Percentage Baseball by Earnshaw Cook: a review

It’s likely my first contact with this book was Jim Gallagher’s review of the Waverly Press edition published in the September 12, 1964, issue of The Sporting News:

If I didn’t know Earnshaw Cook, I’d think his book was one of the loveliest hoaxes of all time … 120,000 words, plus 108 tables, 35 diagrams and countless fearsome formulas … all aimed at befuddling the pseudo-intellectual sophisticates who are taking over the business of sports comment. But although Mr. Cook is a humorous and good-humored man, he is as serious about his baseball theories as an orator at a political convention. [punctuation as original]


Cook, however, like all theorists, tends to be intolerant of [traditional baseball wisdom about randomness] and feels that baseball managers unwilling to adopt the methods indicated by his statistics are unenlightended … perhaps even stupid.

When a new edition was published by MIT Press, TSN editor C.C. Johnson Spink took notice in the April 23, 1966, issue of baseball’s bible. Spink’s commentary began “It would appear that major league managers have neglected their education if they have not studied college-level mathematics.” After a few comments about the book’s difficult reading level, he goes on to summarize the book’s most interesting suggestions–regarding bunts [don’t, except for pitchers], batting order [best hitter first; worst last], pitcher usage [3 per game, with the “starter” pitching the middle 5 or 6 innings], and platooning [don’t do it]. Spink also repeats, without comment, Cook’s contention that following his suggestions would improve a team’s annual scoring performance by 273 runs.

Spink would again mention the book, clearly favorably, in a May 1, 1971, editorial about pitcher usage. I didn’t find any subsequent editorial mentions of the book, though Waverly Press advertised the original edition for years, even after the MIT Press edition was available.

In the modern sabermetric community, Cook is generally acknowledged as a pioneer baseball analyst who did some useful work. A few analysts have apparently even extended his best work. But the consensus can be fairly characterized as dismissive.

Here’s the thing, though: The book, whatever its merits, is unreadable. The math usually seems to work, if you can follow it, but following it is difficult. Problems include the use of uninformative variable names [for instance, scoring index is Dx], calculations that generate not-obviously-meaningful numbers, and the book’s organization which unhelpfully splits the statistical discussion between the main text and the appendices. There are also numerous off-topic digressions, most of which demonstrate Cook’s belief that deadball-era baseball was superior to the modern “cheap homer” brand (a legitimate opinion, but not a helpful issue in this context). There are a few howlers in his analysis, of course; the most telling are his discussions of batting order and platooning, neither of which stand up to careful examination. Most trying, though, is the man’s sheer contentiousness: He doesn’t suffer fools, and he considers everyone foolish.

So why read the book? I can think of two reasons. You might want to mine the book for its equations; people have certainly done that, and found value. Or, like me, you might just want to read everything sabermetric. Unless you fall into those categories, you really don’t want to go there.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

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