Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Book Review: The Numbers Game, by Alan Schwarz

I meant to actually read this around when Bat-Girl picked it for her book club thingy, but I think at the time I was wading through a Cy Young book that took me far too long to get through, and I had to read a non-baseball book that a friend of mine from a writing group in college wrote, and... okay, let's face it, I didn't read it back then because I'm lame.

And quite frankly, I am lame. Because this book was incredibly, incredibly good.

The Numbers Game is not really a book about statistics. It is a book about the people who came up with the statistics. You could enjoy this book if you're a huge stathead, finding yourself nodding along as Schwarz describes the characters in this story, seeing those same qualities in yourself. You could also enjoy this book if you're just a casual baseball fan wondering how and where all of these godforsaken numbers came out of. You could definitely enjoy it if you're a baseball history nut, as the history of baseball statistics is firmly woven together with the history of the game itself.

The Numbers Game is to statistics as Moneyball is to general managing. Moneyball is not a book you read to learn about how to be a GM -- it is the story of Billy Beane and his approaches and innovations in the GM job. The Numbers Game is not a book you'd read to learn how to calculate statistics -- it is the story of many people and their approaches and innovations in baseball statistics.

It's really pretty amazing how much trivia you can learn from this book. Whether it's stories about the terrible inaccuracy of stats-stringing in the 19th century, or about Hal Richman in his basement coming up with the ideas for Strat-O-Matic, or Allan Roth figuring out why the Dodgers should trade Dixie Walker, or the quest to construct the Baseball Encyclopedia and the fallout afterwards, or of course, the rise and fall of Bill James -- there's a person and an inspiration behind each innovation. Often, you even learn that somebody came up with a "new" idea that was actually a hundred years old in concept, but never implemented previously.

From the eruption of Babe Ruth and the Home Run era needing new metrics to measure power, to the age of Rotisserie League ball and Voros McCracken coming up with DIPS to figure out which pitchers to use, you're reminded that the numbers revolution has largely been driven by people who never really played baseball. Some may argue that this takes the heart out of the game; that the new minds behind baseball are just that -- young mathematical minds, rather than old experienced players. Some may say that the past decade or two and the upswing of the internet have catapulted the growth of statistics beyond control. But the fact is, discussing players in terms of their numbers is a practice over a century and a half old, and that's where we stand now.

This book had a very curious property for me -- I found myself utterly engrossed in it, and truly fascinated by pretty much everything within -- however, for some reason, it took me about three weeks to finish reading it. I think it works just fine as a bus book, since most of the specific stories in it are very short, even if the story arcs are long. I had a tendency to read and reread things in it as I went along, though. Sometimes he'd present a story about someone, and then some equations, and I'd feel obligated to sit there and read through the equations and make sure I understood them before continuing, which also slowed me down a little. I don't think you necessarily need to do that while reading this book, unless you're a stathead. (And in that case, you should already understand them all. What's wrong with you?)

Another curious property of this book is that the entire time I was reading it, I kept telling other people they needed to read it, even before I was finished. It was like there was this entire history of the statistics of baseball that I'd been unaware of, that I felt they all needed to know. If somebody asserted that crazy statheads are a recent phenomenon, I wanted them to know that, say, a man named John Lawres had started recording players' stats in 1892 and kept doing it for 20 years, just because he had no other way to get their lifetime stats. I wanted people to know about Sandy Alderson and Eric Walker starting the A's OBP revolution twenty years before Moneyball.

And yes, the final chapter or two, where he's talking about Baseball Prospectus and Retrosheet and and other such modern overflowing fountains of statistics online, was sort of wacky to read. To his credit, the book is spaced out very well per timeline, and current events are more of an epilogue than a major focus.

I really enjoyed this book, anyway. I know I tend to only bother writing about books I really liked, but no, really, this one was pretty spectacularly well-done, in content, writing style, how well-researched it was, and just how fascinating and entertaining a subject matter it turned out to be. Have I mentioned that you need to read it?

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