July 20, 2005

The Book on the Book

One of the best baseball books I've read in the last five years is Bill Felber's "The Book on the Book". A very nice compliment to "Moneyball". Where "Moneyball" looked at some aspects of how to build a team on the cheap, Felber's book looks at *everything*.

For example, in just the first part, Felber talks about how to evaluate defense. He makes an argument that I'm ashamed to say I never really thought about, that outfielders should always catch the ball with two hands if there's a runner on base who might advance. That's because otherwise they could waste up to 0.3 seconds getting the ball into their throwing hand, and in 0.3 seconds, how far does a typical runner move? Well, pretty damned far.

Felber goes on to talk about who should win the MVP, whether pitchers are really more valuable than hitters, etc. Then he addresses various aspects of "The Book" in baseball. Should you sacrifice? If so, when? Should you steal? Is the intentional base on balls ever a good idea? Should you bunt? What about hit-and-run or squeeze plays? Felber evaluates all of these situations from a statistical standpoint.

And realistically, too. Felber is all too ready to admit the limitations of this approach, the faulty assumptions upon which it is based. Still, it's neat to see him crunch the numbers. Is there a way to measure good GM's? Good managers? How do they rank? How much is too much to pay a superstar (ARod is overpaid by about a factor of two, in Felber's analysis, which feels about right).

I've always heard that the best pitch in baseball is strike one. Well, according to Felber, it is actually strike two. At strike two, hitter production falls off the cliff no matter what the count before the second strike. Not the same cliff as 0-0 vs 0-1, which is hardly a bump. How much should you spend on pitching? Starters or relievers? Are closers worth it? (Nope.)

Anyway, there's not too much that's definitive here because Felber, like any good scientist, is very clear about emphasizing how much we don't know, how much we *can't* know. Despite that, there's an awful lot here to chew on, and this is a great read for people who read "Moneyball" and want to see more like it, from a broader perspective.

Posted by Observer at July 20, 2005 07:42 PM

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You know how much attention I pay to baseball... Certainly less than you do... Is this accessible enough to be a good read for people like me?

Posted by: Seattle Astronomer on July 20, 2005 08:00 PM

Ooo! oooo! OooO! Me too! I had the exact same question.

Posted by: Humbaba on July 20, 2005 10:24 PM

I skimmed some of the heavy-on-numbers chapters to get to the conclusions-for-the-layperson at the end, I'll admit. There's really only one way to find out if it's for you, and that's to go get it for free at your local library like I did. :)

I'd say read "Moneyball" first, and if you like that, this is a good follow-up, a little more "dry" and scientific and a little less of the personalities like Billy Beane's obsessive-compulsive stuff.

Just reading the introductory chapter and the conclusions chapter would be worth the 20 minutes or so it would take, even for a casual fan. I wouldn't have paid hardback price for this, that's for sure, but then again, I'm cheap.

Posted by: Observer on July 20, 2005 10:35 PM