Turning from We Would Have Played for Nothing to the latest installment from the high priests of statistical sophistication, ‘the Baseball Prospectus team of experts,’ and their thick tome It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book, edited by Steve Goldman, I thought at first that I would be trading the allusive power of story for the hard empiricism of the number-crunchers. Having previously reviewed a book of essays by this innovative squad, I knew that I was in for elaborate formulae, charts and graphs a-plenty, and a Soviet-style panoply of acronyms with strangely affecting phonetics, such as VORP (the crucial measure of a players worth over a completely average replacement player), and WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player, a yet-more-elaborate calculation that gets at the bottom-line: how many wins did the player create?). These are new kinds of numbers, generated by the desire to show real worth, rather than just let us live by the “nutrition-less bread” of Batting Average, RBI, and ERA (all of which delude more than clarify).
Enough said on the numbers racket, because I was wrong about this book! The authors are interested in story, the true story, the deep-down story of reasons, besides (but not precluding) luck and cruel twists of fate, for why several great pennant races in baseball history were great. And whether you go numbers-heavy, digging into the charts and taking stock of the VORPs and WARPs, or numbers-light, skimming the charts and muttering, “This is why I teach English” frequently under your breath, you will be enlightened by this book. These mathematician-writers are able to captivate us with pinpoint moments, exact pitches or managerial moves or mental errors or emotional collapses (or all of the above) that decided the outcomes of entire seasons. Horrible moments for the eternal goats (such as Ralph Branca giving up the “shot heard round the world,” or Gene Mauch micromanaging the 1964 Phillies into a late-season collapse, or Fred Merkle’s boneheaded play that seemed to sink the 1908 Giants) are shown as only small pieces of much more complex puzzles. Likewise, legendary feats like Carl Yastrzemski’s final two weeks of torrid hitting for the Red Sox miracle in 1967, or Tug McGraw’s emotional bravado with the “You Gotta Believe” 1973 Mets, are scrutinized and “right-sized”—fine feats, yes, but surrounded always by a broader context. The writers thus walk a fine line between clarification and revisionist demythologizing, and I think they carry the task out with a healthy balance of both love of science and love of mystery. In some ways, their work is more true to Medievalism than to Modernity.
I can only give a few highlights of this elaborate, somewhat diffuse volume, so I’ll just trot out my favorite quirky points. Jay Jaffe’s essay “The Replacement-Level Killers” reveals how managers sticking it out with certain veteran players during a pennant race can do irreparable damage, all in the name of loyalty and supposed worth. So the Angels use of Bob Boone as their catcher throughout the 1984 AL West race, with his supposed defensive acumen used as a cover for a horrific year at the plate (hitting only .202 and slugging a mere .262!), led to a VORP of -24.1, a pennant-killing formula. Not quite as numerically destructive was Don Zimmer’s perverse insistence on playing Butch Hobson at third base for the 1978 Red Sox, victims of the Yankee charge and the “Boston Massacre.” We read with fascination this description: “Revered by Zimmer as a gamer, Hobson played the field despite bone chips that locked up his elbow when he threw and—cringe!—had to be rearranged after each play. He made 43 errors, was 21 runs below average, and fielded .899, becoming the first regular to break the .900 barrier since 1916, when gloves were little more than padded mittens.” It’s just this mix of numerical exactitude and rhetorical flourish that gives It Ain’t Over its flair, a combination that gets at baseball’s distinctive appeal as the sport of both head and heart.
One of the nicest reviews the book received, and certainly the best review I’ve received for my work there. That’s the value of clean living, folks.