The Baseball Analyst Issue 7: a review

Bill James published 40 issues of The Baseball Analyst in the 1980s. All are available on SABR’s website.

The seventh Baseball Analyst, dated August, 1983, has to be called a disappointment. Not only was there no outstanding piece of research in this edition, what did appear can mostly be characterized as uninteresting. Most of the contributions rehash issues already discussed in earlier editions. It happens that the seventh issue was the first edited by Jim Baker, but it’s certainly not his fault that the submissions were weak. This issue, as do many, begins with a plea for more material. Young Jim was perhaps too polite to ask for better material.

Dick O’Brien repeated the study on Batting Order Position production he’d reported in Issue 2. Adding more data turned out to pretty much reproduce the original result. This is worth reporting, but it’s hardly exciting.

Dallas Adams’ contribution, “On the Probability of Hitting .400,” we’ve seen before–I briefly mentioned it in my review of the 1981 Baseball Research Journal (which I posted a few days ago). The two essays are substantially the same, but this version appears to date from 1977–it had presumably been hiding somewhere in Bill James’ office for six years. Despite the redundancy, this article’s quite good.

Gary Brown’s “A Trend Analysis of Batting Averages” is simply weak. It’s mostly a commentary, with a few graphs, about changing tendencies in BA over time. His main point is that professional ball makes occasional adjustments to keep offense and defense in balance. The essay would have had some value at two pages; at ten pages it’s got to be considered filler. The Adams piece made similar points, in far fewer pages, with far better analysis.

John Schwartz offered a one-page note on the relative values of relief wins, losses, and saves, framed as a way to improve the TSN and Rolaids “Firemen” awards. The math here looks good, but it’s not clear that the exercise was worthwhile.

Finally, Pete Palmer’s brief examination of “The Distribution of Wins” briefly summarizes the literature on the subject, extends it a bit based on his own research, and throws in a statistics lesson based on a Dallas Adams contribution from Analyst Issue 1. All told, though, this is more interesting as a window into Palmer’s mind than as a contribution to baseball research. Pete was building a system for analysis; this was one of his blocks.

Revision History:

Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Stat Book (1988) edited by Don Zminda and Project Scoresheet

My review of the first book in this series set attracted a note from Geoff Beckman, who helped edit both editions. It would likely be worth your while to read Geoff’s comments before reading on….

Geoff considers this the weaker volume, and on the whole he’s right, as it lacks the zing of the initial edition. There were 338 player essays (up from 240), but on the whole they’re less interesting. Too many read like spring training player profiles, emphasizing the player’s tools and potentials while downplaying his demonstrated weaknesses. This is not meant to imply that the essays are all bad. For instance, principal editor Zminda portrayed a stubborn and still-valuable Carlton Fisk on a Chicago team that didn’t much like him. Craig Wright’s commentary on Bret Saberhagen gives clues about the value Wright provided the Rangers as an early professional sabermetrician. Beckman’s own Mel Hall essay used six methods to frame Hall’s value and is absolutely delightful. Mike Kopf made an effort to get into Bo Jackson’s head. And Susan Nelson offered a fine look at Dennis Eckersley in transition from starter to reliever.

Nelson’s Eck portrait, in fact, illustrates the book’s unplanned theme: In 1987 baseball’s pitcher usage was in transition as most managers had largely abandoned the four man rotation and were retreating from their long-held preference that starting pitchers finish ballgames. In retrospect it’s pretty clear that the late eighties were a turning point, formalizing long-developing pitcher usage patterns in ways that few would have anticipated.

The second edition of the book added team essays, which were uniformly forgettable. These were followed by a set of truly interesting, but unsystematic, manager essays. For this reader, these justify the book’s existence.

There’s some worthwhile stuff in the back of the book. Gary Gillette–or perhaps the scoresheet project in general–offered some interesting measures of defensive ability, reworking range factor to measure opportunities more precisely. I’m not sure whether anyone followed up on this effort, but it’s certainly interesting. I’d like to see more work along these lines.

Gillette and Dave Nichols did something similar with base runners, measuring steals in terms of opportunities rather than attempts. This, too, seems to be a one-off effort, and again it would be interesting to see further work in this vein. The same authors also took a brief look at baserunner advancement on hits, not offering much analysis but presenting a few tables.

Mark Pankin followed up on his discussion, in the previous edition, on Markov Chain Analysis, mostly presenting better data but not really extending the earlier essay. Matthew Lieff and Gary Skoog considered a similar, but less calculation-intensive, approach to using the same data to examine the effectiveness of in-game strategies.

In other end-of-book essays, David Gordon looked at Quality Starts and found them meaningful. In contrast, Merrianna McCully offered scads of data about the weakness of contemporary pitching–a piece that I’d characterize as more entertaining than informative. And Brock Hanke described Whitey Herzog’s playing career, and pondered how it shaped the Cardinals organization when he became the team’s GM. The Hanke essay was a good preview of the work he’d later do elsewhere. It was also the book’s only piece I still remembered when re-reading 25 years later.

This was the first time I saw Hanke’s name in print. The same is true of several of the book’s other contributors: John Benson, Sherri Nichols, Stuart Shea, and Sean Lahman come quickly to mind. (Tom Tippett was there, too, as one of the project’s programmers.) Just bringing these folks (and Pankin, in the previous edition) to my attention is plenty of justification for the effort.

This was the last GABSB produced in this guise, though Gary Gillette would resurrect the title for another project a few years later. It was certainly a worthwhile experiment, but apparently wasn’t sustainable.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1988: a review

This was the last edition of the Abstract, and the weakest of those published nationally. Unlike most of the issues, this one has no overarching theme, and offers little in the way of pathbreaking research. One new analytical tool, Pitchers’ Game Scores, is introduced in this book, but Bill doesn’t seem to recognize that folks would put it to use. The overall tone’s valedictory, from the dedication to the closing essay.

That’s not to say the book’s a washout. There is, for instance, an interesting examination of platooning, as practiced in the mid-1980s. While there are wide variations, Bill reports, basically all hitters have a platoon advantage against opposite-handed pitchers of between .020 and .030. Breaking things out further, he finds few player types with greater-than-normal advantages–power hitters, for instance, aren’t much different from normal; neither are players with high strikeout rates. The only apparently-significant groupings he reports are older hitters, and perhaps hitters who work pitchers for walks, both of whom have higher platoon biases than normal. This seems to have been the first systematic examination of platoon advantage based on game data. On the whole, it mostly confirms conventional wisdom.

In other essays, Bill presents an argument that the minor leagues should be freed from major league control, and makes some predictions about the effects of the 1988 changes to the strike zone enforcement rules. One of the essays describes Game Scores, apparently for the first time; it’s since become a staple of sabermetric analysis.

The team essays are, as in the 1987 edition, actually focused on the teams; most, frankly, are pretty dull. The Twins essay did a fine job of dissecting their success, though, and a followup essay skewered the notion that the Twinkies were unusually dependent on two pitchers. The Oakland chapter is largely devoted to trying to understand LaRussa’s quirks, which turned out to be an ongoing sabermetric theme. The excellent Cards essay triggered a second excellent essay which used Herzog as an excuse to examine the field manager’s job. And the Astros essay is one of the finest analyses of a team’s season anyone’s written.

The best team essay, though, is about the Indians, and how folks could have predicted success for a team which played so horribly, and about the team’s prospects in the near and middle term. This is Bill James at his best–witty, sarcastic, and right on target analytically.

The player essays are different from any prior edition. Bill only wrote about players who interested him in this issue, most of whom got several-paragraph essays. None really struck me as special, though the Tim Raines essay is a reminder of the wonderful skills Rock brought to his team.

The book ends with an essay, “Breakin’ the Wand,” which reviews Bill’s career as a baseball analyst–and discusses his impact on the sport, both positive and negative. It’s worth reading, but not worth going out of your way to read, methinks. It is clear, at the end, that James expected he was planning to pursue other interests and would be leaving baseball analysis behind. That’s not, of course, exactly what happened.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Win Shares by Bill James with Jim Henzler: a review

Win Shares is Bill James’ best effort to synthesize everything he knows about baseball into a single measure. A decade after the book’s publication, Win Shares has become an accepted tool in sabermetric analysis; by that measure this volume is a success. Nonetheless, the book is a famously difficult read.

I originally read Win Shares just after the book was published, then studied it a year or so later when I adapted its framework for a minor league research project. I found that the practical application was really helpful to understanding how the pieces fit together (although, sadly, it didn’t much help my project). This decade-later read benefits from familiarity, now, and from watching other folks apply Bill’s methods. Nonetheless, this is a difficult book.

The first problem is the book’s arrangement. The first dozen pages give some background and present a fairly unhelpful system overview. This is followed by nearly 90 pages of equations and explications, with occasional explanations; you’ve really got to take this section on faith if you’re reading the book from front to rear. This is followed by 20 pages which attempt to explain, not always successfully, how the equations fit together, and the assumptions behind them. These pages also directly address some of the questions James heard from others when he’d discussed the project while he was developing the system. 150 pages of “random essays” follow: Some of these address issues raised during the system’s development, but more just illustrate of the sorts of questions Win Shares can help a researcher study. Some of these studies are immensely interesting–in this way Bill’s work is always worthwhile. Finally, 250 pages into the work, we get the long lists of organized and comparative career and season numbers which make this a useful reference work; these constitute nearly two thirds of the publication and are the actual product of the system.

The second issue is that the book’s emphasis on Defense overwhelms the main message. In terms of the Win Shares project, Hitting and Pitching are treated as Solved Problems; those sections of the system are built around Runs Created and Component Earned Run Average. Since those methods were addressed in detail in earlier books, they are given only slight explication in this volume. Assessing Defense, on the other hand, is a new problem, so James gives it the bulk of his attention. Worse, for many readers, the system looks like a Rube Goldberg machine–or a house of cards. While it’s clear that the apparently arbitrary numerical constructs described in this book make large concessions to deficiencies in the statistical record, the justifications underlying the calculations are largely built on research which James describes elsewhere in the work. Since they’re initially presented without that context, accepting them on faith seems a lot like a leap of faith.

All this discussion of D overwhelms, in pages and evident intellectual effort, James’ description of the overall structure of Win Shares proper. Win Shares is a team-based method for assessing player seasons, and its core is allocating the overall team success to the players who made up the team. Many readers likely lost that message in the relentless march of difficult detail. Personally, I think he should have relegated the defensive discussion to an appendix, and presented the framework without the distractions.

A third concern is that James doesn’t convincingly articulate his basic argument about assessing defense. This matters because many analysts seem not to have absorbed his contention that defense is a team function, and individual defensive efforts make sense only within the context of their team’s defense. I recognize progress on this front, but we’re still far from really understanding how to measure this component of the game.

A fourth matter of concern is the decision to award three win shares for each team win. I fully understand Bill’s reasons, but the number itself is peculiar enough to create a barrier to understanding.

A final difficulty, which is less important, is the constant comparison of Win Shares’ defensive assessments with those generated by Pete Palmer’s Linear Weights. Some comparison was clearly necessary, but Bill’s not one for half-measures when he presents an argument. It’s pretty clear that Bill was aware that this was problem.

All that said: This is an immensely influential book, and deservedly so. Would it was less to difficult to master, but the effort’s worthwhile.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

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:

The 1987 Bill James Baseball Abstract: a review

This edition of the Abstract begins with two long essays–a rather dull 18-page project about ways to validate analytical methodologies, and a fascinating 41 page essay which purports to be about Rookies but which is actually about comparing careers using similarity scores. Bill explores lots of possibilities in this essay, which has more breadth than depth, but offers enough substance to satisfy almost everyone.

The team essays ring in at exactly two pages, and all of them actually discuss the team, the manager’s approach to play and personnel, and other issues which are relevant to that specific team’s situation. I particularly liked the essays on the Pirates (James correctly predicted they’d mature into a formidable squad), the Reds (mostly an exploration of Pete Rose’s strengths as a manager), and the Angels (a smart, veteran, ballclub, examined in fine detail). Not all James’ predictions and analyses pan out, of course; in the Cubs essay he explicitly wrote off Greg Maddux, for the book’s greatest error. But such are the risks of such a writing project.

Interspersed in the team essays, but separate from them, are a bunch of short studies. The best is an essay, called Rushing ‘Em, about the length of time players have spent in the minors since World War II; James concludes that there’ve been few changes. There’s also a nice piece about Clemens’ MVP year, directly comparing the pitcher’s season with Don Mattingly’s. Some of the others are weak.

The player profiles vary, as usual. The John Kruk portrait is great; Bill captured him perfectly years before John became the character we all recall from his Phillies seasons. Pitching, as usual, gets short shrift, though Bill’s clearly making an effort to improve this portion of the book.

Gary Skoog contributed a back-of-the-book essay about ways to use play-by-play data to improve Runs Created formulas; an interesting early effort. The book ends with a bunch of situational breakdowns.

All in all, a strong effort.

This review was also published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Solid Fool’s Gold, by Bill James: a review

This is selection of essays, culled from by editor Greg Pierce. At least one of these was (also?) published elsewhere (I first read the Verlander article on Slate), and the last essay is a reprint from the 1983 Baseball Abstract. Most, but not all, are about baseball. As always with Bill’s work, some are serious explorations, and some are just notions.

This is Bill James at his best, just playing with ideas. The best of these essays are about pitching–a change from the Abstracts, where he generally short-changed the pitcher essays. One–“Random vs. Responsive Performance by Starting Pitchers”–explores whether clutch pitching exists, and concludes it probably does. This is an excellent effort, though I’m not entirely convinced. Another pitcher essay examines “hot hands,” and concludes that, on the whole, they don’t exist, except that perhaps they do show in some specific tests. This is perhaps not conclusive.

Other pieces I enjoyed included the aforementioned Verlander piece (it’s an argument about nature versus nurture), “The Greatest Pitchers’ Duels 1980s” (just what it claims–and interesting mostly because it displays Bill’s habits of thought), and a short rant about the civil rights implications of stop light cameras (it’s more sophisticated than most such). “Battling Expertise with the Power of Ignorance,” originally written as a presentation for college statistics students, is an excellent review of James’ career, and was intended for folks who probably weren’t much familiar with it.

The book skimps on methods, as the essays were mostly written for folks who understand what a Game Score is (to pick the book’s most-used tool). This is definitely a shortcoming, but given the book’s provenance it’s likely unavoidable.

A fun, quick read, with just enough substance to get you thinking. I enjoyed.

This review’s also posted on LibraryThing.

The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1986: a review

This book contains what I’ve always thought was Bill’s best short essay, the description of Lonnie Smith’s fielding on page 279. It’s sympathetic, honest, and hilarious. A short quote:

“Many players can kick a ball behind them without ever knowing it; Lonnie can judge by the pitch of the thud and the subtle pressure through his shoe in which direction and how far he has projected the sphere…. He knows exactly what to do when a ball spins out of his hand and flies crazily into a void on the field, when it is appropriate for him to scamper after a ball and when he needs to back up the man who will have to recover it. He has experience in these matters; when he retires he will be hired to come to spring training and coach defensive recovery and cost containment. This is his specialty, and he is good at it.”

Where the 1985 Abstract was heavy on technical essays, this one’s more about explaining what happens out on the field. It’s also the largest edition, at 340 pages.

The big new “stat” in this edition is Similarity Scores, to which James refers in several places after a fairly substantial introductory essay at the front of the book. Secondary Average also makes its first appearance in this book. The front also includes an examination of the Hall of Fame chances of the best active-in-1985 players. The usual disclaimers apply: “Standards” change, and many of the careers he discusses weren’t over. It’s interesting reading, especially since we know how things actually worked out for virtually everyone he mentions.

There’s some neat stuff in the team essays. The Blue Jays article begins with a discussion of how the information available shapes an analyst’s research, and ultimately his interests. Bill developed his interest in how teams work because he didn’t have the play-by-play data necessary to fully investigate player skills and habits; Craig Wright was similarly handicapped, despite his employer’s (the Rangers) interest in day-to-day baseball issues. Project Scoresheet, Bill knows, will change the face of sabermetrics. (That has indeed happened, though it took Pitch F/X and Retrosheet to make everything available; the real glory years for this sort of analysis seem to be just beginning.)

The Brewers essay contains the observation that County Stadium remained fundamentally unchanged for three decades. Perhaps that fact could be used to investigate the changing playing environment. He proceeds to do so.

The Cincinnati essay questions the value of statistical splits (they all have sample size issues), then investigates the most statistically significant splits. It’s probably fair to point out that Bill started out by sharing split data with the rest of us.

The Atlanta essay discusses the team’s collapse in terms of the meaning of Free Agency, and how that led to Collusion. Some truth here. But dated. (I note that there are clues here that show Bill’s not quite as much a baseball outsider as he claims.)

And the Giants essay has some interesting things to say about how lineups are constructed. This is perhaps the most valuable team essay, though it’s quite short.

The player comments are better than Bill’s norm, though it remains clear that he’s not really interested in this. Rankings were done by Project Scoresheet volunteers; there’s an interesting discussion about how that worked on pages 258 and 259. For every wonderful Lonnie Smith essay there are paragraphs on the order of “Secondary average was .440; career mark is over .360.” (Darrell Evans, as it happens.) For the first time, Bill gives us useful pitcher comments, which is probably a gain.

At the back of the book, Bill picks All-Star teams for each age (that is, the best seasons by 18-year-olds, 27-year-olds, 32-year-olds, etc.) He selects 8 or 9 position players, 5 pitchers, and lists others he might have chosen; there’s also information about the progress of career records by several methods. Interesting to look at.

There’s also another essay, by Tim Marcou, about Range Factor (RF/9, actually). And of course there’s the usual glossary at the end.

Good book. Perhaps the best edition in the set.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers: a short review

This is a largely descriptive, extremely chronological examination of the evolution of managerial roles, and of tactical and strategic developments, over the history of professional baseball. Each decade gets a chapter; each chapter consists of an overview, detailed portraits of a handful of historically-important managers, anecdotes about interesting events, and an occasional topical essay.

Around mid-book there’s an excellent essay about the ways we might compare managers, and of the pitfalls inherent in trying to do so. Late in the book there’s an essay about the statistical information which might be used to describe a manager’s career. Other essays discuss use of the sacrifice bunt, evolution of relief pitching, and similar issues.

All in all, a valuable book.

This short review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History:

Bill James’ Baseball Abstract 1985: a review

As James notes near the end of the book, this edition of the Abstract is the most technical book he’d produced to date. 1985 is the year Bill brought Major League Equivalencies of minor league players into Sabermetric discourse; comments are scattered throughout the text but the key discussion’s in the Dodgers section. Several of the team writeups were composed by Project Scoresheet participants, which lent some variety; in all cases, Bill added come critical comments. Strangely, Jim Baker seems not to have written any of the book, though he was still in James’ employ and is credited for some of the quoted research.

The Tigers essay begins with a (to me) unconvincing discussion of the differences between statistical significance and baseball significance; Phil Birnbaum handles the issue far better on his website, these days. The rest of the section about the World Champions is devoted to comparing them to teams who’d had similar seasons. In retrospect, he probably had this about right.

Every year it’s clearer that James doesn’t much like doing player comments, and that he’s got little to say about individual pitchers. That’s OK, but it ties up pages he could likely have used more constructively. However: The longest player essay’s on Jim Rice, where Bill comes close to retracting all his previous claims that Rice was an obvious Hall of Fame player. An interesting turnaround. Context, Bill’s decided, is more important than he’d previously thought.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.

Revision History: