Probably more than any other sport, baseball makes use of statistics. We see this with every baseball game on TV: not just the basic stats like batting average and home runs, but more detailed information like how well a particular batter does against a particular pitcher. The statistics on TV or in the newspaper, however, only scratch the surface. Baseball Between the Numbers provides a much more in depth look at the numbers behind the game and how to analyze them.
This process involves two parts. First, there is a look at the popular statistics to see how well they really track a player performance and contribution to the team. Batting average, for example, is not a really good indicator of performance; slugging percentage and on-base percentage provide a better reading. There is also a look at certain beliefs in baseball - such as the existence of clutch hitters - and whether they are based in reality or more of a myth.
The second part of this statistical analysis is coming up with new stats to provide more information. There are a lot of these, but the one that seems emphasized the most is VORP, Value over Replacement Player. In simple terms, VORP gives the value of a player compared to a replacement player of minimal major league skills (like a 0.200 batting average). If a player gets 200 hits in a year, he does not really contribute 200 hits to his team; instead, he contributes only the difference between his hit total and that of the replacement player; if this value is 110, then the player contributes 90 hits.
The purpose of all this analysis is two-fold. For one thing, it helps evaluate the potentials of players, so it is useful from a scouting perspective. It is also good for comparing players who played in different time periods. The introduction of the book gives a good example as it tries to show who the better player is, Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds. Superficially, some stats favor Ruth (such as batting average) while others favor Bonds (such as steals). But for any comparison to be legitimate, many other things need to be taken into account, particularly with the environment that the two played in; for example, Ruth played in a "whites-only" era that excluded many great players of other races. The more elaborate statistics take these differences into account; this particular analysis favors Ruth slightly, primarily because of his contributions as a pitcher.
To some extent, this book covers some of the same ground as a book I read a couple years back called Curve Ball, but it also offers a lot of new stuff too. The principal flaw with the book seems to be inadequate editing, leading to a lot of redundancies between chapters (which are written by different people); hence, we get the same explanation for what a statistic means over and over again. In addition, considering its importance to the game, pitching is underrepresented in the book; although covered, the primary emphasis is on batting. Other topics covered include fielding, base stealing and managing.
There is a danger with a book like this to get TOO into the statistics of the game and lose appreciation for the game itself. Statistics are great for looking at trends, but in any one given event, you can never be certain what's going to happen. That's why when it's the bottom of the ninth, two out and the tying run's at third, it doesn't really matter what the numbers say, and that's when baseball is at its most exciting. This book will make you look at the numbers of baseball more critically, but it won't diminish the pleasure of watching the game. Despite the flaws, I am giving this book five stars; for a baseball fan, this is a compelling read.