Beyond Batting Average: A Review

Discussions about Win Probability Added on the MLB Network; Fangraphs founder (and friend of THT) David Appleman appearing on ESPN; Bill Simmons finally converting to the baseball statistical revolution—it’s clear that sabermetrics has hit the mainstream.

It’s about time. Over the past many years, baseball statistical analysis has advanced by leaps and bounds. In fact, while many believe that sabermetrics is slowing down, the fact is that more advanced statistics have become available to the general public over the past couple years (thanks largely to Fangraphs) than at any other time.

Take a look at this neat timeline that Appleman recently posted: In the past two years, Fangraphs has made public for the first time pitch type and velocity number, plate discipline statistics based on play-by-play data, Ultimate Zone Rating, Wins Above Replacement and individual pitch values. That is a ton of new and extremely important information. Now we just need someone to explain it all.

Because the amount of data available has increased exponentially over the past few years, it has been just about impossible for all but the most hardcore stat nuts to keep up with it all. Ironically, the more data that became available, the less accessible it became to the average (or even well above-average, sabermetrically speaking) fan.

Over the past year or so, many baseball bloggers have tried to help their readers comprehend all this information by writing primers about the most important statistics and concepts in sabermetrics. Perhaps the most notable series is the one that Graham Macaree did on Lookout Landing.

Still, there has not really been a comprehensive resource that explains all the sabermetric statistics you need to know in one simple package. Well, at least there wasn’t until Lee Panas published Beyond Batting Average: Baseball Statistics for the 21st Century last month.

Beyond Batting Average is split into 15 chapters covering, among other things, the history of baseball statistics, hitting statistics, pitching statistics, fielding statistics and base running statistics, with chapters on what wins ball games, adjusting for a player’s environment and, finally putting everything together, how to measure a player’s total contribution as well.

Each chapter progresses from simpler statistics to the more advanced variety, and Panas does a great job explaining how each statistic is calculated, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. As a writer Panas is no Bill James, but his explanations are simple and easy to follow. The organization of the chapters also allows Panas to bring the reader along slowly, first explaining the simpler numbers and then delving into the more advanced stuff.

Overall, Panas accomplishes his goal: Explaining the baseball statistics you need to know to be a fully informed fan these days. To be honest, though, I was personally hoping for more.

Beyond Batting Average is a good guide or manual, but it is not a manifesto. What I am still waiting for is a book that does not use the statistics that are out there as a starting point, but rather a book that asks, what is it that we want to measure and how should we measure it, and then shows how advanced baseball statistics are the answer to that question.

Panas’ book serves as guide to those who are already convinced that sabermetric statistics are the way to go and wants to understand how they are derived, but it is not going to convince any of the unconverted that sabermetric concepts are important to understanding baseball. There is still a book to be written that asks how do we measure a fielder’s performance, and then shows why Ultimate Zone Rating is the answer to that question. Such a book could serve as a sabermetric textbook, and it could do a lot of good in winning over skeptical, but open-minded baseball fans.

Still, I don’t want to criticize Beyond Batting Average for what it is not. After all, Panas sets out with a specific goal—in his own words, “to explain the new world of baseball statistics in a way that any knowledgeable and curious baseball fan will comprehend”—and he very much fulfills it. For fans who are interested in the world of sabermetric statistics (as any reader of The Hardball Times surely must be), but want to better understand all of the advanced statistics that have proliferated over the past few years, Beyond Batting Average serves as a great guide.

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Comments

  1. Lee Panas said...

    Thanks for a very thoughtful review David. You even gave me (or someone else) an idea for the next book. grin

    Lee.

  2. Alec Rogers said...

    This is EXACTLY what I need (SABRmetrics for Dummies).  I’d love to be able to read it on my Kindle.

  3. Lee Panas said...

    Alec,

    I do not have kindle myself but a couple of people have told me that they were able to put the electronic version of the book on kindle.  I don’t think it works on Amazon Kindle.

    Lee

  4. Northern Rebel said...

    I love Bill James, and what he has done to determine player value, but The charts and graphs some of these mathemeticians produce make my eyes glaze over.

    I don’t think I need to know Big Papi’s batting average on Sunday’s, when the tempature is below 80 degrees, and the pitcher has hemmroids.

  5. Lee Panas said...

    “I don’t think I need to know Big Papi’s batting average on Sunday’s, when the tempature is below 80 degrees, and the pitcher has hemmroids.”

    Rebel, I agree we don’t need to know that and breaking down player stats into specific meaningless situations is a common misuse of statistics which makes statisticians cringe.  What I want to know are his overall stats such as obp, isolated power, k rate, bb rate, and contact rate.  I also want to see whether those rates are changing over time. This stuff does need to be complicated in order to be useful. 

    Lee

  6. Graham said...

    Applied statistics isn’t about esoteric nonsense like the example Northern Rebel has cited, and it’s a big shame that that’s the perception. All you really need to analyze (practicing my American spelling) baseball is high-school level math and some logic.

    In fact, most of the stats we use fall directly out of the underlying logic of the game. If we start with what we observe on the diamond, eventually we end up with wOBA, some form of a tRA-style metric, and some form of UZR.

    “What I am still waiting for is a book that does not use the statistics that are out there as a starting point, but rather a book that asks, what is it that we want to measure and how should we measure it, and then shows how advanced baseball statistics are the answer to that question.”

    I’m working on something similar, but it’s slow going.

  7. Alec Rogers said...

    I’ll download and give it a try – I was able to put some Project Guttenberg texts on, so maybe I’ll be able to figure it out.

  8. Alec Rogers said...

    Ok – I downloaded it – for the $7 download price I can’t go wrong either way.

    I was interested to see that Lee, like myself, is a displaced Tigers fan.

  9. Mike K. said...

    I hadn’t seen that WPA clip, and boy howdy are they spouting some misinformation.

    The stat self-correcting for “pitching around a guy”, as long as the player who was on the mound at the time of issuing the walk is still around to get all three outs, and if they aren’t, it’s likely because the pitcher shouldn’t have pitched around that guy!

  10. jinaz said...

    Ken,

    I’ve read both.  Lee’s book is more of a guide/reference to advanced statistics.  It’s current, readable, and a great way to get up to speed.

    Seidman’s book, from my view, is more of a personal collection of essays and studies, written in a way to be approachable to someone who isn’t focused on statistics.  It is definitely more of an original work than Lee’s book, by which I mean that most of the research in the book is Seidman’s own.  That’s both a strength and a limitation: because it’s largely Seidman’s research, the scope of discussion within any given topic tends to be a bit narrow.

    The real strength of Lee Panas’s book is that it literally does cover almost every major important statistic, what it means, how it’s calculated, and where you can find it.  In this way, it’s scope is much more broad, even if relatively little of the content is the result of his own original research.  I think it’s a really outstanding work, and I’m glad it got a positive review from David.
    -j

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