"These are the times that try men's souls."
— Thomas Paine
If I'm not mistaken, he was referring to the period after George Washington chopped down a cherry tree to build Fenway Park, whereupon the Red Sox lost. No one is sure how. All I know is my baseball fandom is as pure and flawless as my knowledge of early U.S. history, and I've long held a belief that the worst period in American history is the weeks-long stretch after the Super Bowl and before spring training. Thankfully, we've just entered that glorious part of the year when baseball begins again.
So let's talk about math! Specifically, Baseball Prospectus math in Baseball Between the Numbers and Mind Game. (You may already know Baseball Prospectus' name. The "it" guy of the 2008 Presidential Election's predictions game was a former BP writer named Nate Silver.) Theirs is a kind called sabermetrics, which was brought to mainstream attention by best-selling author Michael Lewis. It's wonky math applied to baseball. Die-hard fans crunch statistics to try to better understand batting, fielding and pitching. Critics demonize it as something that spoils the game somehow, but that's silly. How does better understanding something that you like ruin it, unless your affections for it were based on falsehoods or myths?
The thing is, we already know that a lot of baseball is based on myth. It wasn't really invented by a guy named Abner Doubleday. It hasn't always been pure (Pud Galvin was taking monkey testosterone in 1889. Players from the 1950s-1980s took amphetamines.) It hasn't always represented a contest between equals exemplifying American meritocracy: blacks couldn't play for decades. Once we accept that a lot of truisms aren't true, the game becomes more dynamic. The team at Baseball Prospectus have two books that illustrate this.
On the more technical side, there's Baseball Between the Numbers, which asks and answers odd questions that expand our understanding of the game. For years we've accepted that a guy who gets a hit 1-in-4 times is a more valuable player than one who gets a hit 1-in-5 times: the first guy's hitting .250, while the second guy only hits .200. The first thing the BP team points out is that the comparison is dumb because the statistic is dumb. Consider: what's the worst thing a batter can do at the plate? Answer: make an out. An out shortens the inning, reduces other players' chances to score and prevents you from scoring yourself.
So imagine that the guy who gets a hit 1-in-4 times makes an out 3-in-4 times. Yet the guy who gets a hit 1-in-5 times also WALKS 2-in-5 times. The first guy has an on-base percentage (OBP) that's only .250. But the second guy has an OBP that is a whopping .600. Six times out of ten, he gets on base and gives you a chance to score. He is probably a more valuable hitter. This is a much better and more useful statistic than the old batting average stat, but it wasn't until just a few years ago that you could even hear someone mention it on TV.
Baseball Between the Numbers takes this fundamental lesson about baseball misconceptions, then questions nonsensical "common sense" facts and examines questions that sound like bar arguments. They engage overrated "speed" in a chapter hilariously titled, "What If Rickey Henderson [all-time-stolen base leader] Had Pete Incaviglia's Legs?" They try to decide whether Barry Bonds is a greater baseball player than Babe Ruth. They explain how statistics can be normalized across eras and ballparks to take into account different quality levels in pitching and hitting, as well as differences in the shapes of stadiums. For instance: the Oakland A's routinely churn out good pitchers. Oakland Coliseum, has giant foul territory, which makes it easier for pitchers to make outs.
But if this seems abstruse to you, try their book Mind Game. In it, they take these lessons and arguments and compress them into the story of the historic 2004 Boston Red Sox. Instead of abstractly discussing the comparative value of one shortstop over another, they tell you about Boston's then-beloved Nomar Garciaparra, his sudden shocking trade and how his replacement, Orlando Cabrera, wasn't actually much of a talent downgrade.
The book explains how individual parks can, like Oakland with pitchers, make some hitters look better than they are. A right-handed hitter in Boston's Fenway Park tends to hit a lot more doubles and make fewer outs because they bounce of Fenway's "Green Monster" in the shorter left field. A right-handed Red Sox hitter who looks like dynamite may actually be no better than an Oakland A's right-handed hitter who appears mediocre.
Another key insight they take pains to explain is how closing pitchers are overrated and often overpaid. They focus on how Boston's rotating stable of closers performed quite well, while noting the use of "closer" Keith Foulke. Teams with a lead in the 9th inning stand very little chance of losing. The 7th and 8th innings, however, tend to be much "higher-leverage," where a "closer"-type pitcher who can come in and shut down the opposition is far more valuable. Interestingly, this is exactly how Boston used Keith Foulke in their historic playoff run.
This stuff may sound inaccessible, but told within the story of a baseball season — one familiar to even non-fans — it opens up the statistics and probabilities, making them seem more tangible. You can enjoy the ups and downs of a long and dramatic season, the changing faces on the roster, changing fortunes and funny baseball one-liners about some famous personalities.
Along the way, your understanding of the game will dramatically increase. Baseball traditionalist killjoys like to point to the math and say, "This destroys the experience for anyone," but how can finding a whole new level on which to appreciate something you like be less fun? Besides, learning this is good for you. It doesn't hurt that breaking out a stat like OPS or WHIP will wow spouses who are sports fans, open up whole new fun discussions to quibble about with friends, or help you destroy your enemies in a fantasy baseball league.
So, are you excited about baseball season yet? And is this the Cubs' year?