by Alan Schwarz 

Who's the Best?

I have a coworker who is, at best, a casual baseball fan. As Philadelphians do, he complains about the Phillies, and regularly asks me questions like, “What’s wrong? What happened? Do they just stink?”.

It has become a secret belief of mine that long suffering fans, like Philadelphia fans of all four major sports or Red Sox fans, don’t want to hear reasons for their failures. To think that your loss is just that, a loss, subject to whims of fancy and pulled hamstrings, is disheartening-one wants sports to be less capricious than life. Better to believe that “they” are out to get you, that there’s a curse based on a goat(Cubs) or a dead player(Red Sox) or a colonial American’s statue (Phillies) than to realize that it just wasn’t your time. Studying numbers is another way of hiding from the supernatural and explaining your team’s failure. When you can look at the numbers and realize that the 2004 Phillies replaced too many Kevin Millwood and Vincente Padilla starts with Cory Lidle and Paul Abbott starts, you see that whether or not William Penn’s statue is the highest building in Philadelphia doesn’t matter. If you don’t have enough pitching, you don’t have enough wins and you don’t win the World Series. It’s harsh, but it’s the truth.

Numbers are said to be the backbone of baseball, and the study, love and, yes, passion for numbers make up the new book by Baseball America’s Alan Schwarz, The Numbers Game. Schwarz’ book is remarkable, and after seeing it recommended by Baseball Think Factory patrons, Baseball Prospectus authors, and SABR members, it proves to be a quick, enjoyable, and lovely tour through the number crunchers that have followed swiftly, pencil and scorecard in hand, whenever bat met ball. The true measure of TNG‘s greatness is the reader is left slightly sad when finally closing the cover, wishing only for more stories, more detail, and more anecdotes.

Schwarz begins at the appropriate point, the very beginning of the game’s history, with Henry Chadwick and the game’s origin in the gloveless, double digit scoring, underhand pitching of the 1850s. Naturally, Schwarz follows the thread of the game and the expanding universe of errors, home runs, and batting averages through all of baseball history until the present, with a gruesome exegesis of Grady Little, Pedro Martinez, and the 2003 ALCS Game 7 meltdown. Names like Earl Weaver and Branch Rickey, common to any history of baseball, stand side by side with relative unknowns like Allan Roth and Earnshaw Cook in this tale as each era is brought to life through the men who tried to understand the game through the numbers.

It is truly remarkable to the modern reader to learn that military officers and neckwear salesmen were churning through homemade scoresheets and generating some of the same conclusions decades before SABR members and other baseball thinkers would unearth them. The weight of orthodoxy, and the power of truth to overcome it, runs through the pages of TNG as the same questions are asked and answered. Steal or wait for another hit? Walk the slugger or pitch to him? Bunt or not? It is also somewhat surprising to learn of the huge role tabletop baseball has played during more modern times as many current baseball personages admit to boyhood rolling of dice and scratching on scoresheets.

Perhaps the greatest enjoyment from the pages of TNG is the feeling that one gets when attending a SABR conference or stumbling across a Baseball Prospectus-the feeling that you are not alone. When night watchman Bill James self published his first Baseball Abstract, he says he calculated that, based on the people he had spoken to about it and extrapolating, that there simply had to be people who thought like he did. People who thought that it mattered whether or not Ty Cobb hit better at home, or whether or not Whitey Ford was a big game pitcher. It mattered whether or not the 1961 Yankees were a great team. And it mattered to prove these things as nearly as one could, not merely accept the word of grizzled ballplayers who say it’s so. And he learned that there were others -his small publication grew and truly started the modern field of sabermetrics.

Reading TNG, we learn that not only are there others, there always were those who not only see the beauty of a curve catching the outside corner for strike three, but those who recorded the curve in a book. Then they took the book, added the K to the thousands of others for the pitcher, the teams, the hitter, and the season. And then these others took the book, added it to the other books for the other teams and leagues and seasons and careers and decades and began to ask the questions that make the game an obsession for millions-what do we know? What can we prove? Who’s the best?  --Michael Webb

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