Home Book Reviews It Ain’t Over ‘Til it’s Over by Baseball Prospectus

It Ain’t Over ‘Til it’s Over by Baseball Prospectus

by Matt Smith

“It Ain’t Over ’til it’s Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book” edited by Steven Goldman (Basic Books, 2007), 457 pages.

Baseball Prospectus are at the forefront of sabermetrics: the discipline of statistical research into baseball. With their revolutionary statistics and forthright views, it’s fair to say they are loved and loathed in equal measure (White Sox GM Kenny Williams is definitely not a fan, for a start). “Too clever by half” some will argue, but their love of the game and desire to challenge orthodox thinking means that they are always worth reading.

“It Ain’t Over …” is the third book they have published, alongside their popular BP Annual which has been running since 1996. It takes a look at the thirteen best pennant races in history. As you would expect, their list was not compiled by considering subjective opinion, but is a product of their own statistical evaluations. The resulting list ranges from the 1908 National League to the 2003 NL Central battle.

Each chapter looks at one of these pennant races in considerable detail and is then followed by an additional chapter or two looking at topics raised by the race. This enables the BP team to delve into some of the questions that are argued by baseball fans of all ages: do deadline deals ever really make a difference? Has the wild card made for a more competitive and exciting competition? What are the relative merits of so-called ‘small-ball’ style of play versus ‘waiting for the three-run homer’?

All of these and more are discussed, providing solid arguments while leaving things open for the reader to make up their own mind.

Although a specific chapter isn’t devoted to it, the substantial issue of racial integration is also covered in various places throughout the book, not least in the first chapter recounting the story of the 1967 American League pennant race. Referred to by many as “the Impossible Dream”, it marked the Red Sox’s first pennant since 1946 and is described as being the product of “a desperately needed cultural change within the Red Sox organization”. As the last all-white baseball team, the importance of their departure from an era of “institutionalized racism” is clearly felt.

While some of the races covered may not be on everybody’s list (the 2003 NL Central wasn’t especially memorable for me), any book on the greatest pennant races has to include the 1951 National League. Arguably the most exciting of all time, it had every ingredient you could wish for. It was played out by two fierce local rivals, the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, both of whom would, of course, take their rivalry to the West Coast a mere six years later. It involved a scarcely believable comeback (or ‘choke’ depending on your viewpoint), with the Giants making up a thirteen game deficit over their final forty-four games, followed by a three-game playoff ended by one of the most memorable moments ever witnessed at a ballpark.

The Scotsman Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning homer, immortalised as “the shot heard ’round the world”, was dramatic enough on its own. The subsequent controversy over the Giants’ alleged sign-stealing added yet more intrigue to the tale. The race is brought to life in a chapter that typifies the approach taken throughout the majority of the book: it concentrates on the events and the characters involved, with the statistics serving as complimentary facts rather than the main focus of attention.

There is one exception to this approach. In the section on the 1984 AL West pennant race, an additional chapter delves into the question of the importance of a good start to a season. It’s an interesting topic to discuss, not least in trying to understand when it should be considered more than just a hot start and instead a strong indicator of the real ability of a team.

However, the purpose of the chapter is mainly to display the work BP have undertaken to look at the issue, resulting in the printing of equations for “projected records” and “weighting factors”. It’s the sort of thing that would leave a general baseball fan rolling their eyes, but it is fairly short (just eight pages) and such number-crunching is generally left out of the main text and inserted in the detailed “Notes” section at the back of the book instead.

All of the chapters focusing on a pennant race successfully reveal the drama of the events while also questioning what the pivotal moments may have been. If I had to pick a favourite, the final chapter would be my choice. This covers the 1944 American League, telling the unlikely story of the St Louis Brown’s triumph in the shadow of World War Two. Nate Silver provides a masterful overview of the impact that the war had on baseball, particularly explaining the various reasons why some professional athletes were not drafted for military service. As Silver states: “most men who were able to play major league baseball were doing so because of one or more severe physical limitations. It was natural selection in reverse, survival of the weakest”.

This substantial chapter firstly recounts the tale of the ’44 AL pennant race before assessing why the Browns were able to take the title by one game. What follows is BP at their best: they use their considerable talents to re-play the season with each team having their full contingent of players.

Any observer could understand that the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox would have been much stronger with players such as DiMaggio and Williams on the playing field rather than the battle field. BP are able, within reason, to show exactly how much better they would have been and what impact that would have made to the competition. It is a fascinating piece of work, highlighting just what sort of wonders the world of statistical analysis can produce.

The fact that this book is written by the Baseball Prospectus team may put some people off, but they will be missing out on an excellent read if so. This is a great example of how statistical analysis can be used to prompt and accompany some first class writing that can be enjoyed by all baseball fans, even those who are not overly obsessed with statistics.

Have you read “It Ain’t Over ’til it’s Over”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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