it records ever since in an attempt to come up with accurate measurements of value. Accordingly, Schwarz's book is not "just" a history of the numbers, but something that encourages you to think about the nature of the game and make your own decisions about whether the statistics, over the years, have done the job adequately or not. (My own bugbear is the statistic Runs Batted In, which is chiefly a measurement of how good your team-mates are: I'd nominate that for eviction from the box-score.) It also helps that the stat-heads who, over the years, have contributed to the evolution of the box-score, have tended to be rather eccentric: Schwarz provides lively sketches of these men (always men) as well. A great read for the baseball fan and ideal for the off-season, when one needs a way to chew over the game during the dark winter months. Highly recommended.
on 20 July 2006
I have been really lucky this year to have read some fantastic baseball related books. Two of the very best have been Fantasyland, by Sam Walker, and this book. Whilst at first glance it may appear to be a stathead publication, dedicated to the sometimes anal collection and repetition of barely useful trivia and numbers, it is in fact a concise history of the game itself, seen through the eyes of modern day Sabermetricians. In terms of enlightenment about the great game, i would put this up with 'The thinking fans guide to baseball' and 'The Boys of Summer' and the author is to be congratulated on creating a universe of characters, both on the field and off, who come to life with his accurate and witty prose. A Home Run!
on 26 April 2014
Baseball has often been considered the most individual of team sports, and because of its tightly formulated format and rules can be easily captured by summary statistics. From the very start of the game in the mid-nineteenth century fans and the media have charted player and team performances through various batting, pitching and fielding measures. Since the 1970s some of these statistics have influenced management decisions on trades, contract negotiations, and on-field plays, with their authority growing in the last two decades to the extent that every professional baseball team now employs a stats unit and uses a plethora of computer packages to help augment all kinds of decisions in the club and dugout. Alan Schwarz’s The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics charts the evolution of measuring games through box scores, basic summary statistics, more complex measures and algorithms, companies that compile and sell stats, the development of dice and card games utilising baseball stats, statistic societies and initiatives, books and chewing gum cards, the media’s use of stats to help fans follow games via newspapers, radio and TV, and their seepage into decisions by coaches and general managers. The book has both historical depth and width of coverage and provides an engaging account by focusing on key personalities and the innovations they added to baseball’s statistical landscape. For the most part the structure works well, but starts to struggle in its account of developments from the early 1970s up to the present. In part, this is because there are a number of parallel developments that fracture the timeline. The final chapter on academic attempts to make sense of baseball statistics is perhaps the weakest chapter, and the book suffers at its end because there is no concluding chapter that summarises the main thread of the argument or postulates as to what developments might or should emerge in the future. Overall, however, an interesting read.
on 24 November 2011
As a recent convert to America's Favourite Past-Time, this was a great introduction to the fascination with statistics that baseball is so famous for. It gives a lot of background info about various players over the years and is a genuinely engaging book - definitely recommended for anyone with an interest in baseball.