“Scouting And Scoring: How We Know What We Know About Baseball”
Christopher J. Phillips
The publishing info: Princeton University Press, $27.95, 320 pages, released March 26
The review in 90 feet or less
Sometimes, things just don’t add up.
How, again, did Harold Baines get elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame just a few months ago? The Baseball Writers of American crunched all the numbers for a dozen years. It didn’t quite add up. But the voting on the veterans’ committee, long after Baines’ eligibility with the BBWAA electorate expired, had enough numbers to make it happen.
Ask the same question about Craig Biggio, the former Houston Astros catcher-turned-center fielder-turned-second baseman. He becomes the test case in this book by Phillips, a starting point to demonstrate how it’s quite an interesting dance we all do with math to prove, or disprove, something as important as Cooperstown immortality.
But then Phillips, an assistant professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who also wrote the 2014 book, “The New Math: A Political History,” starts messing with our heads.
“Not all data is created equal,” he writes in the intro, clarifying that by what Michael Lewis wrote in the book “Moneyball” in 2003 and how it played out on the big screen some eight years ago.
“ ‘Data’ comes from the form of the Latin verb ‘dare,’ to give. Data are ‘that which have been given.’ They didn’t originally need to be numerical, objective or even true. They were simply the principles or assumptions that were conventionally agreed upon so that an argument could take place. Data were that which could be taken for granted. … Over time, we think of data as the ‘result’ of an investigation rather than its premise or foundation. In either sense of the term, data take effort to establish and have to be made useful.”
Is data a plural or singular noun, by the way?
Once we get past that, can we begin to get our heads around what Phillips is actually trying to assert in this historical/philosophical dissertation: Does Biggio’s 3,060 hits over 20 seasons, the fact he’s fifth all time on the doubles list with 668, and now we can quantify that with showing his career war of 65.5, really make him Hall-worthy, since it wasn’t enough to convince voters until 2015, eight years after his retirement? Check the numbers again — Baseball-Reference.com says his lifetime scores are comparable to Robin Yount, Derek Jeter, Joe Morgan and Paul Molitor.
Phillips cites the 1984 book, “The Hidden Game of Baseball,” as a “seminal publication” to distinguish between new stats versus traditional stats as a way to quantify someone’s legacy.
Let it also be known that in 2008, Bill James called Biggio his favorite player because of “his exceptional command of a collection of little skills – getting on base, avoiding the double play, stealing a base here and there, playing defense” and making the odd move from catcher to second base and even the outfield. In the end, James also was saddened that Biggio felt a need to hang around long enough to collect 3,000 hits, which would likely be his Hall of Fame threshold stat.
It all comes around to what numbers matter, and why they do. But with Phillips, the exercise here is more to ask how they came about, by whom, and when are they best applied.
We thank him for taking the time to analyze the contributions of Henry Chadwick, the entire process about how scouts analyze a player before his pro career even begins, the introduction of “Big Data,” and how one may never be able to measure a player’s head and heart.
(Also: there’s a Mike Scioscia high school scouting report from 1976 that uses the 2-8 scale and projects him to be an average/above average big leaguer based more on his aggressiveness and arm strength more so than his base-running skills. If only it measured managerial potential as well).
We know analytics cannot measure confidence, greed or fear. It has no value to quantify intimidation, or adrenaline, or injury. When you’re taking players out of their comfort zone by platooning them in and out of the lineup, sending them to the minor league or moving them in a different defensive positions, the analytics will be skewed and not follow form.
Number can carry too much weight and not enough water.
Going behind the curtain to crunch all these in less than 300 pages becomes a concentrated effort of the numerical infrastructure of a sport that lends itself to such measurements, and a necessary evil to excavate and see what kind of fossils we find that still demand some carbon dating.
At a time when the launch of more visual data and graphics in sports is getting into our faces, we need to face the fact that it’s not all that compelling unless it has a foundation of importance.
How it goes down in the scorebook
Yeah, right, give us a scorebook and make us judge this? Isn’t that entrapment at this point?
For this book, we’ll offer up some of the book blurbs by those whose brain power is much more measurable than ours:
Retrosheet founder Dave Smith: “No one has ever presented the history of (the sabermetric revolution) all in such a coherent and entertaining fashion as Christopher Phillips has done here.”
Rebecca Lemov of Harvard University: “This striking, elegant, and brilliant book offers a dual account of the scouting and scoring traditions that have made modern baseball what it is … told by a talented historian with a great love for the untold stories of baseball tabulators.”
Official MLB historian John Thorn: “Christopher Phillips knows that you can’t spell history without story. He goes back, back, back―from beyond the dawn of baseball’s quantification and evaluation through to today’s worship of objective data―to find where subjectivity and humanity stubbornly lurk. .. (It is) provocative, thorough, and brilliant.”
Other books to consider in this genre
* “When Big Data Was Small: My Life in Baseball Analytics and Drug Design,” by Richard D. Cramer (University of Nebraska Press, $28.95, 265 pages, due on May 1). Cramer revisits the earliest days of baseball analytics and computer-aided drug discovery. Again, Thorn provides the contest with the forward he did for this.
* “Understanding Sabermetrics: An Introduction to the Science of Baseball Statistics,” by Gabriel B. Costa (McFarland Publishing, $29.95, 132 pages, due on May 29, a reprint of the 2007 first edition).