The 1987 Elias Baseball Analyst by Seymour Siwoff, Steve Hirdt, & Peter Hirdt: a review

This edition’s best line is a footnote on page 24: “1981 always has an asterisk next to it.” If you read this sort of book, you know that’s true.

There’s nothing real exciting in the 1987 Analyst. This book adds a new section, about ballparks and ballpark tendencies; these include a lot of information which could pretty easily be converted to ballpark factors as others use them. The authors do nothing of the sort; they merely note that others are doing so, and devote half of the Cubs essay to demonstrating that no team seems to be acting on that information. To be fair, they devote the other half of the chapter to discussing a way the Cubbies could exploit the park’s quirks.

Not to say that there’s nothing worth reading: The White Sox essay compares LaRussa’s lineup construction to Fregosi’s, then moves into a discussion of the types of lineups which generate big innings. The Brewers discussion brings an explication of clutch hitting which is a bit more convincing than these authors’ previous effort, since it reveals something of their methodology; what they don’t convince me is that clutch hitters are particularly important. While much of the Twins essay is a rant about mis-perceptions about the dome’s effects on home runs, there’s also a nice appreciation of Bert Blyleven–while Clemens’ MVP selection gives them reason to evaluate the value of a pitcher in the Red Sox section. The Seattle essay explores Dick Williams’ methods in ways which complement Bill James’ similar discussion in his 1987 Abstract; this develops into a more general discussion of managerial impact which is worth reading. The Jays give the authors an opportunity to discourse on the effects turf surfaces have on the game.

The Braves essay explores the existence of streaky hitters, and concludes they’re a myth; in method and tone this could have been a Bill James project. They discuss the Met’s pattern of annual improvement, and point out that rarely does a pennant winner subsequently pick up a player of Kevin McReynolds’ ability. The Pirates essay is another Bill James-like commentary, this time on incompetence; it includes a list of the worst teams, by season, in the majors (since 1900, of course, since no one cares about the 1800s). The Cards essay is an excellent piece about the value of “small ball,” though I’m not entirely convinced. And the Giants give them an opportunity to explore the causes of large seasonal improvements, and the prospects for the team in the future.

The best piece of research in the book is the Cleveland essay, where they discover that teams who win from far behind (rallies of five or more runs) are fairly likely to win the next game they play, but virtually certain to lose the fifth game after the comeback win. They offer, and dismiss, the pitching rotation as an explanation. This just screams for a followup study; I don’t know that it’s ever been done.

While the authors use a variety of study methods in this book, their preferred method is to compare team results with and without the player being studied. They use such methods to discuss the impact of Ozzie Smith’s fielding (3 wins, for what it’s worth; this essay’s full of digs at other analysts), the value of pitchers, of various catchers’ game-calling abilities, and (somewhat differently) the impact of managers on teams. While the method has pitfalls–most of which they note–they demonstrate that it has potential as an analytical tool.

Wish I could say as much for their faith in clutch hitting. They place far more emphasis on the way players react to late inning pressure (as they define that) than I would.

All in all, not this team’s best outing, but there’s enough value in here to justify reading the book.

This review was also published on LibraryThing.

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