Thursday, May 10, 2007
Mark Twain famously said that there were three kinds of lies: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics. Twain was referring to the fact that people could twist and manipulate numbers to their own agenda and for their own cause. I thought of Twain’s aphorism as I read The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz. Published in 2004, the book’s forward begins with a searing event that transformed how baseball teams approached statistics: Grady Little’s decision to leave Pedro Martinez in to pitch Game 7 of the ALCS. Numbers analysis showed that the decision was a disaster waiting to happen – once Pedro hit the seventh inning he fell apart – and yet Grady Little did what managers had traditionally done and “went with his gut” by leaving Pedro in. Pedro got shelled, the Yankees won and the cursed was prolonged for a year while the Red Sox retooled and got a manager who wasn’t afraid to use numbers when making decisions.
Then the curse was broken.
Schwarz has written a very confident and interesting look at the history of stats in baseball. I want to compare and contrast The Numbers Game to Moneyball, which covers a lot of the same ground – Bill James, Henry Chadwick, etc. – but Schwarz does it without Michael Lewis’ revolutionary tone. Lewis knew he was writing a biased book when he wrote Moneyball, a revolutionary document that recast history to suit its own ends, while Schwarz has a much more value-neutral approach to the topic. Schwarz’s work is more balanced and a little deeper. Dealing with the Oakland A’s adoption of numbers-based stats in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I think Lewis missed the boat on the evolution of the A’s thinking about stats when he jumped straight from Sandy Alderson to Billy Beane. The process was much more gradual and subtle. Alderson was a lawyer, not a traditional baseball man, looking for new ideas and came across them when he read Eric Walker’s The Sinister First Baseman, which preached the gospel of On-Base Percentage. Alderson taught Beane, and the march of numbers went on from there. In many ways, Lewis misses the boat in Moneyball. The key figure in stats is not Beane but Alderson, the man who brought the thinking into the mainstream and indoctrinated the A’s. (Lewis makes fleeting references to Alderson in the book.) Once Alderson made numbers a part of the A’s thinking, the genie was out of the bottle.
Naturally there are many more figures of note in Schwarz’s book. Branch Rickey utilized stats as the Brooklyn Dodgers GM in the 1940’s before he was forced out and the Dodgers sent his designated stat man packing. George Lindsay and Earnshaw Cook, are figures lost to the pages of history and whose memories are resurrected. Lindsay, an officer in the Canadian Military and Cook, author of Percentage Baseball, were people who had suspicions about the game and wrote daring reinterpretations about numbers and how they were used well ahead of their time (1950’s and 1960’s).
In particular I loved Schwarz’s opening chapters on Chadwick and the development of the box score. The high value that was placed on defense in the early days of baseball is really a fascinating topic to behold. That opening chapter is well worth the cost of the book right there.
So is The Numbers Game a superior book to Moneyball? I found them to be different, one a book about advocacy which interpreted history in a manner that supported its conclusions, the other a dispassionate take on people and ideas that people feel passionately about. I rather enjoyed Schwarz’s writing style and how he covers all of the bases when it comes to numbers in the history of baseball. It is hard not to be impressed. A very good read, in fact it is a must for my baseball fan to have in their library.
Labels: Book Review