JULY 9, 2004
Alan Schwarz - The Numbers Game
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com
It was once said that a baseball fan is an addict and their heroin is statistics. Alan Schwarz, who is a senior writer for Baseball America, a weekly columnist for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Newsweek, has now provided baseball fans with an all-time high - by way of the first ever history of baseball statistics. Schwarz’ book The Numbers Game – Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics was recently released. This book is an instant classic and has quickly positioned itself at the top of the list in terms of being a primary part of any essential baseball library.
On July 9, 2004, NetShrine.com was privileged to conduct a phone interview with Alan Schwarz on his book and other things. The transcript follows below:
NetShrine: The first question that comes to mind is, why the fascination with baseball statistics? What drives some to collect them, build databases, etc.?
Alan Schwarz: I think that baseball is a sport that intrinsically lends itself toward statistical analysis because it has built in stoppages of time that allow you to measure everything.
You can measure the state of the game at a given moment – such as when there’s a runner at second with one out and then some period of time later there’s a runner on first and third with one out. This means the batter singled (presumably) and he advanced the runner to third base. And, we can discus how much that was worth. What did the batter do? How much is that worth? This allows for so many wonderful back-and-forths.
As far as measuring it, he got a single. OK, we all know that. He also advanced a runner one base. How much is a base worth? Will the batter that singled ultimately score? Suppose the runner on second had scored – then the batter would have been credited with an RBI. How much are all these things worth? How can we put all these things into a blender and come up with some sort of an uber-rating?
That’s one of the great things about baseball – it is very easy to quantify. How can you quantify hockey? It’s too fast and too fluid. Same with basketball. You cannot measure the value of a pick. It doesn’t work. Sure, there are many things in baseball than cannot be quantified either – but, there are zillions that can.
Now, that’s the intrinsic part of baseball. We also have to remember that human beings like to do this stuff too. Human beings like to quantify things. They also like, as I have discovered, to argue about things. The meeting of these two things makes baseball extraordinarily ripe for statistical analysis. It gives the sport intellectual traction that no other sport affords.
NetShrine: Let us move towards some questions specific to the book. You had profiled a number of notable individuals involved in the evolution of baseball statistics – such as Henry Chadwick, Ernie Lanigan, F.C. Lane, Allan Roth, etc. If you could go back in time to talk to one of these people who is no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask, and why?
Alan Schwarz: No question that the man I would like to meet is F.C. Lane, who was the editor of Baseball Magazine from something like 1908 into the 1930’s. This man did what we now call ‘sabermetric’ work that would blow people away today. The stuff he did without any sort of available data, without the help of any sort of a calculator, let alone a computer, was absolutely staggering. He would try to figure out the relative value of doubles, stolen bases and walks, in ways that only people in the 1960’s and 1970’s were able to improve upon – or even understand. He did tons of other work – hundreds of pages of statistical work that right now may look somewhat simplistic but, you have to remember, he was working in 1912! It was unheard of to do this type of thing. I would love to watch a game with him, pick his brain and watch him think.
NetShrine: How did you deal with choosing content for the book? In other words, how did you determine where to go into lengthy detail on matters and on what to have less detail?
Alan Schwarz: I have received a lot of e-mail from people saying that ‘You didn’t give enough attention to so-and-so’ etc. I’ll give an example. When it came to games, and games that helped advance our understanding and passion for statistics, the one that I chose was Strat-O-Matic.
Now, I can be accused of being biased for the game that I played as a kid. That is not unfair for someone to do. However, it was far more based upon the fact that Hal Richman is still alive. Hal Richman invented the game when he was 11 years old. He is still alive and has made the game which, more than any other, is synonymous with table-top strategy games. It does not mean that the other games which were invented (such as APBA, Status Pro, The National Pastime – the last of which, I believe, preceded all of these) were not fun and valuable to many people.
But, this book is not a book about statistics. It is a book about people obsessed with them. Many decisions were made with that in mind. Whereas, of course, I discussed a lot of factual history, the detail went to the people that I could meet, explain, and show to be symbolic of a passion that is shared by millions of people.
Hal Richman was a perfect example of that. That is why I used him. Now, APBA is mentioned many times. But the story of it is not.
People are mistaking my book, perhaps, for being an encyclopedia. It is not an encyclopedia. I hope that it is a very readable narrative about obsession, which means some things will not be mentioned or be main characters. They could not all be main characters – it wouldn’t work.
NetShrine: If those reading your book were to take away one thing from it, what would that be? Would it be that it is a book about the passion and obsession with baseball statistics?
Alan Schwarz: Well, selfishly, yes. I want to have cleared the hurdle that I was faced with – which was to make this a book about people – and make it a book that non-stat-freaks (and I use ‘stat-freak’ with respect because I am one) will enjoy. I want this book to be the baseball equivalent of The Professor and the Madman -- which was Simon Winchester’s book, several years ago, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary; or Longitude, by Dava Sobel, which was the tale on how they finally discovered how to keep nautical time (so boats would not go crashing into reefs when they could not figure out where they were in the ocean). These are books about quests. They’re books about human passion. And, that exists in baseball -- those intellectual expeditions. That is what I tried to describe.
Many people are shocked to discover that there are very few charts, or formulas, in the book. This is because the subject of almost every sentence is a person – not a statistic.
NetShrine: What is your biggest regret associated with doing the book?
Alan Schwarz: I would have to say that it was the inability to go into greater detail about the influence of Seymour Siwoff, the longtime head of the Elias Sports Bureau. The only reason why this happened was that Seymor declined and then refused (at different stages) to allow me to interview him and learn about his past and company – not in a voyeuristic sort of way, but just so that I could better understand the influence and passion that he had since the 1930’s. He is an extraordinarily important figure.
But he is a very private man and very resentful towards the accolades and renown that Bill James has received. Bill James was extraordinarily nasty towards Seymor in the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s – unconscionably nasty. And Seymor lumps in everyone who affords Bill any respect for anything he has done with people he doesn’t want anything to do with. (He also refused anyone in his company to be interviewed for this book.)
So, it was very difficult to make Seymour Siwoff look as important as he was. I did not have the material. I did the best that I could by talking with people who worked with him, and by doing research on past profiles of him and his company. But he deserved better. His work and his influence deserved better, but he did not allow me to do better. I did the best I could. I hope he does read this – for all his quirkiness, he did deserve better than I was able to do for him.
NetShrine: While reading the book, I laughed out loud when reading the letter that Lee Allen wrote to the priest and during the description of George Steinbrenner’s conduct in the Edge 1.000 sales meeting. In writing the book, did anything make you laugh out loud or smile as you put it to paper?
Alan Schwarz: I smiled at almost everything because the research was the most fun. It was so much fun to go digging through all this stuff and then find hilarious moments or wonderful passages. The whole shooting match made me smile. How can you not laugh when you learn that when the people making The Baseball Encyclopedia discovered that a rabbit had been given credit for a run scored at some point – and then they had to figure out the name of the rabbit to keep him out of the book? There are fifty of those types of hilarious happenings that are part of my book – and, frankly, there were fifty that didn’t make it in because you can’t fit it all in there.
NetShrine: Related to the rabbit, obviously, some of the old baseball stats were once not as pristine as many would have liked – and much work has gone into scrubbing them towards being accurate. In your opinion, are we now at a point where we can trust baseball stats, say, before 1948?
Alan Schwarz: It is interesting that you chose 1948 as the cutoff point – that is roughly about the point where Seymour Siwoff began to take charge of the National League’s statistics. He cleaned them up like they had never been cleaned before. From that point forward, they were very accurate. Before that time, statistics were extraordinarily sloppy.
Can we trust them? They’ve been cleaned up to the point where I’d guess that 95% of the mistakes that existed between 1900 and, say, 1948 have been found and corrected. Beyond the Hack Wilson’s 191st RBI or two hits that Ty Cobb was awarded in 1910 that technically did not belong to him (that also changed the outcome of the batting race) there will be dozens, probably hundreds, of very tiny mistakes that might still be in there. It will probably not exist in hits, at bats, or runs, as those things, since The Baseball Encyclopedia and subsequent crews have cleaned them up in a huge way that had never been done before. The work that went into The Baseball Encyclopedia was incredible.
NetShrine: Are there parts of the game of baseball, especially the beauty of baseball, which will never be able to be measured by statistics?
Alan Schwarz: Sure. The beauty of John Olerud’s swing. The importance of Derek Jeter.
There are many things that will soon be quantified – that we’ve been waiting on for a very long time – like defensive skill. What does it mean to be a good defensive player – I think we can agree that it’s the ability to turn balls anywhere near you into outs. But which balls can be caught and which can’t? How much does the speed of the outfielder or the trajectory of the ball come into it? We’re soon going to be able to find out because they’re going to start outfitting stadiums with cameras that measure everything on the field – the trajectory of the ball, the speed of the fielder, the route to the ball, etc. Right now, we have nothing remotely approaching that type of a system – to measure who is good on defense.
As far as things that cannot be measured, there are hundreds. We should not forget that they are out there – and perhaps appreciate them simply because they can’t be quantified.
NetShrine: You mention Olerud’s swing and Jeter’s role. Is it possible that the increased focus and attention put on baseball stats are beginning to blind some of the beauty of the game?
Alan Schwarz: That shouldn’t happen. No one should forget that the statistics are only one part of the game. They are only one way of appreciating the game. They do not have to be understood at the expense of understanding other things. They are a complement. Understanding statistics and understanding aesthetics do not need to be mutually exclusive.
NetShrine: When many hear “.406” they think “1941.” When they hear “755” they think “Hank Aaron.” Baseball stats allow for these types of connections. Is the flood of new baseball statistics going to take way from the ability to link specific numbers to individual and events that are part of the game?
Alan Schwarz: That is an interesting question. Are we diluting statistics by adding so many? Probably. We’re also sapping the majesty of some numbers because we are discovering that some of the most time-honored categories – batting average and wins, for instance – do not mean nearly as much as we thought they did.
I do not think that people are going to hold Ty Cobb’s .366 (or .367, depending on who you ask) lifetime batting average in quite the regard as they did 30 years ago. They’ll still hold Cobb in high regard, but for reasons beyond his batting average. That being said, we will appreciate Barry Bonds on a whole different level because of his slugging and on-base percentages – and percentage of strikes hit for homeruns, and other stuff that will be coming out on him.
We do have many more and better statistics to look at now. Yes, they do crowd out some of the other older statistics. But, they are a wonderful amount of fun.
NetShrine: It is still doubtful that we’ll ever get to the point where someone will hear “.506” and think “Barry Bonds’ OPS versus the league average in 2003.”
Alan Schwarz: Right. But what you are identifying now are things that concern a very small slice of baseball fans. Ninety-nine and forty-four-hundredths of fans do not care about Barry Bonds’ OBP versus the league average. But, they will still care about his 73 home runs, and hold that in high regard.
Let’s talk about .400. We’re waiting anxiously for someone to finally do it again – it’s one of baseball’s most magic numbers. Now, for fun, imagine if Alex Sanchez hits .400 – how will people react? It would be the emptiest .400 that baseball history ever conceived. The controversy would be incredible. The statistical Hatfields and McCoys will never get along after that.
NetShrine: Speaking of “for fun” – if Eric Walker, the NPR stat guru who is credited for being the father of the Oakland A’s philosophy, had never been fired by the San Francisco Giants (with whom he was employed before joining the A’s), how would that have changed baseball as we know it today?
Alan Schwarz: That is a fantastic question. You have to remember that the G.M of the Giants at that time, Tom Haller, who hired Eric Walker, didn’t really listen to Eric Walker. If you’re asking me what would have happened to the Giants, if he stayed, under those conditions, then the answer is not very much. If Tom Haller had embraced Eric Walker’s approach, and kept him on, that would be a big difference and a big story. We’d be talking about the Giant revolution, in some respects.
Eric Walker went to Oakland because Sandy Alderson had the intellectual dexterity to appreciate Walker’s theories and approach. But the skill to integrate them into an organization, and the diplomacy to get other people on board (and to feel less threatened by them), were Alderson’s and Alderson’s alone. Eric Walker needed Sandy Alderson more than Alderson needed Walker.
NetShrine: In the book, you share the notion of ‘stats’ people in baseball having the fear of being “Gimbelized.” How many do you believe are now working ion baseball, secretly, because of that fear?
Alan Schwarz: There are at least eight people that work in major league baseball, for the large part, as statistical analysts – where they and their clubs are public about it. There are probably eight to twelve more that we do not know about. In my book, I describe one person working for the Red Sox – besides Bill James – who people don’t know about. And by the way, she’s a woman.
NetShrine: Time for some questions of a personal nature. How did you deal with the ups-and-downs of writing a book? It is said that the muses come and go. Some days it just flows and other days it is flat-out hard. Any secrets to combating that?
Alan Schwarz: Coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. This was my first book. It was as much of a hair-graying experience that everyone said it would be. It was also done under conditions that I would not recommend. It was done in 14 months. I did not take any time off from jobs with Baseball America, ESPN, The New York Times, or Newsweek, or other publications for which I write. I also got engaged and married within those 14 months – which was a wonderful distraction; but, a distraction nonetheless. I also purchased an apartment in New York City and had to deal with all the lawyers, contractors, real-estate people and other treats that come with that. Juggling all those things . . . I was numb, and just kept my tired head down and got the book done. I didn’t have time to think or worry about things. It all just got done.
NetShrine: Was there any personal downside to writing the book?
Alan Schwarz: Everything has its cost. I would bet that my heart is less healthy than it was because I ate poorly, worked like a dog and did not exercise at all, not that I really had much before. All joking aside, I might have taken six months off my life for all I know.
Beyond that, I cannot think of a downside. People are already enjoying this book and that was my goal. I just wanted people to see all of the things that I saw and get the smile out of it that I did. I seem to have succeeded at that. That makes me feel good. I just wanted to write the book that the subject deserves.
NetShrine: Consider that success confirmed. When I obtained the book, it was never put down and I could not wait to finish it because I wanted to start reading it a second time. (And, that second reading is taking place now.) Thank you and congratulations on a super book. And, of course, thank you for this opportunity. This has been a wonderful interview. All your time and effort is very much appreciated.
NetShrine.com highly recommends Alan’s Schwarz’ The Numbers Game. It is the baseball book equivalent of a Mariano Rivera fastball. Originating from a smooth, comfortable, uncluttered, and highly efficient delivery, in the end, it will overpower you with its brilliance.
Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com. Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season. Steve can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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