My library contains a whole lot of books which use statistics to analyze baseball. A brief history is in order:
While there was earlier work in the field, modern baseball analysis (often called sabermetrics) is usually described as beginning with Bill James’ self-published 1977 Baseball Abstract. In 1982 Ballantine became Bill’s publisher, and his audience expanded enormously. Over the next few years, as it became clear that there was an audience for such analysis, Bill developed rivals, and then successors. The eighties also saw a several one-off sabermetric treatises by other writers. For a number of reasons the publishing field for such books largely collapsed around 1990, when the discussion moved to the big Encyclopedias and to internet forums. There has since been a resurgence in this publishing genre, but nowadays the best baseball analysis is mainly published on the web.
Anyway, I’ve lately been rereading the early sabermetric work. This includes a project to (re)read all of the various annuals in chronological succession, and a separate project to reread the standalone pioneering and classic works.
Which brings us the the 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst. For context, let’s start by referring you to this recent Rob Neyer posting on the SBN website. It’s a fair indication of the poisonous relationship Bill James had with the Elias Sports Bureau. I, like Rob, think there’s cause for distrust on both sides. Maybe, though, it’s time they made peace.
Back to the book review: First off, the book’s OK, and reasonably interesting (even now) to the serious fan. There’s a lot of numbers, including some which were not (then) generally available. There are team essays, some of which offer valuable insights. Some of the discussion’s funny; I particularly liked “Randy Ready wasn’t” as a succinct summary of Randy’s 1984 season with the Brewers. The player summaries, while far less entertaining than James’, are quite informative statistically. On the whole, I enjoyed the reread.
But it’s a shallow book. There’s not much analysis, despite the title. You can sometimes see that real analysis has been done, but the authors hide the work. The clear attitude is “Take our word for it, we’ve crunched the numbers.” Lots of us aren’t happy with that sort of presentation; but hey, it’s their book, they can do that if they want. But saying we can’t complain about it is a little unreasonable. Show me that your two-tiered clutch hitting analysis is more useful than Dick Cramer’s more nuanced method. I expect I could probably defend the two-tier approach, but your posted results really don’t demonstrate anything I’d call convincing. Show me that Assists/9 Innings is more informative way to measure fielding than Range Factor.
The fielding discussion is in the Astros essay, under the subtitle A Few (Unkind) Words About “Range Factor.” RF’s one of Bill’s key statistics. Elias takes issue with James, and offers three arguments. First: The stat’s context-impaired (conceded; Bill actually addressed that in the 1985 Abstract, but I’ll give you a pass on a book you’d not seen–and point out that your alternative probably has the same issue). Second: Assists alone are more informative than assists plus putouts (a difference of opinion, and probably not an important one). Third: Elias had better data (play-by-play) than Bill James (box scores), so their by-inning breakouts are more accurate (again, conceded; that’s why Bill started Project Scoresheet). This is childish stuff, guys. To my eye your 1984 NL shortstop fielding ranking isn’t enough different from that in the 1985 Abstract to make a case that you’ve improved on James. Finally: When you’re explicitly taking issue with someone else, ‘twould be really nice if you’d present the other side’s data so we can easily compare. Similarly, since you mock Bill’s factors for Cal Ripken (5.43) and Rafael Santana (3.92), ‘twould have been nice if you’d given us yours.
The Analyst‘s biggest problem, though, is that it’s obviously a reaction to James’ Abstracts. They look alike. They’re similarly organized. They discuss pretty much the same topics. And every now and then there’s a dig–some less subtle than others–at Bill’s analysis. Look, folks, we really don’t care what you think of Bill James. Tell us what you know about baseball, and let us make our own judgments.
One last point: I realize James was partly to blame for the poisonous relationship; he’s got an acid pen. But his frustrations with Elias had causes, and they were generally justified. They had an information monopoly for several decades, and acted like a monopoly when challenged.
This review was originally published on LibraryThing.