Baseball, with its considerable history and the constancy of the numbers generated in the game, has long fascinated the statisticians, both the professional kind and the weekend geek. The Internet has given a viable platform for those who want to make a living analyzing baseball’s numbers and establishing a base for informed decision-making. Baseball Prospectus, according to the publicity material accompanying the current book, is the top statistical website in baseball and is widely used by those who cover the game. What better idea than to use historical numbers and decide what the most compelling pennant races of all time are? That is the premise behind this enjoyable and sure to be hotly debated book.
While some pennant races are indelible in people’s memories because of one singular moment, such as Bucky Dent’s unlikely homerun for the Yankees against the Red Sox or the much-chronicled Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard Around the World” coda to the 1951 National League chase, the statistical wizards at Baseball Prospectus argue that the truly compelling pennant chases were those that were close over the entire season. Staffer Clay Davenport came up with a process, dubbed the “Davenport Method,” that uses sophisticated (and proprietary) statistical analyses to identify thirteen chases that span nearly a hundred years.
The thirteen chases are described in vivid detail by examining (with the obvious benefit of hindsight) the key moves and trades made (and not made) that separated the victor from the vanquished. Thus we have the 1967 race (Boston’s “Impossible Dream” season) where writer Jay Jaffe makes a strong case for the deification of Carl Yastrezemski, although a key metric, WARP or “Value Above Replacement Player,” indicates that Yaz’s contribution that season was a little better than average. The narratives tend to swing to the numbers side a bit more in many of the essays, but that is a predilection that the good people at Baseball Prospectus confess with disarming honesty right at the outset.
The essays in this estimable collection, while likely to be meandering to those who are numbers-challenged, offer a new perspective on the cherished pennant races of the past. While we may not all agree on the list or on the arguments made, nevertheless the book is sure to provoke considerable debate.