Cover to The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball
A Trip to the Library

A Trip to the Library: The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball

A common question in the medical field is, “should we do this?” What that means is that by taking all the evidence into account is it worth it to implement a certain strategy, conduct a research study, try to craft a new medicine, etc. This question is important, and it came to mind while reading The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. However, I don’t believe that’s the actual question that needs to be asked of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. Rather, the question that needs to be asked is, “Even if we should, is this the best path to go down?”

Before we get to that question, the brass tacks of what constitutes The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball makes for a worthwhile read. Various scenarios are laid out, the math is presented plainly for all to see, and the message of the book is loud and clear. It is quite evident after just a few pages that Tom M. Tango, Mitchel G. Lichtman (this is the only time I’ll reference him in this review because I’m not giving any credit to someone who has done the things he has done), and Andrew E. Dolphin know what they are doing and were seeking to change the way people thought about the game of baseball. I firmly believe they did that and that on its own their effort is important and a good read.

All in all The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball is a quick read, despite its near 300 pages, and an involved reading effort. These two elements combine to make for an interesting and compelling read. I didn’t agree with everything I was reading (not the math mind you, or even the conclusion, but more on that in a bit) but I enjoyed the thought process laid out in front of me. The only true negative when it comes to the actual content of the book is the chapter on game theory which comes across as shoehorned in with the rest of the book and reads more like whoever wrote that passage had a hard-on for poker and wanted more than anything to tie it into baseball.

The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball is a good book and one that has undoubtedly had a great impact on the way people view baseball. That being said, let’s return to the question I posed earlier, “Even if we should, is this the best path to go down?” As I was reading the chapter on stealing bases I was struck by the fact that no, while this information is great to know and should likely be implemented in some way it’s not actually the best path for baseball. The reason for that is Tango and company put the focus on winning, but baseball is about two things, winning and entertaining.

The entertainment aspect of baseball is something that I firmly believe those running Major League Baseball teams have lost sight of in the past couple of decades. They’ve stopped asking if they should and have started wholesale implementing many of the strategies brought forth in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. They have done this to score a few more runs and win a few more games here and there. They’ve also done this at the expense of the product on the field. I hope my readers don’t misinterpret what I’m saying as an old man yelling at the sky situation. I understand and accept the validity of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball and I don’t want to dismiss it at all. It’s a good effort, one that needed to be done, and there are lessons to be learned from it that will help baseball to be a better game.

Getting back to the chapter on stealing bases, who doesn’t love a stolen base? Action plays are what make baseball so much fun and without them, I’m not sure there’s a game that’s worth watching. The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball argues that on the whole stealing a base simply isn’t worth the risk. They are absolutely correct in that finding, but at the same time, they are missing the forest for the trees. We’ve seen what has happened to the MLB game thanks to the decline of stolen bases and action plays over the past 20 years. MLB in the 1980s was far more exciting, that’s not the same as skilled, because I’m certainly not about to argue that the players of today aren’t more skilled overall than the players of the 1980s. Still, I want players running all over the bases, I want the hit and run, I want suicide squeezes; I want to be entertained. The play below is entertaining and it is in no way a play that would happen if The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball became the new “book” on baseball,

I’m not saying The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball is a bad book or even that it is wrong. It’s a book I do believe every baseball fan should read. Hopefully, in reading it they will gain a better understanding of what needs to be done on the baseball field to win more games. At the same time, I hope they take away the more important lesson, that not every conclusion The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball comes to is good for the actual act of watching and enjoying the game of baseball.

Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), husband, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and Off the Bench Baseball; freelance writer at various online and print publications. Member Internet Baseball Writers Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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