The New Ballgame


I was looking forward to reading Glenn Guzzo’s book, The New Ballgame: Understanding Baseball Statistics for the Casual Fan.

Baseball stats have changed dramatically since the days when batting average, home runs, and RBI’s were the only hitting stats that people discussed. Now, on baseball discussion boards, fans argue about VORP, Win Shares, and LOB%.

Though I have a degree in statistics and enjoy reading about them, I no longer have the patience to plow through books whose authors seem obsessed with revealing the mathematical underpinnings of a baseball stat. I prefer a book that explains in plain English a stat’s significance.

That’s what I hoped Guzzo’s book would do.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Guzzo devotes two paragraphs to VORP in the book’s final chapter and introduces stats such as on-base percentage in an earlier one but, for the most part, he dwells on statistics that have been around long before the Dodgers decided that “Brooklyn” didn’t belong in their name.

On the other hand, if you want to learn how to read a box score, a whole chapter reveals what you need to know. But even that chapter has a flaw.

Guzzo tries to explain how to keep score using just words. (At the end of the chapter the book presents a completed scorecard, the only graphic in the chapter.) However, when you keep scoring, you’re not placing only words on paper; you’re placing abbreviations, such as “1B” for a single, and you’re also making nonverbal marks.

One Website, baseballscorecard.com, explains how to keep score using both text and graphics. Look at this page on their site. Scroll down to the graphic for J. Smith. Notice the short, black line segments. They’re “nonverbal marks.” Then, read the page, ignoring the pictures, as if it only contained text. Notice a difference? A comparable text-only version is what’s in Guzzo’s book.

On another Web page, The Baseball Scorecard demonstates that scoring can be successfully taught with minimal use of words.

Related to keeping score is the skill of reading a box score. In Guzzo’s book, two chapters after “Keeping Score” is a chapter titled “How to Read a Box Score.” That ordering didn’t make sense. In my opinion, readers should be taught how to read a box score first.

Between the chapters “Keeping Score” and “How to Read a Box Score” is the book’s most boring one. Titled “Now Playing on a TV Screen Near You,” it focuses on the stats that TV broadcasts and baseball shows ply you with. In one part of the chapter, Guzzo presents what happened in the first inning of a game and then shares comments a game announcer. That goes on for more innings spread over 11 pages.

He follows that with five pages devoted to what happened in a segment of the ESPN’s Baseball Tonight show. Those pages contains sentences such as this one: “Thanks to stats, the baseball tonight crew can create urgency an otherwise meaningless game.” Unfortunately, he didn’t create any sense of urgency in me to continue reading his description and analysis of what happened in that TV segment.

One of the book’s better chapters is “Why Baseball Arguments Never End.” Among the topics it covers is “Spitters, Splitters, and Sliders.” Guzzo opens the Spitters section with this sentence: “The types of pitches batters have had to face in different eras has caused further inconsistencies in pitching and hitting statistics.” But instead of elaborating in the next paragraph on those inconsistencies, he shifts to pitchers who threw splitters and follows that with the story of a batter whom a spitter killed.

It’s a basic rule of writing that when you create a question in readers’ minds, even indirectly, answer it immediately. Doing that makes the writing cohesive and keep the reader turning the pages.

While reading its next-to-last chapter, “The Last Frontier: Fielding Stats Still Confound Researchers,” I realized what the book could have been. That chapter’s about how a fielder’s skill is measured. “Fielding evaluations, Guzzo wrote, “are trapped in a Bermuda Triangle of legend, perception and woefully inadequate statistics.” Its seven pages skimmed the surface of this important topic. It’s a chapter that should have been both longer and in the book’s forefront instead of near its end.

Finally, Guzzo’s explanation of Win Shares left me trying to decipher the puzzle his words created. He describes Win Shares as the synthesis into a single number of “the contribution made by any player — batter or pitcher — to his team’s wins and includes each player’s offensive and defensive roles in that rating.”

Win Shares, viewed in isolation, reveals little. But when placed in a meaningful context, it comes to life. Hardball Times’ Web site offers information that can help make Win Shares meaningful.

The site reveals which National League players contributed most to their team’s wins. Heading the list is the Mets’ David Wright. His 34 Win Shares placed him third in the Major Leagues. Only American Leaguer’s Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez contributed more to their team’s victories. Given that the Mets won 88 games, they had 264 Win Shares to split among all their players. Wright got 13% of them. His play personally resulted in 11 of the Mets wins.

To help me to make sense of Win Shares, I found an article on the Web that ESPN writer Rob Neyer wrote: Bill James is back with “Win Shares.” It’s worth reading.

Reading Neyer’s article made me realize the biggest difference between Neyer’s and Guzzo’s writings about the new baseball stats. After reading Neyer, I was convinced of their value; whereas, after reading Guzzo, I was still wondering about their value.

In conclusion, if you’re a novice to even the basic baseball stats, this book could be of benefit. But if you want to expand your knowledge to the newest stats, you’re going to need more than Guzzo’s book offers.

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