Book Review: Beyond Batting Average
Beyond Batting Average: Baseball Statistics for the 21st Century
By Lee Panas
List Price: $14.00
A generation ago, fans could intelligibly discuss baseball without needing to know more than the basic statistics. Wins, ERA, and strikeouts sufficed for pitchers, while batting average, home runs, and RBIs were standard measures for most hitters. The landscape has changed over the past couple of decades, with new sabermetric stats introduced every season.
It can be overwhelming for even many serious fans, who find things fuzzy once the conversation moves beyond OPS and WHIP. What exactly is FIP? How do you calculate a VORP? And isn't plus/minus a stat for hockey?
For fans who want to learn more about these new advanced statistics, Lee Panas has created a comprehensive guide that can easily be followed by any student of the game. "Beyond Batting Average: Baseball Statistics for the 21st Century" unlocks the mysteries of sabermetric stats for hitting, fielding, and pitching.
A research analyst at Brandeis University, Panas starts off with a history lesson. You may be surprised to learn that many of the concepts involved in modern stats trace their roots to statisticians from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ferdinand Cole Lane, the editor of Baseball Magazine from 1910-37, wrote about the limitations of batting average, arguing that walks and extra-base hits needed to be accounted for. Had the internet been around in Lane's time, he undoubtedly would have had more influence on the evolution of baseball stats. Panas discusses several other pioneers in this chapter as well, though the names of most of them won't be familiar until he reaches Bill James, who many consider "the godfather of sabermetrics."
Panas spends four chapters talking about hitting stats, delving into topics like isolated power, runs created, total average, offensive winning percentage, and win probability added. For each he credits the originator of the stat and provides formulas and examples. He also explains concepts like repeatability, which essentially measures the year-to-year correlation of a particular statistic. Some of the pitching measures detailed include component ERA, fielding independent pitching (FIP), batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and run preventing events. In the fielding chapters you'll learn about range factor, zone rating, and plus/minus for both individuals and teams.
Panas concludes with a chapter on total player contribution, where he breaks down stats like win shares and wins above replacement (WAR). He explains why WAR is his preferred measure for comparing overall value of position players, while he is reluctant to endorse a single stat for pitchers.
What Panas does particularly well is explain complicated concepts in simple terms. By tracing the evolution of statistics in each category he progressively builds the reader's knowledge. He also recognizes that while each new stat serves a particular purpose, some of the less complicated ones will serve most fans just fine. There is value in stats like OPS that can be calculated without advanced algorithms.
While this is his first book, Panas is a veteran blogger who has spent a significant amount of time discussing the game with other fans on the internet over the past decade. Many of those exchanges helped convince him of the need for a guide like this.
"It seems that every baseball debate ends up involving statistics in some way," Panas says. "I spend a lot of time explaining advanced baseball statistics to people and I repeat myself over and over. I've also noticed that more people have become curious about sabermetrics over the past year or two. Thus, it made sense that I should write it all down and organize it for people. I tried doing that on my blog but you can only do bits and pieces at a time on a blog."
Because Panas self-published "Beyond Batting Average," you won't likely find it in any local bookstore. This one is worth seeking out, however. It can be ordered through the publisher (lulu.com) or via Amazon.com and other online book-sellers. It deserves a much wider audience than it will likely receive.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.