Friday, August 16, 2019

Books: "Scouting and Scoring" On Evolution Of Stats In Baseball

Scouting and Scoring: How We Know What We Know about Baseball
By Christopher J. Phillips
Princeton University Press; hardcover, 320 pages; 27.95

Baseball has always been known as a numbers game, and that is no truer than now in what can certainly be called the analytics era. 

It is the one sport where people can sit and keep score, which is an art unto itself because there are many different ways to score hits and outs, so you can really make it your own. By comparison, scoring a basketball game is just circling numbers for points and fouls, can be quite tedious, and doesn't nearly tell the story of the game like a baseball scorecard.

An example of a baseball scoreboard. Photo by Jason Schott.

Christopher J. Phillips, assistant professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, takes an in-depth look at the intersection of judgment and statistics in baseball in his new book, Scouting and Scoring.

Both scouting and scoring are considered fundamentally different ways of ascertaining value in baseball. Scouting seems to rely on experience and intuition; scoring relies on performance metrics and statistics. Phillips rejects these simplistic divisions. He shows how both scouts and scorers rely on numbers, bureaucracy, trust, and human labor in order to make sound judgments about the value of baseball players.

Phillips goes into the origins of keeping statistics by tracing baseball’s story from the nineteenth century to today, and explains that the sport was one of the earliest and most consequential fields for the introduction of numerical analysis. New technologies and methods of data collection were supposed to enable teams to quantify the drafting and managing of players, replacing scouting with scoring, but that is not how things turned out.

Phillips writes of the origins of scoring, and its link to Brooklyn, "Early scoring in baseball entailed much more than simply tracking who tallied more runs. From the mid-nineteenth century on, baseball fans and clubs kept extensive records of games and individual performances. Scorers were present at baseball games long before the sport was fully professionalized and were seen as playing an essential role in its development. Instead of asserting that baseball is a game primed for qualification, it is more accurate to acknowledge that recordkeeping was a decision that entailed substantial time and effort on the part of clubs. It was an effort that established the scorebook as a technology of fact making, enabling a scorer to reduce the salient events of a game to marks on paper and providing a robust system out of which the statistical facts of baseball could be manufactured.
"By the late twentieth century, Pete Palmer's database was the most important publicly available collection of these matters of fact. When he and co-editor John Thorn published Total Baseball in 1989, they dedicated the book to Harry Chadwick, 'the great pioneer of baseball history and record keeping.' Chadwick was one of the most important promoters and developers of baseball in the nineteenth century. A British immigrant turned Brooklyn sports reporter, Chadwick became interested in baseball in the late 1850s. Besides reporting on the game he wrote handbooks, served on rules committees and official panels, and eventually edited A.G. Spalding's influential baseball guide. Aside from a brief falling out with the heads of organized baseball in the 1870s, he was central to the game from the late 1850s to his death in 1908.
"Chadwick came from a family dedicated to reform through public accountability - that it to say, politically active newspapermen - and in particular to progress through science and rationality. This idea of progress was based on the analysis of objective facts derived from statistical data...
"Throughout his life, Henry Chadwick was obsessed with keeping score, in the most general sense of the term. Chadwick started scoring baseball games as early as 1860, and his first baseball socrebook has billiard scores in the back, accounts that carefully list umpires for each match, mark the results of every turn, and notate important or unusual events...
"In baseball, the job of recordkeeping fell to the person acting as 'scorer,' and for Chadwick, these individuals had an essential, not an auxiliary, role. 'Every club should have its regularly appointed scorer,' he declared, 'and he should be one who fully understands every point of the game, and a person, too,of sufficient power of observation to note down correctly the details of every innings (sic] of the game.' The 1859 National Convention rules specified that two scorers - one member of each competing club - needed to be appointed to 'record' the game. They were protected by rule from player interference or arbitrary removal and were not allowed to bet on the contest. As early as 1865, diagrams of the game indicated where scorers should stand on the playing field, with their physical presence serving as evidence of their importance. Scorers, like umpires and contestants, had to belong to the game's National Association, or an equivalent state branch, and had to be listed by name. The scorer's role as recordkeeper required him to be a person who was named and known to all participants and obligated to stand by the result as credible. Chadwich knew good data took trustworthy human labor."

Over the decades, scouting and scoring started looking increasingly similar. Scouts expressed their judgments in highly formulaic ways, using numerical grades and scientific instruments to evaluate players. Scorers drew on moral judgments, depended on human labor to maintain and correct data, and designed bureaucratic systems to make statistics appear reliable. From the invention of official scorers and Statcast to the creation of the Major League Scouting Bureau, the history of baseball reveals the inextricable connections between human expertise and data science.

Scouting and Scoring, with its unique consideration of the role of quantitative measurement and human judgment, provides an entirely fresh understanding of baseball by showing what the sport reveals about reliable knowledge in the modern world.

This incredibly informative work is one of the most entertaining baseball books you will read this summer.

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