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.

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