The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz: a review

This is the best overview of the development of baseball statistics and statistical analysis (Palmer & Thorn’s Hidden Game is a fairly close second; can’t think of a third). It really needs an update to cover the Retrosheet, fielding, and Pitch F/X revolutions, which have taken things in unexpected directions. And of course Tango et al’s The Book and the Prospectus book Baseball Between the Numbers would deserve mention in that update.

Schwarz begins at the beginning, with the New York game’s box scores and Henry Chadwick’s long reign as baseball’s preeminent statistician and commentator. He touches at least briefly on most of the 20th century baseball statistical efforts, both official and unofficial. Al Munro Elias gets a chapter, which moves into the modern era and Seymour Siwoff’s long Elias Bureau incumbency. Bill James, of course, gets his due, as do Pete Palmer and John Thorn. Many lesser efforts are mentioned; my biggest surprise was learning that Harland Mills is quite famous for his computer industry career. Late in the book is a lot of discussion about how sabermetrics has moved into baseball’s front offices, not without controversy and not without problems.

The section on Project Scoresheet is a gem of fairly reporting things the participants all had strong feelings about. This discussion moves into a long portrait of the various agencies working to improve the available statistical universe, of how they’ve evolved in the recent past, and how their rivalries have affected their outlooks.

There’s not a lot of actual statisitics in this book, though nearly everyone’s contributions are accurately described. One chapter is devoted to the perpetual clutch hitting controversy.

The book ends with a sketch of Dave Smith (who turns out to be a friend of Siwoff), and of Smith’s Retrosheet project. An appropriate ending, methinks, since Retrosheet is driving much of what we’ve learned over the past few years.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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