King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Two new stathead books go between, behind and beyond the numbers to solve some of baseball's mysteries.

By Salon Staff
April 13, 2006 11:00PM (UTC)
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Almost everybody who's talking about baseball books this spring is talking about that book, the one about Barry Bonds and BALCO and steroids.

I've been talking about it too, and reading it, but I've also been reading the book. Or actually, "The Book." It's one of two stathead books I've been reading as the first weeks of the season play out, and I'm recommending them both.


"The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball" is an attempt by authors Tom M. Tango, Mitchel G. Lichtman and Andrew E. Dolphin to provide an actual, real-world version of baseball's mythical "book," which they define as "the unwritten rules created by generation after generation of baseball followers."

The other book I'm recommending is "Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong" by the experts -- that's what it says on the title page -- at Baseball Prospectus. Jonah Keri is the editor.

You know "the book" from statements such as "the book says bunt with a man on second and no outs" or "the book says bring in the lefty to face this guy." It's another way of talking about playing the percentages, as the subtitle suggests.


Tango et al., in the Bill James tradition, ask the basic question, "Really?" They studied a number of assumptions baseball people make and tried to determine what the book really should say. What are the percentages, anyway?

"The Book" is presented as a sort of guidebook for baseball managers, though it's certainly intended for fans to read too, or at least fans who are interested in this sort of thing. The authors consider a question, walk you through the mechanics of the statistical research they've done, then present their findings in a big box headlined, "The Book Says."

One example, from the chapter on whether batting orders mean anything: "The Book Says: The second leadoff hitter theory exists. You can put your pitcher in the eighth slot and gain a couple of extra runs per year." Though the overall conclusion is that batting orders have little effect on offensive efficiency.


There are plenty of charts but not much hardcore math, which is relegated to an appendix for those interested.

The authors consider such things as whether hot or cold streaks have predictive value, how to best use relief pitchers, how important platoon splits are -- how batters and pitchers of the same or opposite handedness do against each other -- whether sacrificing is a good idea and, of course, the golden question of sabermetric analysis: Is there such a thing as a clutch player?


"Baseball Between the Numbers" takes a similar approach. It's divided into nine chapters, with three sub-chapters each -- get it? -- and each subchapter is a question.

Some sample titles show the Prospectus authors are going over some of the same territory as Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin: "Are Teams Letting Their Closers Go to Waste?" "Is David Ortiz a Clutch Hitter?" "Was Billy Martin Crazy?" That last one's about batting orders. Martin once chose his order by pulling names out of a hat.

But "Baseball Between the Numbers" also goes beyond the lines with chapters such as "Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?" "Are New Stadiums a Good Deal?" and "Do High Salaries Lead to High Ticket Prices?" That question happens to have been the subject of my column Wednesday, though to be honest I hadn't read the chapter when I wrote that column. Author Neil deMause's conclusion is the same as mine: No.


So I guess Everything I Know About the Game Isn't Wrong.

Baseball Prospectus is known in stathead circles and beyond for two things, an alphabet soup of esoteric statistics -- VORP, SNLVAR, WARP3, etc. -- and a certain arrogance that's exemplified by that subtitle, an attitude that Prospectus has solved the mysteries of the Grand Old Game and anyone not onboard with its ideas is a knuckle-dragger.

That's an exaggerated but not totally undeserved reputation. Fortunately, beyond the subtitle, it doesn't come through much here. Like "The Book," "Baseball Between the Numbers" is an earnest attempt to really solve the mysteries of the Grand Old Game, or at least a few of them.


Both books are engaging and lively, "The Book" a little more serious in tone, "Baseball Between the Numbers" a little more witty, or at times just snarky. They both challenge assumptions -- and not just old-time baseball assumptions either.

You might think that in a book like "Baseball Between the Numbers," a chapter wouldn't tackle the question "Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?" if the answer were going to turn out to be yes, which is what everybody thinks anyway.

Author Nate Silver takes 25 pages, examining the effect of Rodriguez on ticket sales, concessions, merchandising and TV revenue. He weighs market factors, the effects of revenue sharing and the marginal economic value of one additional win, among other things.

The conclusion? Yeah, Alex Rodriguez is overpaid. By a lot, "even though his on-the-field contributions have been everything his employers might have expected from him and then some."


So while both of these books have a contrarian spirit -- be prepared to learn why teams should almost never sacrifice, employ a five-man starting rotation or use their closer the way every closer in the game is used these days -- it isn't contrarianism for its own sake.

Both "The Book" and "Baseball Between the Numbers" offer preface assurances to the mathophobic that they'll be welcome within. They both have opening chapters that explain the various stats and abbreviations they'll be using, and both do a pretty good job of making the sometimes arcane statistical formulas they use make sense.

Beyond those opening chalkboard sessions that explain the methods, the chapters in both books can stand on their own. You can use either book as bathroom reading, skipping around to the topics you're interested in. I consider that high praise, by the way, the thing about bathroom reading, but somehow publishers never use it in their blurbs.

A note of disclosure on "Baseball Between the Numbers": While I have no affiliation with Baseball Prospectus, I am an unabashed fan of the Web site, which comps me a subscription. I'm acquainted with some of this book's authors through e-mail conversations, and I'm playing in a simulated-game fantasy league this year with two of them, Keri and Silver. I've never met any of them except Steven Goldman, who wrote one chapter here and whom I've met once.


So you can take that half of this recommendation with however large a grain of salt you'd like.

And where do these books come down on the all-important clutch question? Another surprise: They both find, using different methods, that there is, in fact, such a thing as clutch hitting ability, something sabermetric analysts have long argued is a myth, though Bill James admitted last year in a famous article that that argument has been overstated and clutch hitters might just exist.

But both books argue that the ability, or rather a tendency of some players, to do better or worse in high-leverage situations, is so slight, so barely there, that, as "The Book Says: For all practical purposes, a player can be expected to hit equally well in the clutch as he would be expected to do in an ordinary situation."

To which I say: More study is needed.


Note: This item has been corrected since its original publication.

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See you Monday [PERMALINK]

This column will be taking Friday off. Enjoy your respite from the intellectual rigor of these proceedings, and we'll meet again Monday.

Previous column: High salaries lead to ... high parking prices?

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