Quan­ti­fy­ing, and ap­pre­ci­at­ing, base­ball’s best


Fol­low base­ball long enough, and you are bound to en­counter mo­ments of rev­e­la­tion. I had such a mo­ment in 2010, when Wash­ing­ton Post sports colum­nist Thomas Boswell wrote about the im­por­tance of pay­ing at­ten­tion to the pitch count.

“The count is where the strate­gic heart of the game is found,” Boswell wrote. “That’s where ev­ery iota of study and in­tu­ition about your en­emy comes into play.”

Pay par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to Strike 2, Boswell ex­plained. “In ev­ery at-bat last sea­son that reached a two-strike count, the MLB av­er­age was .186, with pa­thetic on-base and slug­ging av­er­ages of .259 and .283.”

I never watched base­ball the same way again.

I had another such mo­ment read­ing “Smart Base­ball,” when Keith Law, a base­ball writer for ESPN, ex­am­ined the prob­a­bil­ity of scor­ing in ev­ery “base-out” sce­nario, sit­u­a­tions in­volv­ing run­ners on spe­cific bases with a spe­cific num­ber of outs. With no one on base and zero outs, a team in 2015 would score a run just over 26 per­cent of the time; with the bases loaded and none out, a team in 2015 scored a run nearly 89 per­cent of the time.

The run ex­pectancy ta­ble gets to a ma­jor shift in how base­ball is an­a­lyzed. In the old days, the most im­por­tant thing a hit­ter could do was hit. Bat­ting av­er­age, runs bat­ted in and runs scored mea­sured a player’s abil­ity to hit.

But things have changed: “A hit­ter’s job is to not make an out,” Law writes.

The fewer outs a hit­ter makes, the higher the prob­a­bil­ity a run scores.

“The hard­est thing for any of­fense to do is to put a man on base,” Law writes. He cau­tions that teams should be ju­di­cious in steal­ing bases (un­less a run­ner has a suc­cess rate above 75 per­cent) and that sac­ri­fice bunts usu­ally di­min­ish scor­ing chances. On-base per­cent­age, not bat­ting av­er­age, is the core stat to­day.

“In MLB his­tory,” Law writes, “the cor­re­la­tion be­tween team OBP and team runs scored per game is huge — stronger than the cor­re­la­tion be­tween team bat­ting av­er­age and team runs scored.”

Law de­rides the sta­tis­tics for pitcher wins (“dumber than a sack of hair”) and closer saves (“per­haps the most ridicu­lous of all of the tra­di­tional stats be­cause it has ac­tu­ally changed the way the game is played — un­equiv­o­cally for the worse”). There’s no such thing as a clutch hit­ter (“if you’re a good hit­ter, you’re a good clutch hit­ter, and if you’re a good clutch hit­ter, you were just a good hit­ter to be­gin with).”

Law ex­am­ines the ad­vanced stats: on-base plus slug­ging, bat­ting av­er­age on balls in play and wins above re­place­ment, the mumbo jumbo stats that old fans love to be­moan. He also ex­plores where the game is go­ing, in­clud­ing StatCast and ad­vanced mea­sure­ments for defensive play.

What’s most im­pres­sive about “Smart Base­ball” is that, de­spite a con­stant flow of sta­tis­tics and terms such as “run ex­pectancy ma­trix” and “range fac­tor,” it never gets con­fus­ing. Law makes this pos­si­ble through an en­gag­ing, sar­donic style that feels like a friend ex­plain­ing math with jelly beans.

While “Smart Base­ball” will teach you how to be an in­tel­li­gent fan, Terry McDermott’s lit­tle gem, “Off Speed,” cap­tures how to watch the game with the heart. I loved, loved, loved this book.

“This is what this book is about,” McDermott writes: “how pitch­ers fool, or try to fool, hit­ters, and how this has evolved for more than a cen­tury.”

He fol­lows the course of a sin­gle game, Felix Her­nan­dez’s per­fecto against the Tampa Bay Rays on Aug. 15, 2012. In nine chap­ters, one for each in­ning, he ex­am­ines how Her­nan­dez and his catcher, John Jaso, be­fud­dled the Rays. Each chap­ter also ex­am­ines a dif­fer­ent pitch: the fast­ball (“the lo­cated fast­ball re­mains the best pitch a pitcher can throw”), the curve­ball, the sinker (“the rate of home runs hit on low and out­side pitches is nearly zero”), how each pitch was de­vel­oped and how they are used in the game.

McDermott also ex­am­ines his life­long love of the game, play­ing barn­yard ball as a kid in Iowa, help­ing his fa­ther main­tain an in­de­pen­dent league field by dows­ing the in­field dirt with gaso­line and re­triev­ing foul balls hit to the grand­stands.

“Out-of-town kids in­vari­ably tried to keep the balls if they got them, and this was not al­lowed,” McDermott writes. “I chased kids half­way across town and fought when fights were in­evitable.” He was paid 50 cents a night.

He falls for the Seat­tle Mariners while lis­ten­ing to the great Dave Niehaus call a game. And he in­tro­duces his daugh­ter to the game.

I do wish, how­ever, that McDermott had picked a dif­fer­ent game to fol­low. Short of the ex­ceed­ingly rare 20-strike­out game (hello, Max Scherzer!), the per­fect game is pitch­ing’s great­est per­for­mance. There have been only 23 in ma­jor league his­tory. But since a run­ner never reached base in Her­nan­dez’s game, McDermott never ex­plores the art of keep­ing a run­ner from steal­ing or the de­cep­tion of con­ceal­ing signs from a run­ner at sec­ond. Or, most im­por­tant, how a pitcher man­ages when he doesn’t have his best stuff, when his fast­ball doesn’t ride or his curve­ball doesn’t bite or his slider doesn’t knife. Ex­cel­lence isn’t what a pitcher does with his best stuff on his best day but how he man­ages with his medi­ocre stuff on an off day. A quib­ble for an oth­er­wise lovely book.

“Smart Base­ball” and “Off Speed” are ex­cel­lent guides to ap­pre­ci­at­ing the game’s nu­ance.

Ti­mothy R. Smith is a for­mer ed­i­to­rial aide for Book World.


SMART BASE­BALL The Story Be­hind the Old Stats That Are Ru­in­ing the Game, the New Ones That Are Run­ning It, and the Right Way to Think About Base­ball By Keith Law Mor­row. 291 pp. $27.99

OFF SPEED Base­ball, Pitch­ing, and the Art of De­cep­tion By Terry McDermott Pan­theon. 191 pp. $23.95

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