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Baseball’s Real Magic
The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball, by Sheldon Hirsch ’77 and Alan Hirsch ’81 (McFarland)
Reviewed by Rebecca A. Binder ’02
[Sports] At root, The Beauty of Short Hops is a love letter to the coincidences and improbable occurrences—the short hops—that wind their way into baseball fans’ hearts.
It’s about Game 4 of the indelible 2004 American League Championship Series—the bottom of the ninth inning with no outs, with the New York Yankees up by a run, the Red Sox’s Dave Roberts on first base, Bill Mueller at the plate and Mariano Rivera on the mound. Any Red Sox fan (or, if they’re being honest, any Yankees fan) can recite what happens next: Roberts takes off for second, beats the throw and Derek Jeter’s tag, and comes around to score, tying the game and resuscitating Red Sox Nation.
It’s about how each baseball stadium is different. The same players who play in front of Boston’s Green Monster—the wall that shortens Fenway Park’s left field and ricochets the ball around the outfield—also play in Oakland, Calif., with its stadium’s expansive foul territory, and at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, where hit balls occasionally disappear into the ivy that covers the outfield fence.
It’s about the undeniable reality that, even though perfect games have a ridiculously small chance of happening, they do happen—except when they don’t. Just ask pitcher Armando Galarraga and umpire Jim Joyce, who formed the most unpredictable goodwill duo in sports last year after Joyce blew a call, costing Galarraga a perfect game.
In Short Hops, the Hirsch brothers present a strong argument against sabermetrics, the statistics-based approach to rating baseball players that is celebrated in the book and movie Moneyball. Pointing to unremarkable draftees, Short Hops discredits iconic sabermetrics proponent Billy Beane’s focus on on-base percentage over more traditional statistics such as batting average. The Hirsches pick apart Jeter’s wildly controversial Ultimate Zone Rating. UZR—a sabermetric statistic—compares a player’s success at fielding his position with other players’ successes through history, taking into account such minutiae as weather conditions and the speed and power of the batter. The more specific the statistic, the authors rightly point out, the smaller the sample size and the less valid the results. Witness Jeter, the perennial Gold Glove-winning Yankee shortstop who, sabermetrics will tell you, is one of the worst fielders in baseball.
Short Hops offers up examples of baseball as a workmanlike ideal (Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken), as a Homeric epic (Babe Ruth’s called shot, Don Larsen’s perfect game, Willie Mays’ catch) and as poetry of execution (the stunning visual of a batter uncoiling himself perfectly and launching a ball into the sky). The authors take the reader through almost 100 vignettes from the 2009 season that illustrate the strange plays and weird games that lead announcers to say, “I’ve never seen that before.” Which, the authors point out, they say a lot.
Baseball obsesses itself with statistics and yet often defies them. Short Hops, while appreciating the knowledge that sabermetrics provides, warns that increasingly advanced statistics will never tell baseball’s story and will never explain its quirks or its humanity. After all, the authors ask, which book would you rather read: one that seeks to capture baseball’s magic or one that treats that magic as fodder for a mathematical probe?
Binder is the Boston Red Sox senior correspondent for www.aeryssports.com.