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.