Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review of The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz (Thomas Dunne Books, 2004)

Baseball has often been considered the most individual of team sports, and because of its tightly formulated format and rules can be easily captured by summary statistics.  From the very start of the game in the mid-nineteenth century fans and the media have charted player and team performances through various batting, pitching and fielding measures.  Since the 1970s some of these statistics have influenced management decisions on trades, contract negotiations, and on-field plays, with their authority growing in the last two decades to the extent that every professional baseball team now employs a stats unit and uses a plethora of computer packages to help augment all kinds of decisions in the club and dugout.  Alan Schwarz’s The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics charts the evolution of measuring games through box scores, basic summary statistics, more complex measures and algorithms, companies that compile and sell stats, the development of dice and card games utilising baseball stats, statistic societies and initiatives, books and chewing gum cards, the media’s use of stats to help fans follow games via newspapers, radio and TV, and their seepage into decisions by coaches and general managers.  The book has both historical depth and width of coverage and provides an engaging account by focusing on key personalities and the innovations they added to baseball’s statistical landscape.  For the most part the structure works well, but starts to struggle in its account of developments from the early 1970s up to the present.  In part, this is because there are a number of parallel developments that fracture the timeline.  The final chapter on academic attempts to make sense of baseball statistics is perhaps the weakest chapter, and the book suffers at its end because there is no concluding chapter that summarises the main thread of the argument or postulates as to what developments might or should emerge in the future.  Overall, however, an interesting read.

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