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.

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

  1. Geoff BeckmanNo Gravatar says:

    The first book was the realization of a dream for a lot of people involved. We all thought we were on the verge of a major breakthrough in baseball analysis.

    This edition was a nightmare. Project Scoresheet tore itself to pieces during the 1987 season in the off-season. Alan Schwartz has a pretty good account of what happened in “The Numbers Game”. Many people had stopped talking to each other by the time this edition was printed.

    There were myriad reasons why the book was weaker.

    1. Bill James walked away from the organization during the infighting. I’m guessing (we never spoke about it) that he only worked on Book Two because Villard had signed a two-year deal on the assurance that Bill would play a key role in both books.

    The first book lost money; had Bill pulled out, Villard could have canceled the contract, demanded half their advance back and sued when we couldn’t produce it.

    For Book One, Bill had done an introduction, many of the AL West player essays and actively edited the writers, adding input and removing opinions he thought nuts. For this book, he (as he explained on page 187 of the 1988 Abstract) merely chose the best-written essay he had for the player and copy-edited it.

    2. John Dewan– who served as executive director AND editor of the first book– departed (eventually taking over STATS, Inc. and making millions with it).

    John (who, with his wife Sue, was doing almost all the administrative work) had to be replaced by two people who edited player essays in the first book. Don Zminda (the NL East editor) became book editor, while Gary Gillette (NL West) became executive director.

    Their replacements weren’t nearly as good at writing and editing.

    3. We’d gotten huge blowback from the writers when the first book came out. People were furious that editors (all of whom were professional writers) had cut, rewritten or supplemented their words. Some people had gotten every piece rejected.

    I still feel the editors were hired to produce the best book possible, by whatever means necessary. The guy who took over the AL West did not agree. He believed editors who made major changes to a piece were obligated to mail it back to the writer and ask him if he could accept the revisions. If the writer did not agree, the editor had only two options– run it as written or not use it. Since that wasn’t possible in the time frame, he made only minor edits.

    And the guy who replaced Gary as editor of the NL West was not merely a colossal homer (it shows up in all his pieces) but a guy who’d gotten revised heavily the previous year. He bragged that he had not treated anyone the way he had been treated.

    In short, 75% of the player essays were only as good as the writers made them.

    The guys who edited the team essays hadn’t worked on the last book and didn’t want to seem uppity by making too many edits. The general essays also weren’t edited.

    In the manager section, writers were given a fixed word limit and told only one piece would be used. But they ran everything submitted and didn’t cut a word. You can see who followed directions and who didn’t by counting column inches.

    4. Since the players essays had been the most popular part of Book One, we decided to do 13 per team (up from 10). But many teams (like Cleveland) didn’t have 13 players worth writing about.

    5. To eliminate arguments (and more hard feelings) about who “deserved” to be included, players were selected based on playing time, with every position needing to be covered. Every team’s writers was upset by the outcome. For my part:

    A. Tony Bernazard and Bert Blyleven were assigned to Cleveland even though they’d been traded in mid-year. Because he’d played a lot in 1987, we profiled Bernazard even though he’d been released by the A’s, couldn’t find a team that wanted to sign him and his career as a starter was over.

    B. To reduce the number of submissions, writers were told not to submit pieces about a player unless they had scored his team’s games. Because he’d been assigned to the Indians, Twins fans couldn’t profile Blyleven. But nobody in Cleveland wanted to write about a guy who’d spent the year griping– and blasted the team, city and he fans after he was traded.

    Had I had my druthers, the Indians’ profiles would have included Doug Jones, Jay Bell, Tommy Hinzo and John Farrell. Three of those profiles might have some value today. Instead I got stuck with Andy Allanson and Rich Yett– awful players having wretched years with no chance to succeed. I didn’t get a single submission on either.

    6. Noting the number of nasty letters about some of the profiles, Villard ‘suggested’ we hold the negative comments to a minimum. I still think that was stupid on their parts.

    7. Many of the best writers on the first book didn’t return. Some quit after the organizational rift; others didn’t like being edited. I felt Dennis Bretz’s pieces on the Angels were high points of Book One. But he was tired of all the arguing.

    8. The year before, John and his wife Sue had worked full-time on the book for months. With them gone, everything took longer. The first book had come out around opening day (two months later than a baseball book should) and this book came out even later. Villard lost a bundle and dropped us.

    Gary did try to publish a third edition after 1988 with himself as editor. Like almost everyone on the first two books, I’d quit by then, so I don’t know the details.

    But a friend (who contributed to it) said the book was still “in production” at the 1989 All-Star break, before the board voted to shut it down, and he made numerous comparisons to The Last Dangerous Visions.

  2. joelNo Gravatar says:

    Geoff:

    Thanks again for the commentary; it’s much appreciated. I was somewhat aware of the Project Scoresheet mess at the time and always assumed it had some impact on the book (and yes, Alan’s book is generally helpful).

    Generally speaking I agree with you about the book’s quality, and probably about the reasons. Everything you say about it seems to ring true. But there’s some value here, even if it’s just giving Nichols, Benson, and Hanke a platform.

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