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Review of The Book: Playing The Percentages in Baseball

The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, is arguably one of the most important sabermetric publications since the Hidden Game of Baseball over two decades ago. Hyperbole, you might say. Maybe, but consider that the authors - Tom Tango (Tangotiger), Mitchel Lichtman and Andy Dolphin - are probably three of the finest sabermetricians on the planet, and you begin to understand the runaway enthusiasm! Moreover, The Book was first announced over two years ago, which means that a big pile of drool has collected across the sabermetric universe as it waited for the authors to push the go-to-print button!

Baseball is a simple game: win games by outscoring your opponents. And you don't need to watch too much baseball to know that managers will do pretty much anything to eek out that vital victory. That's because the manager's job is to make decisions and trade-offs that maximize the win (or run) potential at every possible juncture.

But are they actually making the right decisions? This is where The Book comes in. Using a variety of statistical techniques, and a truck load of data, the authors set out to debate some of the many myths which managers usually swear black and blue by. These are played out over a variety of chapters:

  • Batting and pitching streaks
  • Batter / pitcher match-ups
  • Clutch hitting
  • Batting order
  • Platooning
  • Starting pitchers
  • Relief pitchers
  • Sacrifice batting
  • Intentional walking
  • Base running
  • Game theory (responding to your opponent's actions)

OK, I know what you are thinking. Many of these topics have been discussed before, so what is different about Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin's approach? Well, amazingly our pen-toting trio manages to break new ground on pretty much every subject. Part of the joy of reading The Book is the feeling of discovering and learning alongside the authors, so I don't want to give too much away, but here is small selection of some of the more interesting findings:

  • Sacrifice bunting can make sense in certain situations, especially if there is a pitcher at the plate, but also in certain base-out states like in early innings in a low scoring environment. At any rate the authors conclude that batters should occasionally sacrifice just to keep the defense honest!
  • When constructing a batting order the best three hitters should occupy the #1, #2 and #5 slots, with fourth and fifth best hitters in the #3 and #4 slots. Further, it is beneficial to have your pitcher batting eight to increase the odds of the lead-off hitter having a runner on base to advance. Maybe the D-Train is the first of many not to bat 9th.
  • Pinch hitting for non-pitchers rarely pays off. All players show a comparable decline in effectiveness if pinch hitting. A pinch hitter has to be significantly better than the player he is replacing to be an offensive upgrade, which begs the question what he was doing on the bench in the first place!

I could very easily go on as each page is crammed with analytical gems. At the end of each sub-section the authors summarize their conclusions in a box entitled "The Book says", which contain the pithy takeaways that you'd do well to remember and reflect on when you are watching your next game.

Some reviews I have read commented that The Book is quite technical in nature. I disagree. Sure, you have to have an aptitude for learning but the writing is so lucid and exact that a layman with a bit of time on his hands is plenty capable of understanding everything.

Another huge plus is the inclusion of a "Toolshed" chapter, as well as a detailed appendix on some of the statistical techniques used. In fact, reading through these sections was such an edifying experience that I have found that I consistently returned to many of the ideas to reconfirm my own thinking on the methods used. Topics such as regression to the mean and Markov Chains are explained succinctly, yet with clarity that a book like this so often lacks.

The only slight criticism that I can bestow is that some of the studies with small sample sizes seem slightly out of place with the overall ethos of the book, and here the authors struggle to establish firm conclusions while still persisting to dive deep into the data. Still, even these analyses are a joy to pore over and reinforce the central concept about drawing accurate conclusions from data.

In summary, if you are reading this review then buy The Book. To hear the opinions of three of the most respected sabermetricians in baseball is a joy and a privilege. It sets a standard of work for others to aspire to, and I can only hope that volume 2 isn't another two years in the making.

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