Friday, March 24, 2006

Book Review: “The Numbers Game”

The Critical Fan
by Matt Sandler

"Schwarz...livens up a subject that even the most ardent baseball fan may feel is not book-worthy."

As many of us prepare for our fantasy drafts, it is useful to remind ourselves where our obsession with baseball statistics began. No sport lends itself to deep statistical analysis better than baseball. The history of this obsession is tracked in an enlightening and informative fashion in the 2004 book by Alan Schwarz, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics.

Schwarz, who writes the biweekly column “Keeping Score” in The New York Times, livens up a subject that even the most ardent baseball fan may feel is not book-worthy. The early history of scorekeeping is made interesting, even for those who typically do not read much about 19th century baseball. We learn that the “K” in the scorebook for a strikeout is from the last letter of the word “struck,” as in “struck out.” (This convention was created by the “father of baseball statistics,” Henry Chadwick.) We are amazed at how malleable the early rules of baseball are, at how a walk changed from an out to a hit, until finally settling into its current incarnation.

We are taken through all the important major developments in statistics in the latter 1800s and the twentieth century. We see the final establishment of the rules that are in place today. So many major developments occur due to demand of zealous baseball fans, and sometimes general managers, for ever more statistics. These firsts include the placing of stats on the back of baseball cards, a statistical analyst being employed by a team (Allan Roth of the Brooklyn Dodgers), year-end summaries of the numbers put up the preceding season by all baseball players, a historical compilation of baseball’s greatest players, etc. Of course, the most significant advance in statistics was the development of the Internet in the 1990s. And the workdays of us cubicle dwellers would never be the same.

One of the interesting themes of the book is how much impact military men have had on the development of baseball statistics. People often compare football to war—George Carlin’s “baseball vs. football” routine is the most famous example of this—yet it is baseball that appeals more to the precision of military minds. There seem to be strategies that statistical analyses prove—for instance, don’t bunt with a runner on first unless you need one run late in the game—that perhaps bring to mind the rules of engagement for which those in the military strive.

But for those of us not in uniform (baseball, military, or otherwise), perhaps the game’s statistics simply appeal to our meticulous nature. Schwarz writes about “baseball’s double-entry personality. The sport’s symmetry leaves every hitting event part of a pitcher’s record and every pitching event part of a hitter’s record.” This does not happen in other sports; as beautiful as Michael Jordan’s superhuman jumps were, they were not charged against a particular defender. As many clichés as there are about “winning as a team and losing as a team,” baseball’s central pitcher-hitter and hitter-fielders confrontations provide a precision that is not matched in other team sports.

It is arguable that the most important figure in the field in the twentieth century—other than Babe Ruth—is Daniel Okrent. He plays a role in the two most interesting stories in the book. The first is when he was a freelance sportswriter in 1978, and picked up one of Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts.He wanted to write a full-length profile of James for “Sports Illustrated.” The story got mired in the magazine’s politics for two years. Fittingly with James’ David-fighting-Goliath stance, the magazine couldn’t believe his findings that Elias Sports Bureau’s official statistics were riddled with errors. However, the article eventually came to light, which launched his Abstracts out of the world of self-publishing and into the heights of baseball geek stardom. Most of us would not know the James story—the crankiness directed at old-school traditionalists, the constant questioning of conventional wisdom, the new way of addressing age-old questions like, “Does lineup order matter?” (Answer: “Not really”)—without Okrent thrusting him into the spotlight.

Okrent also figures in the other major story in 20th century baseball statistics, the original source for procrastination at work (before this website): fantasy baseball. He and a few buddies met for weekly baseball talks at the restaurant Rotisserie Francaise in Manhattan in 1980. On a long plane flight around this time, he developed—you guessed it—rotisserie baseball. Has ever a bigger impact on baseball statistics—and the following of the game—been wrought? Of course, there are now plenty of fans that care much more deeply about their fantasy teams than about the teams for which they grew up rooting. Many people reading this review right now are such fans.

Think of the impact that individual player statistics have on our appreciation of the game. Would any of us care that Barry Bonds may have taken steroids if he hadn’t broken the season home run record? And why do we care about the season home run record? That number—73, along with other hallowed numbers, such as 56, 755, and 4,256—are an integral part of our appreciation of the best sport in the world. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to finish in the top half of my fantasy league for the first time. I wonder what the statisticians would say the odds are.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan," appears alternate Fridays


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