Baseball Between the Numbers, edited by Jonah Keri: a review

Knocked this book down a half-star on re-reading. It’s a valuable book about baseball analysis, but a bit of a challenge to read. If this were a college text, it would be a 300 level course–you need some background in modern baseball statistics, but it doesn’t venture far into advanced topics.

The BP crew shows the most direct Bill James influence of everyone doing baseball analysis in public, in that much of their work is built directly on James’ work. They use different, and often more sophisticated, measures than was/is James’ practice, but it’s always pretty obvious that their work began with Bill. This is neither a strength nor a weakness; it’s just the way they work. (One does wonder, though, why there’s no similar congregation of writers influenced by Pete Palmer.)

The book is built around 27 questions (outs), organized into 9 chapters (innings)–questions like “Why are pitchers so unpredictable?” and “Is there such a thing as a quadruple-A player?” The 28th (extra innings) chapter is, unsurprisingly, about scouts and stats. The chapters usually have a single author, though there’s some obvious cross-fertilization and two have co-authors. Each chapter explores the title question, and often related subjects, in some detail, testing hypotheses and discussing the results. The precise tools they’ve used are not usually directly displayed, but the authors show enough data that you can do a parallel analysis if you’re so inclined. (Some of the tools are fully described in the Glossary or the notes, and it isn’t hard to find the details on the web.) The results are occasionally surprising (ignore the subtitle, folks; it’s a marketing ploy), but the explanation’s usually convincing.

The book has endnotes which are tied to the text, but no pointers within the text to those notes. They’re quite good, if you think to look at them.

Unfortunately, the book’s pretty dull. Only Nate Silver writes clearly, though I rather like James Click’s chapters. At the other extreme, Neil deMause says some valuable things about baseball economics, but I generally find him unreadable.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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