Hidden Game of Baseball: A Revolutionary Approach to Baseball and Its Statisticsby John Thorn, David Reuther, Peter Palmer
Long before Moneyball became a sensation or Nate Silver turned the knowledge he’d honed on baseball into electoral gold, John Thorn and Pete Palmer were using statistics to shake the foundations of the game. First published in 1984, The Hidden Game of Baseball ushered in the sabermetric revolution by demonstrating that we were thinking about/i>/i>
Long before Moneyball became a sensation or Nate Silver turned the knowledge he’d honed on baseball into electoral gold, John Thorn and Pete Palmer were using statistics to shake the foundations of the game. First published in 1984, The Hidden Game of Baseball ushered in the sabermetric revolution by demonstrating that we were thinking about baseball statsand thus the game itselfall wrong. Instead of praising sluggers for gaudy RBI totals or pitchers for wins, Thorn and Palmer argued in favor of more subtle measurements that correlated much more closely to the ultimate goal: winning baseball games.
The new gospel promulgated by Thorn and Palmer opened the door for a flood of new questions, such as how a ballpark’s layout helps or hinders offense or whether a strikeout really is worse than another kind of out. Taking questions like these seriouslyand backing up the answers with datalaunched a new era, showing fans, journalists, scouts, executives, and even players themselves a new, better way to look at the game.
This brand-new edition retains the body of the original, with its rich, accessible analysis rooted in a deep love of baseball, while adding a new introduction by the authors tracing the book’s influence over the years. A foreword by ESPN’s lead baseball analyst, Keith Law, details The Hidden Game’s central role in the transformation of baseball coverage and team management and shows how teams continue to reap the benefits of Thorn and Palmer’s insights today. Thirty years after its original publication, The Hidden Game is still bringing the high heata true classic of baseball literature.
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The Hidden Game of Baseball
A Revolutionary Approach to Baseball and Its Statistics
By John Thorn, Pete Palmer, David Reuther
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1985 John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and David Reuther
All rights reserved.
THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERE AND ASH
On April 27, 1983, the Montreal Expos came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning trailing the Houston Astros 4-2. First up to face pitcher Nolan Ryan was Tim Blackwell, a lifetime .228 hitter who had struck out in his first time at bat. At this routine juncture of this commonplace game, Ryan stared down at Blackwell, but his invisible—yet, for all that, more substantial—opponent was a man who had died the month before Ryan was born, a man about whom Ryan knew nothing, he confessed, except his statistical line. For at this moment of his seventeenth big-league year, Ryan had a career total of 3,507 strikeouts, only one short of the mark Walter Johnson set over twenty-one seasons, from 1907 to 1927. Long thought invulnerable, in 1983 Johnson's record was in imminent danger of falling not only to Ryan but also to Steve Carlton and Gaylord Perry.
Ryan fanned Blackwell and then froze the next batter, pinch-hitter Brad Mills, with a 1-and-2 curveball. The pinnacle was his. Johnson had been baseball's all-time strikeout leader since 1921, when he surpassed Cy Young. Ryan would hold that title only for a few weeks, then would have to eat Carlton's dust. During his brief tenure at the top, baseball savants scurried to assess the meaning of 3,509 for both the deposed King of K and the new.
What's in a number? The answer to "How many?" and sometimes agreat deal more. In this case, 3,509 men had come to the plate against Ryan and failed to put the ball in play, one more man than Johnson had returned to the dugout, cursing. So what's the big deal? That Ryan was .0002849 faster, scarier, tougher—better—than Johnson? An absolute number like 3,509, or 715 (the home-run record once thought invulnerable, too), does not resound with meaning unless it is placed into some context which will give it life.
In the aftermath of Ryan's feat, writers pointed out that he only needed sixteen full seasons, plus fractions of two others, in which to record 3,509 strikeouts while Johnson needed twenty-one, or that Johnson pitched over 2,500 more innings than Ryan. Coming into the 1983 season, Ryan had fanned 9.44 men per nine innings, while Johnson was way down the list at 5.33. And Ryan allowed fewer hits per nine innings than Johnson, or, for that matter, anyone in the history of the game. So, it would seem 3,509 was not just one batter better than Johnson, but rather was mere confirmation for the masses of a superiority that was clear to the cognoscenti years before.
However, other writers introduced mitigating factors on Johnson's behalf, much as Ruth found supporters as the home-run king even after Aaron hit number 715. These champions of the old order cited Johnson's won-lost record of 417-2791 and earned run average of 2.37 while scoffing at Ryan's mark, entering 1983, of 205-186 with an ERA of 3.11. This tack led to further argument in print, bringing in the quality of the teams each man pitched for and against, the resiliency of the ball, the attitudes of the batters in each era toward the strikeout, the advent of night ball, integration, expansion, the designated hitter, the overall talent pool, competition from other professional sports ... and on down into the black hole of subjectivism.
Why were so many things dragged into that discussion? Because the underlying question about 3,509 was: Does this total make Ryan better than Johnson, or even a better strikeout pitcher than Johnson? At the least, does it make him a great pitcher? In our drive to identify excellence on the baseball field (or off it), we inevitably look to the numbers as a means of encapsulating and comprehending experience. This quantifying habit is at the heart of baseball's hidden game, the one ceaselessly played by Ryan and Johnson and Ruth and Aaron—and, thanks to baseball's voluminous records, nearly 13,000 other players—in a stadium bounded only by the imagination.
The hidden game is played with statistics (and, it could be said, by them), but it extends beyond the record books. One enters the game whenever one attempts to evaluate performance, which is possible only through comparison, implied or explicit. How good a hitter isEddie Murray? How would Rogers Hornsby do if he were active today? Why can't the Red Sox get themselves some decent starting pitchers? What value does Oakland receive from Rickey Henderson's stolen bases? When is an intentional base on balls advisable? The answers to these and countless other questions are of concern to those who play the hidden game, for which this book serves as a guide.
In the eternal Hot Stove League, statistics stand in for their creators, and the better the statistics, the more "real" (i.e., reasonable) the results. In recent years baseball's already copious traditional stats have been supplemented, though not supplanted, by a variety of new formulations—some of them official, like the save and the game winning RBI, most of them outlaws, like Runs Created or Total Average, though not without adherents. And with the explosion of new stats has come an outspoken antistatistical camp, with the two sides aligning themselves along battle lines that were drawn almost at the dawn of baseball.
The antis might argue that baseball is an elementally simple game: pitch, hit, run, throw, catch—what else is there that matters? Playing it or watching it is deeply satisfying without examination of any sort, let alone rigorous statistical analysis. So why do we need new stats? Don't we have enough ways to measure performance? Don't we have too many? Why subject every incident on the field to such maniacal ledger-book accounting?
How can baseball's beauty fail to wither under the glare of intense mathematical scrutiny? For those of an antistatistical bent, baseball, like a butterfly, is poetry in motion and a cold, dead thing when pinned to the page. If we subject the game to ever more intricate analysis, in hope that it will yield up its mysteries, are we not breaking the butterfly upon a wheel, in Pope's phrase?
For the statistician, too, baseball is indeed like a butterfly, whose grace can be glimpsed while it is in flight ... but then it is gone, having scarcely registered upon the memory. One doesn't truly know any longer what it looked like, where it came from, how it vanished in an instant. The butterfly's coloring, its detail, cannot be absorbed while it is in flight; it must be examined to appreciate its complexity. One may love its simplicity in flight as one may love the simplicity of baseball while standing in the outfield or sitting in the grandstand. But the complex texture of the game, which for many is its real delight—the thing that pleases the mind as well as the eye—cannot be fully grasped while the game is in progress.
And that's what statistical analysis allows us to do. Statistics are not the instruments of vivisection, taking the life out of a thing in order toexamine it; rather, statistics are themselves the vital part of baseball, the only tangible and imperishable remains of games played yesterday or a hundred years ago.
Baseball may be loved without statistics, but it cannot be understood without them. Statistics are what make baseball a sport rather than a spectacle, what make its past worthy of our interest as well as its present.
For those who view baseball statistics in this way—that as they increase our understanding of the game, they deepen our enjoyment—the numbers of the hidden game take on reality and, sometimes, beauty, in the way that the circumference of a circle may be described arithmetically or aesthetically. The Pythagoreans and Cabalists may have had it right in believing that numbers are at the core of creation.
Without sinking into a morass of Philosophy 101 disputation about whether statistics reside in the things we observe or whether we impose them, let's look at the "reality" of the thing itself, which for our purposes is the game of baseball. The form in which it comes to most of us is a telecast, which flattens the game into two dimensions, transforming baseball into ambulatory chess or Pac-Man; to restore contours to the game we have to imagine it even as we watch it. The televised game offers signposts of what baseball is like for those on the field or at the park; to recreate that feeling, the viewer relies upon his experience of playing the game or of seeing it in the open. This act of imagination, this restructuring of the video image, progresses from what is seen to what is unseen. Disorientingly, in this instance the game that is seen is the abstraction while the unseen game is concrete, or "real."
This movement from the seen to the unseen describes the impulse and the activity of the game's statisticians, too. For them, plumbing the meaning of numbers is not mere accounting; to bring the hidden game of baseball into the open is an act of imagination, an apprehension and approximation of truth, and perhaps even a pursuit of beauty and justice.
Baseball offers a model of perfection, a utopian, zero-sum system in which every action by the offense has a corresponding and inverse act by the defense, and everything balances in the end. The box score reads like the Book of Life held by St. Peter at the pearly gates; no action is left unaccounted. Although it has been written that baseball is a microcosm of American life, in no place in society at large can the harmony of the ball field be matched.
Many people who find "real life" too much for them, or at least a source of turmoil and anxiety, derive immense satisfaction from theorder, regularity, justice, and essential stability of baseball, and this goes a long way toward explaining its continuing appeal to adults. We're all pursuing something that we can't quite identify; we all would like to think there is a simple answer to a multitude of complex problems. And a good many of us who may, by the world's standards, be entirely sane take great pains to investigate the clockwork mechanism, the mathematical construct that is baseball, because of its seeming offer of such an answer. The lure, the tease, for baseball statisticians is that the mathematical universe in which the game is played can be fully comprehended. And if this game can be fathomed, might not others? Those who analyze baseball by its numbers may, sometimes, hear the music of the spheres.
Even those who profess to abominate statistics—among whom are included several baseball managers, general managers, league officials, ballplayers—are statisticians despite themselves, for we are all, all of us humans, intuitive statisticians. We base our actions upon a quick assimilation of similar experiences, weigh the results, and decide what to do. An example: With men on first and second bases and one out, a ground ball is hit into the hole; the shortstop stabs the ball and makes the play at third base. This move was a product not of sudden inspiration (except for the shortstop who made the play for the first time in baseball history) but of calculated risk. While he is racing to the hole, the shortstop is figuring: Based upon the speed of the runners and how hard the ball is hit, he probably has no chance of a double play; he may have little chance of a play at second; and he almost certainly has no play at first. He throws to third because the distance from the hole to the bag is short, and his calculation of the various probabilities led him to conclude that this was his "percentage play."
Now not so much as a glimmer of any number entered the shortstop's head in this time, yet he was thinking statistically. In much the same way, a manager who pinch-hits with a righthanded batter when the opposing pilot brings in a lefty reliever is said to be playing the percentages. Surely he never calculated them, nor did he perform any empirical study of the question, but based upon his thirty or forty years of observation and upon folk wisdom handed down to him, he assumes that statistically the righthanded batter has a better chance of reaching base against the lefthanded pitcher. We are all statisticians whenever we generalize from a group of specific, similar experiences; those of us who work with the numbers, though, get more accurate results.
Most players and managers feel that they can do just fine without relying upon statisticians. Haven't they always done splendid, as Casey Stengel used to say? Well, no. Stable as it is by society's standards, thegame does change. The rug was pulled out from under the managers' feet some time ago yet they don't know it: Dead ball era strategies continue to be employed sixty years beyond the point at which they outlived their usefulness. Front office decisions are made on the basis of player-performance measures which tell next to nothing of a man's value to his team. Teams tailor their personnel to their home-park peculiarities in such a way that they are left vulnerable at home and impotent on the road. The Hall of Fame becomes stuffed with players from between the wars simply because their stats are misunderstood.
This book was written not in a spirit of crusade, to right wrongs across the board, but in an attempt to see the old ball game in some new ways which both illuminate and entertain. Even if they (baseball management, players, Hall of Fame electors) don't want to know the score, you can. And baseball is, after all, a game, not real life, about which a tirade might be more apt.
Moreover, this book was written not only for those already converted to the statistical persuasion. If you have found the analysis of baseball through its statistics confusing or off-putting, give us a chance to show how powerful and elegant it can be at its best—which is what this book delivers. The hidden game will be out in the open, revealing the true stars, the honored impostors, the real percentages behind "percentage plays," what makes teams win, the statistical effect of every home park and more—and all this in a historical context that goes back to Alexander Cartwright, with revolutionary statistics applied from the beginning of major-league play in 1876 through the 1983 season.
Playing the hidden game of baseball—the interior stadium peopled with memories and images and numbers—you can position Nap Lajoie at second base for the 1983 Yankees and figure what difference he might have made in the team's won-lost record. Or if manipulating history is not irresistible, you can trade Andre Dawson to the Braves, just for fun, and see if Atlanta would have won the National League West. This book will give you the tools to evaluate such a move, or to see who would benefit more from a trade of, say, Jesse Orosco for Terry Kennedy.
Were players better in 1930? Or 1960? Or 1975? We'll take a stab at answering that statistically, too. Does clutch play exist or is it, as the curveball was once thought to be, an optical illusion? Why don't they steal home anymore?
And more ... though we ask that you read the chapters in order, not because there are shocking revelations at the end (there are) nor because we are vain enough to wish each word appreciated (we are),but because the later chapters and the data in the tables which conclude the book build upon principles set forth in sequence, principally in the next five chapters. This book will not settle all the arguments that rage in the Hot Stove League, but it will elevate the discussion and provide some new understanding of baseball truisms that are no longer true, or never were. We may even move the powers that be to adopt some of our new statistics as official, or prompt newspapers to carry them on a daily basis; but baseball is an institution heartily resistant to change, and we are not optimistic. The RBI, for example, was introduced in 1879 yet did not become an officially recorded stat until 1920; the ERA and slugging percentage were both in use before 1876, yet not accepted for forty to fifty years; and the On Base Average, familiar through twenty-five to thirty years of mention in the press, is still not official. We will wait our turn.
We believe player performance can be measured in a better fashion than it is today, even by those in the vanguard of statistical analysis. We view performance—batting, pitching, fielding, baserunning—in terms of its runs contributed or saved and within a context formed by the average level of performance prevailing at the time and the effect of the home park upon run scoring.
Excerpted from The Hidden Game of Baseball by John Thorn, Pete Palmer, David Reuther. Copyright © 1985 John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and David Reuther. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
John Thorn, a sports historian and author, has been the official baseball historian for Major League Baseball since 2011. He resides in New York. Pete Palmer is a statistician, baseball analyst, and a former consultant to Sports Information Center. He lives in New Hampshire and Florida. Together Thorn and Palmer were the lead editors of Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball. David Reuther was project manager for Total Baseball and an editor and publisher of children’s books for over thirty years.
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