“Hidden Game” Q & A with John Thorn

51GOIZK6n-LBack in the mid-80s, if you wanted to think “outside the box” about how to evaluate players and teams, you had few choices.  Of course there was Bill James, whose annual Abstracts were a must-read.  But there were few books that made it into the homes of baseball stat nerds and deep thinkers.

Then came “The Hidden Game of Baseball” by John Thorn and Pete Palmer. Thorn was and still is one of the foremost historians of the national pastime. Amongst his many vocations, he is currently the official baseball historian of Major League Baseball. Palmer has been responsible for many of the baseball encyclopedia issued over the last 40 years. Together, they crafted a book that tore apart common notions regarding the value of RBI, batting average and pitcher wins. They introduced fans to “Linear Weights” and “Player Wins”, statistics that sought to tease out the contributions of each player in terms of runs created or saved.

Now, 30 years later, that seminal book has been reissued, with a foreword by Keith Law,  a reflective preface from the authors and an updated list of the 500 best players of all-time through 2014 (based on player wins).

I used the original book as the basis for a Operational Research paper back in Grad School. I applied the book’s concepts to analyze the performance of the 1985 New York Mets. When I heard the book was being reissued, I knew I wanted to ask Mr. Thorn some questions about it. He graciously (as always) accepted my request.  So here is a brief Q & A with baseball historian John Thorn:

VORG: You mention in your preface that you had received frequent requests over the years to reissue “Hidden Game”. What and/or who finally convinced you and Pete Palmer to reissue it now?

JT: Earlier invitations had been to create a “revised, updated” version. I felt that such a book would be a pale sequel to the original, which had established a solid standing as a worthwhile book of its time and place.

VORG: Can you briefly describe what sort of technical expertise it required to bring the original manuscript/book into the digital age of 2015? Had the mid-1980s manuscript been saved in any sort of readable computer format, or was it optically scanned in for its reissue?

JT: The publisher scanned the pages of the original. The original publisher, Doubleday, returned to us the “mechanicals,” or camera-ready film, but these, if they survive, are well hidden in my San Simeon of an attic.

VORG: With the original manuscript being over 30 years old, which of its concepts do you think have held up the best?

JT: Linear Weights, which still holds more theoretical appeal with its league average baseline of zero producing a league average record of 81-81. OPS. Base-out situation matrix of run values. Risk-reward analysis of doubtful strategic moves (sacrifice bunt) or sadly neglected ones (stealing home, taking a chance on a ball that might be a sacrifice fly). Park Factor. Relation of runs to wins. Clutch hitting as a chimera. Oh, I could go on.

VORG: If the book was to be totally redone today, and neither you nor Pete were involved in the process, which writers/sabermetricians would you want to see write it?

JT: Bill Felber did a fine job of this, I thought, with HGOB’s principles at the core, in The Book on the Book (2006). Gary Gillette worked closely with Pete for decades, and still does, and he would have been a logical writer as well.

VORG: Hypothetically, if the reissue was going to include new material, what’s the one issue you would have most wanted to address?

JT: Oh, fielding. So much great work has been done in recent years, aided by big data and its intersection with video. Our title for Chapter 11, “Measuring the Unmeasurable,” today takes on an ironic turn.

VORG: From reading your preface, am I right in inferring that you believe that the focus on quantifying ever-smaller pieces of baseball data points is taking some fun out of the game? Is this a battle between the game’s “mystique” and its “business”?

JT: Ignorance is bliss, but bliss is overrated.


So if you’ve always wanted to read this book, but had trouble finding it in second-hand bookstores, or you’ve never read it at all . . . go get it now. Its a must-have in every stats-oriented fan’s library.

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