Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Stat Book (1988) edited by Don Zminda and Project Scoresheet

My review of the first book in this series set attracted a note from Geoff Beckman, who helped edit both editions. It would likely be worth your while to read Geoff’s comments before reading on….

Geoff considers this the weaker volume, and on the whole he’s right, as it lacks the zing of the initial edition. There were 338 player essays (up from 240), but on the whole they’re less interesting. Too many read like spring training player profiles, emphasizing the player’s tools and potentials while downplaying his demonstrated weaknesses. This is not meant to imply that the essays are all bad. For instance, principal editor Zminda portrayed a stubborn and still-valuable Carlton Fisk on a Chicago team that didn’t much like him. Craig Wright’s commentary on Bret Saberhagen gives clues about the value Wright provided the Rangers as an early professional sabermetrician. Beckman’s own Mel Hall essay used six methods to frame Hall’s value and is absolutely delightful. Mike Kopf made an effort to get into Bo Jackson’s head. And Susan Nelson offered a fine look at Dennis Eckersley in transition from starter to reliever.

Nelson’s Eck portrait, in fact, illustrates the book’s unplanned theme: In 1987 baseball’s pitcher usage was in transition as most managers had largely abandoned the four man rotation and were retreating from their long-held preference that starting pitchers finish ballgames. In retrospect it’s pretty clear that the late eighties were a turning point, formalizing long-developing pitcher usage patterns in ways that few would have anticipated.

The second edition of the book added team essays, which were uniformly forgettable. These were followed by a set of truly interesting, but unsystematic, manager essays. For this reader, these justify the book’s existence.

There’s some worthwhile stuff in the back of the book. Gary Gillette–or perhaps the scoresheet project in general–offered some interesting measures of defensive ability, reworking range factor to measure opportunities more precisely. I’m not sure whether anyone followed up on this effort, but it’s certainly interesting. I’d like to see more work along these lines.

Gillette and Dave Nichols did something similar with base runners, measuring steals in terms of opportunities rather than attempts. This, too, seems to be a one-off effort, and again it would be interesting to see further work in this vein. The same authors also took a brief look at baserunner advancement on hits, not offering much analysis but presenting a few tables.

Mark Pankin followed up on his discussion, in the previous edition, on Markov Chain Analysis, mostly presenting better data but not really extending the earlier essay. Matthew Lieff and Gary Skoog considered a similar, but less calculation-intensive, approach to using the same data to examine the effectiveness of in-game strategies.

In other end-of-book essays, David Gordon looked at Quality Starts and found them meaningful. In contrast, Merrianna McCully offered scads of data about the weakness of contemporary pitching–a piece that I’d characterize as more entertaining than informative. And Brock Hanke described Whitey Herzog’s playing career, and pondered how it shaped the Cardinals organization when he became the team’s GM. The Hanke essay was a good preview of the work he’d later do elsewhere. It was also the book’s only piece I still remembered when re-reading 25 years later.

This was the first time I saw Hanke’s name in print. The same is true of several of the book’s other contributors: John Benson, Sherri Nichols, Stuart Shea, and Sean Lahman come quickly to mind. (Tom Tippett was there, too, as one of the project’s programmers.) Just bringing these folks (and Pankin, in the previous edition) to my attention is plenty of justification for the effort.

This was the last GABSB produced in this guise, though Gary Gillette would resurrect the title for another project a few years later. It was certainly a worthwhile experiment, but apparently wasn’t sustainable.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.