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.

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1 Response to The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1986: a review

  1. Bill Dawson says:

    I agree about James’ take on Lonnie Smith’s fielding. In fact, I showed it to a sports editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune, where I worked from 1995 to 2004. I said, “This is great writing, don’t you think?” The editor gave a “meh” response. But I loved it, and still do. Great description, and funny, too.

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