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It ain't necessarily so, and never was
Frank Deford
March 06, 1972
Baseball's sacred percentages are under attack by a scholar-heretic, Earnshaw Cook, who, armed with his iconoclast's computer, says nuts to the sacrifice bunt and the practice of starting starting pitchers
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March 06, 1972

It Ain't Necessarily So, And Never Was

Baseball's sacred percentages are under attack by a scholar-heretic, Earnshaw Cook, who, armed with his iconoclast's computer, says nuts to the sacrifice bunt and the practice of starting starting pitchers

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For more than a decade Earnshaw Cook, a retired Baltimore metallurgist, has been trying to convince baseball's bosses that playing the sacred percentages is, to be blunt, dumb baseball. In 1964 Cook brought out a 345-page book, Percentage Baseball, that was full of charts, curves, tables and complicated formulas that sometimes went on for the better part of a page. The book dared to suggest that either: a) baseball is not using the best possible odds on the field, or b) mathematics is a fake.

Nothing has happened since to convince Cook that "a" is wrong and "b" is right. "As in the world around us," he says, "baseball offers a completely balanced, highly complicated statistical system, demonstrably controlled in all its interactions of play by the random operations of the laws of chance. As such, it becomes a fascinating illustration of a process readily susceptible to reliable mathematical analysis. Baseball also furnishes a classic example of the utter contempt of its unsophisticated protagonists for the scientific method."

That last sentence is Cook's way of saying that the national pastime thinks he is as nutty as a fruitcake. Since 1964 nobody has dared test out his conclusions even in, say, a winter rookie league. Oh yes, the managers in 1964 were named: Berra, Bauer, Pesky, Lopez, Tebbetts, Dressen, Hodges, Lopat, Rigney, Mele, Kennedy, Hutchinson, Craft, Alston, Bragan, Stengel, Murtaugh, Keane, Mauch and Dark. They all stayed faithful to the memory of Connie Mack—but only Alston is still managing at the same major league shop.

Cook has had some nibbles from the baseball Establishment. The Houston Astros approached him shortly after his book came out and inquired if he thought he could apply his figures in such a way that he could make judgments about minor league prospects. Cook said he would try. He checked the player records Houston sent him, and said that his evaluation indicated the two best prospects were named Jim Wynn and Rusty Staub. This was not bad figuring, as Wynn and Staub are probably still the two best players ever to wear Houston uniforms, but Cook never heard from the Astros again. He also got feelers from the Cubs and Phillies, but nothing came of those.

Ignored, Cook went back to his numbers, and this April his second volume on the subject, Percentage Baseball and the Computer, is scheduled for publication. Basically, it is 207 pages of computer proof that everything he wrote eight years ago was qualitatively correct. Well, not quite everything. The computer has found that Cook's percentage lineup—with the best hitter leading off, the second best batting second, etc.—is, over a season, 12 runs less effective than the traditional lineup.

Otherwise the computer solidly supports the way Cook says baseball should be played. It was no haphazard analysis, either. The computer was programmed to make about 21 possible considerations on every pitch with men on base. Millions of batters came to the plate in the half a million games Cook played with the computer. He was able to do this because a computer never has to go to the resin bag. It can play four games a second, which would put a lot of color announcers out of work. By contrast, a major league manager probably has seen no more than 4,000 games when he comes to the job.

Baseball Establishment people should stop reading this article now, because the heresy is about to begin. Those with more open minds may be interested to know what Cook's computer shows:

?The sacrifice bunt is one of the least productive plays in baseball. The fact that it is negative strategy, says Cook, "is validated beyond reasonable doubt." The computer reports that the sacrifice bunt costs a team 30 runs a year, although that figure is probably even higher now that slick artificial turf has rendered the play even more difficult. Cook sympathetically suggests that managers who would have withdrawal pains giving up the sacrifice should at least prohibit everyone but pitchers from trying it.

?Contrary to all baseball folklore, the time to steal is when there are no outs, not two outs. Over 162 games, a team would have to steal second base 90% of the time to justify attempting to steal with two out.

?In each game, a reliever should start, go two or three innings and come out for a pinch hitter his first time up. He would be followed by a starter type, who would go about five innings, batting the first time he came up, but going out for a pinch hitter his second time up. Another short man would finish the game. This sounds revolutionary, but essentially the only difference is that the "starter" appears in the middle of the game instead of at the beginning.

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