For one raised in upstate New York and living in western Michigan, the coming of the Spring Equinox has always seemed merely symbolic. The weather, often harsh and certainly unpredictable at this time of year, doesn't help to summon the image of Spring-tide in the mind. But somewhere in the southerly climes, the "boys of summer" have begun to shake off the rust, to stretch and throw and swing upon verdant diamonds. Baseball's slow emergence, like that of the tulips and daffodils, has always helped to foster the patience and hope upon which spring is sprung.
Perhaps this is why the World Baseball Classic, the baseball innovation which has dominated this spring's conversation, seems to me an imposition on baseball's century-old rhythm. Several things seem awry with this pre-season tournament: the risk of injury, mitigated by mandatory pitch counts, has created unnatural constraints on the games. The teams represented seem uncomfortably nationalistic, or, for many of them, absurdly un-nationalistic in their contrivance. The games themselves have featured weird calls, blowouts, and gross competitive imbalance. Major League Baseball has been blunt in talking about opening new markets and reaping some of the international gainsfinancial and reputation-wisethat the NBA has enjoyed. It might be good sports marketing, but it seems bad for baseball, or at least forced. So much for my lament. Going into Monday night's championship game between Cuba and Japan, Ichiro is the only player still separated from his Major League team, so baseball is starting to make sense again.
But I need to be careful with the notion of baseball "making sense," since the book John Wilson bestowed upon me for review this year was written with the intent of changing the basic sensibilities that we bring to the game. Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong (Basic Books) has been written by several staff writers from Baseball Prospectus, the vanguard of statistical websites and the flagship for the sort of number-crunching, neo-Newtonian revolution sweeping through General Manager offices around the league. These writers are dead-serious in their approach to the game, and there are moments when the essays read like mathematics journals, thwarting the quantitatively challenged reader like myself. Anyone who has made forays into Bill James's Baseball Abstracts and the trigonometric formulae in the preface to Total Baseball knows that there are infinite ways to crunch and compare baseball statistics (the nomenclature of "sabermetrics" covers this realm, from the acronym for the Society of American Baseball ResearchSABR). But the motivation for such labor had always seemed to me to be the satisfaction of some odd and insatiable urge, built into baseball fanhood, to translate the game's embodiment into numerical form. This may still be at the root of the work done by the Baseball Between the Numbers writers, but the trunk and branches of their statistical obsession have a more Machiavellian shape: they isolate, over and over again, through all the multiple layers of the grand old game, the single, cold and hard bottom-line: wins.
This is no surprise to a sports faneveryone knows that winning is the point (except Bud Selig, who rendered the final half-inning of that interminable All-Star Game a few years ago meaningless by saying he would accept a tie score). But never have I felt so isolated from the game as I have known it, the game of favorite teams and favorite players and quirky personalities and myriad intangibles, as when I sat wrestling with the revisionist accounts of players and stratagems offered up by these writers. This is the book's greatest danger, and its greatest charm. I now know the full power of the Enlightenment's Faustian promisealmost everything can be boiled down to measurable phenomenon and explained in utilitarian modes. Almost! To their credit, these writers reveal a bit of the Pascalian mystery alongside their Cartesian dismantling of baseball's being. Time and again, they admit that the chief force at work in the destiny of a pitched and batted ball is, from the point of view of our finitude, pure luck.
I can't begin to cover all the angles that 27 essays in the volume use to approach the game, let alone account for the motherlode of new formulae and extensive acronyms that now apply (my favorite, from a rhetorician's perspective, is PAPPitcher Abuse Points). But I'll mention a few of the essays that reveal the tension of the old-school baseball fan in the face of the new statistical onslaught. Chapter 4-1, "What If Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia's Legs?" by James Click, is an extended meditation on the overvaluation given to stolen bases as compared to simply sound baserunning. Now here is the difficulty: Those of us who watched Rickey in his prime know that he was among the most exciting, nerve-wracking players of our time (and that's a long time, since he played for a quarter century!). But the harsh numbers reveal a different story. After factoring in the sliding-scale (no pun, I swear!) for stolen-base value by inning, and the damage done by the infamous "caught stealing," James Click reveals the unthinkable: "In a typical season, the difference between a great baserunner and a terrible one is significantly smaller than between the best and worst hitters in the league. If Henderson hadn't stolen a single base in 1982, the A's would have lost about 2 runs on the season, or about one-fifth of a game. If he'd been as good as Incaviglia on the basepaths over his career, he would have contributed about 5 fewer wins in 25 seasons. He was fun to watch, but the first rule of baserunning is 'don't get caught,' advice Henderson disobeyed more than 700 times. Taking the extra base is good, but getting on base and eventually scoring is better." Scoring runs and accruing winsthat resounds like a chorus throughout the essays, biting into our nostalgia and sentiment. It is clearly a book written for General Managers and their ilk, guardians of efficiency and maximum return on investment.
But there is a bit of baseball's poetry still flowing amidst the numbers. In Chapter 2-1, "Why Are Pitchers So Unpredictable?" by Keith Woolner and Dayn Perry (a chapter of immediate interest to any Cub fans glancing at the table of contents), we witness the question eloquently analyzed: "An intricate web of interrelated and overlapping actions must ultimately align to deliver a successful pitch." The faultiness of the notion of ERA, which doesn't even correlate to runs scored or winning and losing, and is tied painfully into defensive performance, invites the creation of DIPS ERA (defense-independent pitching statistics). Here, only the situations that a pitcher can controlstrikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches, and home runsare factored in. Then, the authors apply the kind of exactitude that makes this book maddening and compelling by further tweaking home-run rate into groundball-tendency rate, to get as accurate a read as possible on what a pitcher can control. The final claim is thus a bold departure from the usual head-scratching about finicky pitching stats: "Pitchers are unpredictable in that they're more likely to get injured or fatigued than any other player on the diamond. But when it comes to measuring a pitcher's performance by the numbers, only flawed, context-dependent measures such as wins and ERA make them unpredictable. Use the right measures, and pitching performance becomes less enigmatic."
Indeed, many of the essays thrust daggers at the heart of cherished baseball stratagems, daggers wrought of carefully derived numerical margins and the bottom-line of scoring/preventing runs and earning wins. The onslaught is most obvious in the provocative Chapter 3.4 "Is Joe Torre a Hall of Fame Manager?" by James Click, where we are introduced to the rather startling notion that almost all traditional managerial moves are destructive! Hence, "the primary conclusion to be taken from this analysis is that nearly every manager costs his team wins through overuse of these strategies. Only six times in thirty-three years has any manager used sacrifice attempts, stolen base attempts, and intentional walks to increase his team's win expectation over an entire. Even the best managers cost their team more than a game per season by employing these tactics." So much for "the inside game"!
Elsewhere, in the essay "Was Billy Martin Crazy?" (bite your tonguesI'm a virulent Yankees fan), we hear from James Click that "Batting order simply does not make that much difference Teams without a player of Bond's caliber could gain about 10 runs (1 win) a year by routinely batting their players in order of descending OBP [on-base percentage]." Another item mentioned in several of the essays is the misuse of bullpens in contemporary baseball; James Click laments "the near complete absence of bullpen innovation in modern baseball," and Keith Woolner responds to his own question "Are Teams Letting Their Closers Go to Waste?" by pointing out that "This is one area where the refinement of strategy has actually taken us away from the optimal usage pattern. During the 'stopper' era of the 1970's, it was common to see a relief ace such as Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage come in as early as the sixth inning to halt a nascent rally. That was the smart way to go. Focusing on situational leverage, rather than the accumulation of easy ninth-inning saves, is the best way to get the most out of a relief ace." Once again, a commonly held strategy is shown to be counter-productive, and we are left enlightened and yet frustrated. We have to rethink the basics of the game.
The authors of this volume also deal with that other bottom-line of baseballmaking moneythough these essays always revolve the money question back toward winning, which is the necessary justification for any investment. Without entering into the fray of such essays as "Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?" (answer: yes, but not as badly as other players who produce fewer wins) or "Does Baseball Need a Salary Cap?" (believe it or not, the Yankees aren't the villains here!), I'll just reference the end of Jonah Keri's "Is Wayne Huizenga a Genius?" Few owners have been more vilified than Huizenga when he unloaded the 1997 World Series winning Marlins in a crass fire-sale. Yet Keri brings not one but two bottom-lines to bear, in a harshly logical cost-benefit analysis, when he claims "With apologies to sentimental types, the twin goals of a baseball team are: (a) to seize the opportunity when it arises and win the World Series and (b) to make money. Huizenga recognized that winners and losers are often separated by mere inches, the bat of an eyelash. He also saw a moneymaking opportunity, with a winning team likely to rake in the bucks and a dismantled winner likely to make more. He spent the right amount of money at the right time for the right team, with the right results. Mensa has reserved a spot for Wayne Huizenga at the head of the table." But that's just the problemMensa measures only the head, not the heart, and by the latter measure the baseball fan ponders a more Dantescan fate for Huizenga.
I came away from this book feeling brushed-back by a high and tight dose of Enlightenment utilitarianism, and like a batter thus warned, I am angry, but the pitcher has also gotten my attention. The statistical revolution in baseball may well make for more efficient GM's and managers, but the deep-seated love affair many of us have with baseball will be no better (and hopefully not worse) as a result. With that reactionary protest in mind, I will now proffer a brief, thoroughly unscientific and utterly "gut"-derived set of predictions for the upcoming 2006 season. Please don't run any quantitative analyses on these musings until All-Star Break, so I can have time to recant!
In the National League, I like the Washington Nationals to bring the pennant back to the nation's capital (the first since the 1924 Senators?!). I like Frank Robinson as a manager (even though he is cited by James Click as having 3 of the 12 'Worst Manager Seasons by Strategic Decisions, 1972-2004') and one of my favorite young hitters, Alfonso Soriano, is now in the middle of their lineup (though insubordinate regarding where he will play in the field). Their staff has a still-young Livan Hernandez (cp. Wayne Huizenga's 1997 Marlins fire-sale) and a huge RFK stadium to protect them. The rest of the NL East is good but fragile on the moundthe Braves have lost Mike Hampton for the year, the Mets are as good as Pedro Martinez's infamous injured toe, and the Phillies have to depend on Jon Lieber as their ace. The Marlins kept an ace in Dontrelle Willis, but yet another fire-sale (no Huizenga to blame this time) saw Josh Beckett go to Boston.
Who will the Nationals hold off in the post-season? In the NL Central, look for the Cardinals to peak early then struggle late again, though anyone who doesn't marvel at Albert Pujols bat-work lacks a baseball pulsewe are witnessing a once-in-a-generation type of player. The Astros also look strong, but can they sustain the emotional level from last year, especially if Clemens keeps his competitive fire out of the mix? I say they fall away, down where the Cubs will be swimming against the tide, staying a stroke or two ahead of the Brewers, Pirates, and Reds. Wait, let's shake this up a bit, and say that the Brewers come to life, with Cecil Fielder's big son Prince leaping in with a huge splash as a rookie first baseman, and with a maturing staff carrying the Brew-crew through the summerwhat the heck, put them in the wildcard hunt!
Out west, the Dodgers have added a few shortstops, though Rafael Furcal will play that role and Nomar Garciaparra will take his rickety body to first baseI say it doesn't work out, and injuries chew up the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres (all aging teams), allowing the dark-horse Rockies a chance at glory. Arizona will also rise from the ashes, but not quite mile-high!
The AL is a tougher call for me, because the recent championships of the Sox cousins, Red and then White, have messed up my whole scheme of predictions. Who has suffered longest and most miserably among the remaining teams? Starting out west this time, the A's (with Billy Beane as the GM most committed to statistical analysis), Angels, and Mariners have all been good teams of late, so maybe the Rangers will rise up from the cellar, except that when one scans their starting rotation well, maybe the Angels will take the division. The AL Central looks tough, with the White Sox even more menacing now that Jim Thome's bat has been added to the lineup, and the Indians still flying high after last season's late runso let's turn to the struggling teams and look for a possible curse-breaker. I'd pick my own local team, the Tigers, but it just seems unlikely when the big off-season addition is Kenny Rogers. I'll give the nod to my neighbor in the Humanities Suite here at Cornerstone, Michael Pasquale, and say that the Tigers reach .500 this year. The Twins and Royals have both won World Series within the span of my memory (wait, so have the Tigers), so I'll say it's the Indians, with their moderate cursedness (Willie Mays's catch in 1954, the Marlins improbable run in '97there's Huizenga again) and their young, hungry lineup, who will win this division and the AL pennant. But I'm hedging there, because I long for the Yankees to win it all, this year and every year, and the addition of Johnny Damon helps them and hurts the Red Soxdouble blessing. Still, the Sox are loaded and aimed to hurt the Yankees. The Blue Jays are better, but I'll not hazard the humiliation I experienced in picking them a few years agoand I don't dare go near the Orioles. So I'll either stay with the Yankees, or offer this alternative: what if the Devil Rays, cited in Baseball Between the Numbers as a team that "Until recently operated with an almost gleeful ignorance of basic statistical principles," suddenly decided to abandon all traditional baseball stratagems and to become the first wholly Enlightened teamno manager to screw things up, a batting order randomly drawn each game, four-man rotation, stoppers appearing early and often in games, formulae scrawled on dugout walls? Could such an overhaul finally vault the game's most recent emblem of futility into the postseason? Short of a thorough-going experiment such as this, I'll stay with the high-priced, humanly gifted and humanly flawed Yankees in the Eastnipped by the curse-driven Indians in the ALCS.
Hence, the Indians and the Nationals can do battle in a World Series eschewed with regard to TV ratings, lacking the invented novelty of the World Baseball Classic, but to the dogged fan of the game, a wonderful and apt way to spend a week in October. And, since Washington, D.C. could use some good vibes, let the Nationals prevail! So enjoy the return of baseball, this great statistical mess of wood and leather and, ah yes, of flesh and blood.
Michael R. Stevens teaches English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
Passionately Ambivalent | Christians in the art world. (Feb. 14, 2006)
WorshipWhat We've Learned | A report from the Calvin Symposium. (Jan. 31, 2006)
Makingand BreakingVows | A compelling memoir from the son of a priest and a former nun. (Jan. 17, 2006)
Coming to a Bookstore Near You | Marsden and Hart, Noll and Stout, and more (Jan. 10, 2006)
Ring Out the Old Year | Some highly subjective awards for 2005. (Jan. 4, 2006)
Not Just Looking | Books for the eye. (Dec. 27, 2005)
The Top Ten Books of 2005 | A charming bedside miscellany, a new novel by P. D. James, and much more. (Dec. 20, 2005)
How to Survive a Bookalanche | Some more keepers from 2005. (Dec. 13, 2005)
'Tis the Season for Books (And Lists of Books) | Part one of our 2005 roundup. (Dec. 6, 2005)
Taizé in the Fall | A parable of community. (Nov. 29, 2005)
'Have Mercy on Me, O God' | A report from AAR/SBL. (Nov. 22, 2005)
The Shrine Next Door | A superb study of Chinese popular religion helps to set the context for the appeal of Christianity in China today. (Nov. 8, 2005)
Dissecting Divorce | A new book by Elizabeth Marquardt offers a child's-eye-view of divorce. (Oct. 25, 2005)
For book lovers, our 2005 CT book awards are available online, along with our book awards for 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, and 1997, as well as our Books of the Twentieth Century. For other coverage or reviews, see our Books archive and the weekly Books & Culture Corner.