03 March 2014

Percentage Baseball

Earnshaw Cook, Percentage Baseball. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1966.

Percentage Baseball is a landmark in baseball writing: by applying the methods of statistical analysis and probability to the corpus of Major League statistics, Cook opened a new field to research. Bill James and all who have followed can only be thankful. However, like the Ypsilanti watertower, this landmark has certain obvious faults.

First among these is an over-reliance on statistical method. This would seem an odd complaint about a book of statistical analysis, but Cook's inability to connect the dots must be real if he consistently confuses a Phi Beta Kappa. Part of this may be his relegation of reams to appendixes, but part is also his frequent, seemingly arbitrary, substitution of values in his various equations
As an arts major, though, one becomes accustomed to skipping over impenetrable equations. Cook asserts that his numbers work, and we choose to believe him. When he fails to apply their results consistently, however, he immediately loses credibility. His constant ranting against the sacrifice bunt, when compared to his charts of scoring probability for each base and out situation, lead one to question whether he has read his own material.

In spite of these faults, and in spite of reading more like a textbook than the usual baseball fare, Cook's opus is worth the time necessary to quickly skim the text. His ideas are revolutionary, if not all sound, and his passion is apparent even through the turgid prose of a mid-century academic. Even if the only benefit is to provide context for Philip Roth and Rob Neyer, Percentage Baseball is a book every baseball fan should know (if not fully understand).

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