By Michael R. Stevens
The Mystery of the Numbers
For one raised in upstate New York and living in western Michigan, the coming of the Spring Equinox has always seemed merely symbolic. The weather, often harsh and certainly unpredictable at this time of year, doesn't help to summon the image of Spring-tide in the mind. But somewhere in the southerly climes, the "boys of summer" have begun to shake off the rust, to stretch and throw and swing upon verdant diamonds. Baseball's slow emergence, like that of the tulips and daffodils, has always helped to foster the patience and hope upon which spring is sprung.
Perhaps this is why the World Baseball Classic, the baseball innovation which has dominated this spring's conversation, seems to me an imposition on baseball's century-old rhythm. Several things seem awry with this pre-season tournament: the risk of injury, mitigated by mandatory pitch counts, has created unnatural constraints on the games. The teams represented seem uncomfortably nationalistic, or, for many of them, absurdly un-nationalistic in their contrivance. The games themselves have featured weird calls, blowouts, and gross competitive imbalance. Major League Baseball has been blunt in talking about opening new markets and reaping some of the international gains—financial and reputation-wise—that the NBA has enjoyed. It might be good sports marketing, but it seems bad for baseball, or at least forced. So much for my lament. Going into Monday night's championship game between Cuba and Japan, Ichiro is the only player still separated from his Major League team, so baseball is starting make sense again.
But I need to be careful with the notion of baseball "making sense," since the book John Wilson bestowed upon me for review this year was written with the intent of changing the basic sensibilities that we bring to the game. Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong (Basic Books) has been written by several staff writers from Baseball Prospectus, the vanguard of statistical websites and the flagship for the sort of number-crunching, neo-Newtonian revolution sweeping through General Manager offices around the league. These writers are dead-serious in their approach to the game, and there are moments when the essays read like mathematics journals, thwarting the quantitatively challenged reader like myself. Anyone who has made forays into Bill James's Baseball Abstracts and the trigonometric formulae in the preface to Total Baseball knows that there are infinite ways to crunch and compare baseball statistics (the nomenclature of "sabermetrics" covers this realm, from the acronym for the Society of American Baseball Research—SABR). But the motivation for such labor had always seemed to me to be the satisfaction of some odd and insatiable urge, built into baseball fanhood, to translate the game's embodiment into numerical form. This may still be at the root of the work done by the Baseball Between the Numbers writers, but the trunk and branches of their statistical obsession have a more Machiavellian shape: they isolate, over and over again, through all the multiple layers of the grand old game, the single, cold and hard bottom-line: wins.
This is no surprise to a sports fan—everyone knows that winning is the point (except Bud Selig, who rendered the final half-inning of that interminable All-Star Game a few years ago meaningless by saying he would accept a tie score). But never have I felt so isolated from the game as I have known it, the game of favorite teams and favorite players and quirky personalities and myriad intangibles, as when I sat wrestling with the revisionist accounts of players and stratagems offered up by these writers. This is the book's greatest danger, and its greatest charm. I now know the full power of the Enlightenment's Faustian promise—almost everything can be boiled down to measurable phenomenon and explained in utilitarian modes. Almost! To their credit, these writers reveal a bit of the Pascalian mystery alongside their Cartesian dismantling of baseball's being. Time and again, they admit that the chief force at work in the destiny of a pitched and batted ball is, from the point of view of our finitude, pure luck.
I can't begin to cover all the angles that 27 essays in the volume use to approach the game, let alone account for the motherlode of new formulae and extensive acronyms that now apply (my favorite, from a rhetorician's perspective, is PAP—Pitcher Abuse Points). But I'll mention a few of the essays that reveal the tension of the old-school baseball fan in the face of the new statistical onslaught. Chapter 4-1, "What If Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia's Legs?" by James Click, is an extended meditation on the overvaluation given to stolen bases as compared to simply sound baserunning. Now here is the difficulty: those of us who watched Rickey in his prime know that he was among the most exciting, nerve-wracking players of our time (and that's a long time, since he played for a quarter century!). But the harsh numbers reveal a different story. After factoring in the sliding-scale (no pun, I swear!) for stolen-base value by inning, and the damage done by the infamous "caught stealing," James Click reveals the unthinkable: "In a typical season, the difference between a great baserunner and a terrible one is significantly smaller than between the best and worst hitters in the league. If Henderson hadn't stolen a single base in 1982, the A's would have lost about 2 runs on the season, or about one-fifth of a game. If he'd been as good as Incaviglia on the basepaths over his career, he would have contributed about 5 fewer wins in 25 seasons. He was fun to watch, but the first rule of baserunning is 'don't get caught,' advice Henderson disobeyed more than 700 times. Taking the extra base is good, but getting on base and eventually scoring is better." Scoring runs and accruing wins—that resounds like a chorus throughout the essays, biting into our nostalgia and sentiment. It is clearly a book written for General Managers and their ilk, guardians of efficiency and maximum return on investment.