Bucko's Reviews > Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong

Baseball Between the Numbers by Jonah Keri
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Mar 11, 11

bookshelves: reading-at, non-fiction, sports
Read in March, 2011

If you don't know much about baseball, but you're looking for a book to help you gain a better understanding of the sport, this is NOT the place to start. This is a book for a pretty advanced baseball enthusiast, someone who not only likes baseball, but is also generally interested in economics and thinking about numbers. It is a collection of essays, each dealing with a different topic, but using the same techniques to analyze how we understand what we are seeing when we watch a baseball game. The following anecdote isn't included in the book, but I feel like it does a good job of explaining what its pages contain.

Background:
People have been playing baseball for a very long time. What makes baseball different from football or any other sport is that people have been playing baseball essentially the same way for a very long time. Statistics for a baseball player who played in the 1920s are still comparable to statistics for a player who plays today. Baseball fans have grown up looking at the back of baseball cards, seeing the statistics of players, and making judgments about the value of players based on those "traditional" stats: Batting Average and RBI (Runs Batted In) for hitters or Wins and Losses for pitchers. What this book says is that those established statistics which have been used to measure a player's ability are flawed and cannot give us the best concept of a player's skill.

Example:
Ask a baseball fan if he could tell the difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter and he would say "Of course!" A .300 batting average has been the hallmark of excellence for over a century; .300 hitters are rare and exceptional, players who have long and storied careers. A .250 batting average, by contrast, is the hallmark of mediocrity. A player who manages a .250 average might play for a few seasons, perhaps even a full career, but will hardly be remembered and certainly not revered. A baseball fan has trained himself to think a .300 hitter will look excellent when he is at bat, while a .250 hitter will look mediocre.

A baseball season stretches from the beginning of April to the first few days of October, around six months or 26 weeks. For the sake of argument, let's say that over the course of a season a typical player might have around 600 At Bats (a little high, but close enough). Over those 600 ABs, a .300 hitter will get 180 hits, while a .250 hitter will get 150 hits. While a 30 hit difference might seem like a lot, it really isn't. Six hundred ABs over a 26-week season breaks down to about 23 ABs a week. A .300 hitter will have 6.9 hits a week; the .250 hitter will have 5.75 hits a week, a difference of about 1.15 hits a week.

What does it mean?
A baseball fan thinks he can recognize the difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter very easily, but what he really recognizes is the context the statistic gives him. If batting averages weren't compiled and prominently displayed all over the ballpark during every At Bat of every player, a baseball fan would not be able to distinguish between the player who gathered an extra 1.15 hits per week and the player who didn't, even if he watched every At Bat of both players all season! The difference between excellence and mediocrity is too marginal to be determined with the naked eye - we use statistics to make the determination for us, and they matter for baseball because the meanings of these statistics and labels have mostly remained the same for over a century.

The purpose of this book is to look at all of the statistics we have been using over that century and seeing if they actually help give us the best concept of a player's skill level. As the authors claim, what you think you know about baseball statistics is wrong, or at least not completely right. This book gives the baseball fan new statistics to help him understand the game a little better.
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