Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Stat Book edited by John Dewan: a review

One way to view this book is that it summarized the Project Scoresheet effort after its first three seasons. With this publication, James and Dewan demonstrated that Scoresheet was working, and that the work was worthwhile.

Another view could legitimately see this book as a predecessor for the Bill James Handbooks that Dewan subsequently published at STATS, and now at ACTA. It’s certainly that, and Dewan’s success at STATS was built directly on the Scoresheet organization.

Anyway, here’s a summary of the contents: The book has lots of numbers–career stats for active players, and 1986 splits. There are 260 player essays, in a half-page format that was longer than any other publication ever routinely used. There are also a dozen end-of-book essays exploring the sorts of things a person can do with play-by-play and other detailed data. Pieces of the book were written by James, by Gary Gillette, by Craig Wright, and by Dick Cramer–and dozens of Scoresheet volunteers.

The player essays, written by volunteers who had obviously been watching the guy, were often glorious. Scott Segrin pointed out that the Brewers habit of always moving Paul Molitor likely contributed to his injury and playing time problems. Dennis Bretz offered a delightful portrait of an aging Reggie Jackson. Michael O’Donnell took a peek at Barry Bonds’ rookie season, and speculated about his future. Merrianna McCully used Dick Williams as a lens to examine Ken Phelps. Craig Wright reminded us how good Oddibe McDowell looked when he arrived in Arlington. Geoff Beckman differed with Dan Okrent about Cecil Cooper. Each essay’s a half page, with is long enough for an extended comment but too short for a full-blown essay. Not all of these are excellent, of course, but enough are to justify working through them. Even now, 26 years later.

The dozen essays are quite variable. Most of them depend in some way on play-by-play details, and all offer some interesting analysis. The best, though, are preliminary explorations of ways to interpret the impact of events which are visible at the play-by-play level but hidden by box score summary. David Robinson used the 1985 Twins data he’d accumulated to do an Expected Runs table, and used those to do some preliminary analysis of a number of questions. Mark Pankin took his data–from the Orioles and the Reds, in different seasons–to construct similar tables, and to begin to suggest ways the data could inform fans and management about a number of topics. Mark’s statistical background informs his analysis in ways that a less-capable analyst would find difficult to design and is a fine introduction to the topic. Kevin Hoare explored the impact on the hitter of stolen bases (and concluded he needed to do another study). Brent MacInnes offered a little study of the impact of the base/out situation on hitting, using a base/out table that didn’t summarize expected runs. And Dick Cramer offered up a bunch of team essays exploring the reasons organizations improve or decline from season to season, using summarized situational data as clues for analysis.

All in all, an interesting effort, offering lots to think about. But it’s decidedly a preliminary effort; subsequent work has eclipsed almost everything here.


This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

8 comments on “Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Stat Book edited by John Dewan: a review

  1. Geoff BeckmanNo Gravatar says:

    Let me note that the data in that book is now entirely available through Baseball-Reference.com. So all you have is some essays (all of which put me to sleep– an object lesson in how how well Bill writes) and 260 player comments (10 for each team) that are 25 years old.

    Some of them aren’t bad. And there’s uncollected Bill James there. The foreword has the history of PROJECT SCORESHEET.

    We paid $20, the writers had maybe two weeks to get their stuff in, and the only data we were able to provide was the stuff on the player page. Except that we couldn’t get the stats right for some of those people. I had to pitch the Don Aase piece because the writer had spent 450 words analyzing the splits, but we sent him the wrong player stats, (Always felt he should have noticed that none of the totals matched Aase.)

    People mailed them to Chicago, John and Sue collated them and FedExed them to the division editors right after Thanksgiving., I did the AL East (chain-smoking Marlboros and mainlining Tab), Craig the AL West, Don the NL East and Gary the NL West. We only had 10 days to do it, but John promised it would be easy because everyone had at least two writers signed up.

    If you look at the names on the essays, you see how well that worked, Some never arrived, some were short, some were horrible. The editors had to either write them ourselves, or pad them. (I was amazed by how many people didn’t cover the Red Sox, even though they’d gone to the World Series.) Then Gary and I traveled to Chicago to help John, Don and Sue finish.

    Couple of stories. I haven’t written the Spike Owen piece when I got there. John and Don told me I didn’t need to bother: “Who’s going to read past the first sentence?” I got my back up and told them that a good writer could make ANY subject interesting. They hooted at me, so I decided to write a piece that NO ONE would quit reading. A LOT of people read it… man, did we get letters.

    I got four Bill Bucker essays and they were ALL feral. (Nobody remembered it was the sixth game and the score was already tied.) I thought he was overrated and I’d hated the guy since he was bad-mouthing the A’s in 1974, so I decided to hammer him without mentioning the Series. When Bill and John went on the Boston radio, half the people who called in said the piece let him off too easy.

    My favorite piece was the Teddy Higuera piece. I liked the Cooper piece but I’ve never been able to look past that sentence where I didn’t knit the phrases together. A lot of people enjoyed the Tom Seaver piece. (That and the Chet Lemon piece came in at 200 words.)

    Favorite line was from the Andy Hawkins piece (Gillette couldn’t get all his stuff done so I ended up doing four Padres). “Anyone can get hot for a week. Anybody but Omar Moreno can get hot for a month.”

    I even got a dirty joke in there. Scott Segrin did his piece on Yount and said he was sorry he couldn’t use this one risque line. I thought it was funny, so I put it in there, figuring we needed a little controversy and most people wouldn’t catch it. They didn’t… and it’s the very last line of the very last player profile.

    I’m still unreasonably fond of it. Nice to see someone sort of liked it.

  2. joelNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the note, Geoff; this sort of comment is always fun.

    As I’m sure is obvious, I’m working through my sabermetric (baseball?) library and commenting on each book or periodical as I reread it. Trying mainly to do two things–summarize what the book was trying to do, and point out any essays I think will still be interesting.

    And for whatever it’s worth, I read enough economic history that statistical essays have to be really boring before I abandon them. These are pretty tame.

  3. Geoff BeckmanNo Gravatar says:

    I like reading those those sorts of comments to, so I figured I’d file it. It’s funny how the little stuff stays with you. All the editors had managed to choose a different word processor to do their editing, the essays had to be converted. John spent seven hours trying to find one miscoded at-bat– a double that drove in a run and the batter eventually scored– so our totals didn’t match Elias.

    I admire projects like these. I have 9,000 books, so the notion of reviewing them is unimaginable. The 1987 edition wasn’t as good– more snarky; less thoughtful. Also, some teams didn’t have ten players worthy of coverage two years in a row. The year after that… well, Alan Schwartz’s book covers what happened

    I just call it “Moneyball” now… because, thanks to Michael Lewis, people know what I mean. By 1987, Bill was already regretting the term “sabermetrics”. When he coined the term, he was selling a few hundred books and an in-joke didn’t seem like a big deal. When you have a New York Times bestseller sending thousands of people to the organization– and 75% of the people in it write historical articles– it’s problematic.

    Best of luck with the project.

  4. Wow, I don’t even remember writing about Ken Phelps. What a hoot to come across my name for something I wrote in the late eighties. I was so green at the time. Yes indeed, I was a Bill James clone for a couple of seasons. Then things started to turn ugly and I decided to head out on my own. Before I left the ranks, I did commit to write all the Mariner profiles for the first Stats, Inc. Scouting Report: 1990.
    Things went uphill for me from there. In October of 1989, I agreed to be Jim Kaat’s statistical support person. Yikes, I became a pitching analyst for a professional pitching analyst who was not into complicated statistics! He had just signed a four-year deal with CBS and I too sign as an independent contractor. After CBS, there was one year with ESPN and then ten years with the Yankees on MSGN and then YES. I also signed a multi-year contract with General Manager, Andy MacPhail in 1992; first with the Twins and then with the Cubs. I had a three-year deal with Inside Sports magazine as a freelance writer. I ghost wrote for Jim Kaat and each 5000 word article was all about pitching, My business is named Three Up—Three Down. I devised my own pitching database with a 15-year history of every pitcher in baseball.
    After the 2004 season, I retired from baseball. After the movie Moneyball, released, I realized what I had accomplished over a decade before the book published. Recognizing that I had already been there and done that — I un-retired immediately! I caught up some of my core numbers and then wrote my own book.
    Ironically, my book, Three Up – Three Down, Pearls of Wisdom, went to press just two days ago. It will be available on Amazon.com by Monday or Tuesday, June 23 or 24. I’m very proud to say that I am fairly sure I’m the first female to have infiltrated the world of statistical Major League Baseball. That is, I signed contracts, and was well compensated for my services. I flew so low under the radar that even Alan Schwarz didn’t detect my vapor trail.
    In my book, I’ve introduced the “Roadmap to the Playoffs”. It’s a byproduct of my 25-year study of the final score. Hey, those box scores were hiding the “Holy Grail” of baseball in plain sight for everyone to see for well over a century.
    I’m still in contact with Jim Kaat and he wrote the foreword for my book.
    Just though I would let you know what eventually happed to me.
    Merrianna McCully
    Three Up – Three Down, Pearls of Wisdom
    Ocean Shores, Washington 98569

  5. joelNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks, Merrianna. Hope the book sells well; I’ll certainly pick up a copy.

  6. Merrianna McCullyNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks Joel….the book is available at Amazon.com. I think you will find the book interesting and and informative. I would love to hear your reaction to my manuscript.

    Merrianna McCully

  7. joelNo Gravatar says:

    Sittin’ on my bookshelf, waiting for me to get to it….

  8. Merrianna McCullyNo Gravatar says:

    So..It’s now nearly October 30th. Have you made it to your bookshelf yet? I do beleive you will find it not only “entertaining” but also more intelligent and informative.

    I loved your comment regarding my 1986 essay in Bill James Great American Stat Book about my article being more intertaining than informative. You countn’t be more right. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing — considering my interest in the sport started in 1985 when I didn’t know an RBI from a VIP. That was thrity-some-baseball years ago! :roll:

    Now, I’m going to find a copy of that book on E-Bay so I can have a good laugh too!

    Merrianna McCully

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