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Homage to stats freaks

7/8/2004

After reading "The Numbers Game,'' an enchanting and original history of
baseball statistics, the Florida Marlins' victory in the World Series looks
more improbable in retrospect.

The Marlins triumphed despite a lousy on-base percentage (a fave of stat
freaks), winning instead behind the stolen base (a statistically dubious
risk), clutch hitting (an apparent myth) and an old-school manager who
ignored overwhelming empirical evidence about pitching his ace on
three-day's rest and went with his gut (the same part of anatomy that got
Grady Little canned in Boston).

An essay on the Marlins in this year's stats-heavy Baseball Prospectus
opened with the words "They were lucky.'' And, as "The Numbers Game"
reveals, there is a statistic for that, too: Harvard researchers discovered
"luck plays far more of a role in baseball than anyone before had cared to
understand or admit.'' (Author Alan Schwarz's index captures references to luck on 23 pages and references to ERA on four.)

In all, the Marlins' victory invites the classic baseball debate about what
our gut tells us vs. what the numbers say. It is a conundrum that
essentially gave birth to statistics themselves, with fans thirsting for
ways of quantifying and codifying the game they loved -- and to settle bar
bets.

"The Numbers Game" isn't as much about stats as it is the people behind them, from Henry Chadwick, the former cricket reporter who began tinkering with box scores in 1856, to the minimum-wage night watchman whose revolutionary look at numbers created a sensation that has yet to abet (perhaps you've heard of Bill James).

By creating something of a seamhead family tree, Schwarz, a senior writer
for Baseball America and columnist for ESPN.com, brings generations of stat
freaks to life. And considering the way these numbers crunchers are
generally portrayed, it's fair to wonder how much of a life there is to
bring. But that's just it. For once, the box-score junkies aren't depicted
as Revenge of the Nerd castoffs or homicidal hermits. They are passionate
fans -- writers, military men, college kids, corporate vice presidents -- who
happen to spend a ridiculous number of hours obsessing over baseball (what,
there are people who don't?).

There are, of course, plenty of eccentrics -- including the bow-tied
scientist Earnshaw Cook, whose 1964 book "Percentage Baseball" prompted the Hall of Fame to ask for his slide rule (which he gave). But most of the
driving forces behind your daily box score come across more noble than
nutty.

There is Chadwick, who spent 50 years designing scoring methods that would
encourage a fair value system -- and who fretted immediately that players
were perverting numbers to boost their salaries. (A Boston newspaper agreed: "It is high time that a protest was entered against the growing and
prevalent custom of printing the averages of the players.'' When The New
York Times added sacrifices to its box scores, in the 1880s, it did so "with
a view of promoting more team work among players.'')

There is F.C. Lane, a turn-of-the-century sportswriter and former biologist,
who, decades before Billy Beane inspired "Moneyball," railed that batting
averages were "worse than worthless" and argued that more attention ought to
be paid power and walks.

There is Allan Roth, the first full-time statistician hired by a major
league club, who fueled Branch Rickey's brilliance in the 1940s by
unearthing unprecedented figures such as batting averages in every
ball-strike count and performance against lefty and righty hitters. It was
Roth's work that prompted the Dodgers to move Jackie Robinson to the cleanup
spot in 1949, even though the second baseman had just 12 homers a year
earlier. Roth pointed out that Robinson hit .350 with men on base -- and
continued the tear in '49 by hitting .342 with 124 RBI and winning the MVP
award. "Baseball men like to call baseball a percentage game, but often they
don't actually know what the percentage is,'' Rickey once said,
foreshadowing a philosophy that would be embraced by Sandy Alderson, Beane,
Theo Epstein and other numbers-savvy general managers.

While front offices and managers have a checkered history of warming to
statistics, fans embraced them as quickly as they could be invented. Schwarz
recounts how, in the late 1800s, the Philadelphia Record told its writers
that the spring training games they were about to cover "mean nothing, but
the box score of even a five-inning practice game will be greedily scanned
by the enthusiasts here.''

Despite immediate passion surrounding baseball numbers, the game's
record-keeping remained remarkably slipshod for decades, with batting titles
and other historical milestones remaining an infuriating, and frequently
embarrassing, mystery. "The Numbers Game" is at its compelling best when
reconstructing the surprisingly dramatic quest for accuracy by the creators
of "The Baseball Encyclopedia."

Starting in 1967, a staff of 21 dived back into shaky records and microfilm
to "rebuild the game's statistical history brick by painstaking brick ...
The numbers would have to be confirmed and checked and reconciled so that
players didn't overlap and totals added up properly.''

The staff recreated run-scoring innings from 87,000 major league games from
1876 to 1919. The records were a mess. One researcher found a case where a
rabbit once ran around the bases and was credited with a run. Another found
a player who turned out to be a Western Union telegraph operator who
slipped his name into a 1912 St. Louis Browns box score in an apparent
attempt at immortality.

The drama only intensified with the publication of the book, since "The
Baseball Encyclopedia," and subsequent research by other stat lovers,
unearthed a terrible secret: that many of the game's most famous and beloved
records were wrong. Ty Cobb's lifetime average was .366 not .367, Cap Anson
was not a member of the 3,000-hit club (he was five knocks short of the door
at 2,995) and Hack Wilson's single-season RBI mark was one better than
everyone thought, at 191.

Honus Wagner's lifetime average eked from .327 to .329, depending on the
latest research, typical of a trend that baffled the baseball establishment.
"The guy was a good hitter, I know, but he was dead!" quipped Rick Wolf, an
editor for "The Baseball Encyclopedia."

The acrimony surrounding the new numbers proves a common theme in baseball's
statistical evolution, and Schwarz delivers a landscape packed with heroes
and villains (Bill James comes across as a gallant crusader; Seymour Siwoff
of the Elias Sports Bureau seems like Darth Vader with a calculator).

Then again, the arguments are part of why baseball is so much fun, from
Henry Chadwick to Bill James to the luck of the Florida Marlins.

My advice for your next statistical squabble: make sure you have "The
Numbers Game" on your side.

Daniel Brown, a former San Francisco Giants beat writer, covers the 49ers
for the San Jose Mercury News. The book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.