Alan Schwarz’s The Numbers Game is an indispensable look at how the numbers that have come to define the game of baseball came to be. The book is less about the hallowed numbers that even casual fans can identify; Aaron’s 755 home runs, DiMaggio’s 56 game hit-streak, Nolan Ryan’s 5714 strikeouts, Cy Young’s 511 wins, Pete Rose’s 4256 hits, Rickey Henderson’s 1406 stolen bases, etc. Instead, Schwarz looks back over time to reconstruct how specific statistics were created and how those statistics were subsequently accepted as the definitive measurements of player performance. The book will definitely appeal to diehard fans of baseball and those that love to analyze the game. However, much like its contemporary, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, Schwarz’s book provides insights into the management and analysis of any organization.
Schwarz traces the history of baseball’s obsession with statistics to Henry Chadwick, a journalist and baseball writer widely acknowledged as the grandfather of baseball statistics. Chadwick’s work in the mid- to late-19th century laid the foundation for much of the statistical framework through which we appreciate the game today. Chadwick was adamant that the new game of baseball required a fair accounting of player performance:
In order to obtain an accurate estimate of a player’s skill, an analysis, both of his play at bat and in the field, should be made, inclusive of the way in which he was put out; and that this may be done, it is requisite that all…contests should be recorded in a uniform manner.
Anyone who has paid even scant attention to the debate regarding traditional and sabermetric approaches to the game of baseball will recognize Chadwick’s logic–not only do position players contribute to their team’s success by creating runs through their offense; they can also prevent runs by the other team through their defense. Traditionally, players came to be valued and compensated based largely on their offensive production. When it came time to arbitrate salaries or negotiate free agent contracts, offensive statistics carried the most weight. (Whether or not the offensive statistics being used were the most accurate is a much larger debate, and Schwarz gives ample space to this history as well).
As the analysis of baseball became more sophisticated, analysts were finally able to measure a player’s total value by incorporating runs produced through offense as well as those saved by defense. Rather than relying on the traditional fielding percentage (which simply measured the number of chances a fielder converted to an out), more sophisticated measures allowed for talent evaluators to look at how many runs a player saved in the field. Power hitting shortstops surely contributed to their team’s success by creating runs, but their light hitting counterparts could conceivable contribute just as much by saving runs.
Chadwick’s quote highlights two critical issues for any organization, and it is a theme that runs through The Numbers Game; ensuring that the metrics you rely on account for all of the ways a person contributes to success and that the data used to calculate those metrics is collected in a consistent, uniform manner. For years, teams overpaid for free agents whose offensive statistics were not viewed in the context of their defensive statistics. In some cases, a player’s offensive production was either tempered or cancelled out by their poor defensive play–in short, they were giving up as many runs with their poor defense as they were earning through their offense. While many organizations today have embraced the “analytics revolution” one wonders to what extent they truly know what metrics matter. Like traditional owners and managers in baseball, it is likely that many businesses assume they know what the proper metrics are–what behaviors contribute the most to success. The lesson from baseball is that accepted wisdom, personal experience, and “gut feelings” may be right, but they must be subjected to rigorous analysis to determine the best way to evaluate performance and drive success.
The Numbers Game is full of examples of how certain metrics came to be the accepted wisdom and the difficulty of any endeavor to unseat them in favor of better measures. Besides baseball fans, anyone who is leading a business analytics initiative or responsible for performance and compensation will find this book rewarding.