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January 12, 2006

What is Baseball Between the Numbers?

A Look at BP's New Book

by Jonah Keri

One player, one election, an avalanche of controversy. That's the beauty of baseball. The game--its players, its teams, its history--inspires so much passion, so much heated debate, so many fun arguments. Those arguments form the crux of Baseball Prospectus' soon-to-be-released book, Baseball Between the Numbers.

Deep into the offseason, long after the winter meetings but still weeks before pitchers and catchers report, the Hall of Fame debate suddenly gave fans a jolt of interest. On Tuesday, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced its voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame's Class of 2006. The entire class consisted of just one player, Bruce Sutter.

"Finally!" yelled Sutter supporters. A late-inning force in the 1970s and '80s, Sutter was a star for the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, helping to define a new role for the ace reliever. From 1977 to 1985, Sutter averaged more than 30 saves a season. He won a Cy Young Award, was a perennial contender for the Rolaids Award given to the game's best relief pitcher, and provided late-inning assurance to his teams for about a decade. As if that weren't enough, Sutter also helped pioneer the split-fingered fastball, turning the vanishing pitch into a deadly weapon that would change the face of pitching in the 1980s.

"You gotta be kidding me!" came from the cry from outraged fans and critics. Sutter's career was too short to be Hall of Fame-worthy. No player deserves to make the Hall based on just eight strong seasons. Sutter helped shepherd in an era in which top relievers had it much easier than their predecessors, pitching fewer innings and more often waiting for a ninth-inning lead before coming out to pitch. Rich Gossage's career started earlier, covered a more demanding era, lasted far longer and included more impressive numbers--yet on the same ballot as Sutter, Gossage was denied. Sutter, it could be argued, was no better than Lee Smith, Dan Quisenberry and other relief aces of the time. His induction would lower the bar for Hall of Fame induction, making it a sad day for Cooperstown enthusiasts and baseball purists.

Baseball Between the Numbers covers 29 seminal baseball debates that will get both casual fans and hard-core statheads whipped into a frenzy. The book includes the chapter "Are Teams Letting Their Closers Go to Waste?", which tackles the very topic that sparked huge differences of opinion in SutterGate. Following in the tradition of John Thorn and Pete Palmer's "The Hidden Game of Baseball," the work of Bill James and other influential thinkers, Baseball Between the Numbers brings new analytical tools to bear, with BP's unique writing style adding a twist.

Some topics will strike a nerve. "Is Barry Bonds Better Than Babe Ruth?" asks tough questions about baseball before integration, baseball after the offensive explosion of the 1990s, and the challenges of comparing players across eras.

Other topics will be new to even the savviest readers. "Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?" takes a close look at the marginal value of ballplayers, using new metrics and arguments to explore one of the biggest challenges facing all major-league teams. "What If Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia's Legs?" shines a light on baserunning, a hidden part of the game that could be exploited by a shrewd general manager. "Why Doesn't Billy Beane's S*** Work in the Playoffs?" discards previous attempts to examine playoff baseball and starts with a clean slate, looking for answers to the vexing predicament that has haunted the Oakland A's, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros and other frequent playoff participants that have fallen short of the big prize.

Since this is a Baseball Prospectus publication, you'll know to expect plenty of numerical analysis in breaking down these debates and finding answers. At the same time, we merely use numbers as our framework for these answers. In a real sense, it's not arriving at those answers that is most important, but the journey, the way of thinking and the process you use to get there that leads to real understanding. It's the process of learning to think critically about the game that defines this book, and in a broader sense defines our experiences as avid fans of the game. It's the baseball between the numbers that we seek.

In the coming weeks, you'll read a lot more about this book. We'll be updating you on articles in major publications (both sports and non-sports-related), running book excerpts here at baseballprospectus.com, and coming to a city near you. Until then, we're counting the minutes until Opening Day, waiting for the hits, the runs, the errors--and the next topic we can argue about.

Baseball Between the Numbers is now available for pre-sale at Amazon.com and other online retailers. To buy the book, click here. The book starts shipping on March 6 and will be available in major bookstores nationwide. If you're a member of the media and would like to request an advance copy of the book, please e-mail Jonah Keri by clicking here.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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