Interview with Alan Schwarz

The Numbers Game Features Strat-O-Matic


            In his new book, The Numbers Game, Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics, Alan Schwarz offers unique insight into how statistics have given baseball its place in history and fueled its current revival. And on 21 of the book’s pages, he makes it clear that Strat-O-Matic has had no small role in this story.


            There’s a reference to Strat-O-Matic creator Hal Richman in Schwarz’ Introduction and a four-page description of Strat-O-Matic’s roots in a chapter titled, “The Sultans of Stats.” But in many other places and ways, Schwarz shows what an influence the game has had for fans and, increasingly, for baseball executives, in building their love of baseball, understanding the sport’s strategy and valuing the players who can make teams winners.


            On September 30, Glenn Guzzo interviewed Schwarz about some of the Strat-O-Matic content in the book.


Q:        How well has the book been received?


A:        Wonderfully. I can’t evaluate sales – other people know how to do that. Even more important to me is the reception. I want the readers of The New York Times and National Public Radio’s listeners to like it, and so far that reception has been great.


Q:        What is your simulation-game background?


A:        I came to baseball a little bit late. I became a fan when I was 11 years old in Scarsdale, New York. I came of age when I could understand simulation games. A friend of mine played Strat-O-Matic. He showed me how to play and it was great fun. It appealed to my math side. I was a math geek. My father taught me to do square roots when I was 4. So all the dice probabilities made sense to me.


In the spring of 1981 I ordered the 1980 set. It’s the only set I ever bought and ever played. I played the game for four or five years until I was about 15. I always loved it, but I went on to other things. I kept an orange notebook with every game. I played as fast as I could to generate statistics to see if Mike Schmidt and George Brett were going to win the Most Valuable Player awards again. I never played a full season. And I only played Strat-O-Matic. I never played APBA or Statis-Pro. They didn’t appeal to me.


I probably resemble a lot of the Strat-O-Matic market who played it a lot for a short while.


Q: Your book mentions your 2002 Survey of 50 baseball executives: “Exactly half had learned the game in large part by playing Strat-O-Matic as kids. That portion will only grow.” What inspired you to ask these people about Strat-O-Matic?



A:        Because I knew that game had tremendous influence. It had allowed an entire generation of American boys like me to learn probability. Of course, there were other games – APBA, All-Star Baseball – and the question I asked was whether they had learned the game playing Strat-O-Matic or other dice games. Strat-O-Matic was the most popular. Of the 25 who said they had played these games, at least 20 played Strat-O-Matic.”


Q:        How carefully did you choose the words, “learned the game in large part”? What does that include?


A:        That’s how they learned how to apply the mathematics of risk-taking. Speed, stolen bases. If someone is a AA, it means success 85 percent of the time. You knew what the chances were. And you could apply this to the bunt, or steal, or playing the infield in. Before Strat-O-Matic came out, nobody knew. You could sense what the risks were, but you couldn’t see it – it was much more difficult. You didn’t have that measurement, that sense of whether a strategy was low risk or high risk.


Q:        Did these executives display much enthusiasm when discussing Strat-O-Matic?


A:        Absolutely. They recalled their days sitting at the table, rolling the dice, living the times of their youth with Strat-O-Matic. We all remember our youths fondly. And this is the way a lot of us spent our youths. (Baseball teams’) front offices are now embracing people who didn’t play on the field. If you didn’t play on the field, you probably played Strat-O-Matic. How can I put this? It was my generation’s Daniel Boone coonskin cap and rifle. Earlier generations didn’t have Strat-O-Matic. People in the 1970’s didn’t play video games.


Q:  Another passage from The Numbers Game that will resonate with Strat-O-Matic players is this one: “By the late 1990’s … after spending two decades frittering away millions of dollars on free agents who your average Strat-O-Matic player knew would flop …” I think many of us who were playing Strat-O-Matic were shaking our heads in those days, watching a Andy Hawkins be the most-sought-after free agent getting mega millions, or Bob Shirley being signed and counted on. We knew those guys were no better than fourth starters on third-place teams.


A: Or Dave LaPoint. I’m loyal to Strat-O-Matic. I probably could have said APBA or Earl Weaver, let’s be fair. But I have a warm spot for Strat-O-Matic. And Strat-O-Matic is the most popular game – it has the plurality. What baseball has come to understand in the past 5-10 years is the probabilistic nature of the game. Just because a pitcher has a good fastball doesn’t tell you enough. What someone has done in the past can help you assess his ability. Strat-O-Matic tells you what he has done in the past. It’s not a predictor of the future, but the past can be meaningful in some aspects of what you can expect – and what you can’t.


            Your average Strat-O-Matic player cannot run a major league franchise. He absolutely cannot. I want to be clear about that. However, he knows some things that are not visible to the naked eye. It’s not that Strat-O-Matic players are geniuses. But they know you’re not going to get blood out of a stone. You’re not going to get Roger Clemens out of Andy Hawkins. It’s not worth, as we like to say, rolling the dice.


Q: Did you get any sense that their experience playing Strat-O-Matic motivated any of these guys to become baseball executives?


A: If it played any role, and I think it’s fair to say it probably did, what happened is that the current generation of baseball execs – a (Dodgers General Manager) Paul DePodesta,  (Mets GM) Jim Duquette, (Red Sox GM) Theo Epstein, and (Indians Assistant GM) Chris Antonetti – learned the game the probabilistic way. And when they came of age in their 20’s and 30’s, they realized many executives didn’t have a clue about this. They (the older executives) knew a lot of things, but they didn’t have what these (younger) guys have. And what these guys have is valuable. And they said, “I can bring something to this organization.”