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Book Review: The Bill James Handbook 2008

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There are a lot of great things about the baseball offseason. Some of those things, in no particular order:
  1. More time to spend with family, friends and loved ones
  2. Woot, football!
  3. Umm.. the hot stove?
  4. Baseball annuals!
Every year, baseball authors and publishers toil away in dank, poorly-lit caves, carefully crafting compendiums of bountiful baseball beauty. What better way to reflect on the prior season's highlights and heartaches than with a top-notch baseball annual. The first annual to hit store shelves each year is the Bill James Handbook, (BJH) which typically becomes available at the beginning of November. How does Sir James get his annual out so quickly? Robot monkeys, I'm told.

The BJH really shines in the stats department. It is decidedly short on prose, but it makes up for it (to some extent, more on that later) with loads of stats, many of them unique to this volume. After the requisite acknowledgments and introduction, the BJH dives right into standings, won/loss matrices and team efficiency summaries, the latter of which are particularly interesting. Each team's runs created and expected runs allowed are compared to their actual runs scored and runs allowed to arrive at "efficiency" measurements -- expressed as a percentage of expected versus actual. The Mets were inefficient at scoring and preventing runs, clocking in at 95% and 97% efficiencies, respectively. Somewhat ironically, they won more games than they might have been expected to given their actual runs scored and allowed, so despite being inefficient in the two main areas that determine wins in and losses, they were marginally efficient at winning overall.

Next up are the Fielding Bible Awards, the BJH's version of the much-maligned gold gloves. You can check out the results of the awards here. Basically, the gist is that a panel of ten "experts" assign marks of one (highest) through ten (lowest) for players at each position. One award is given for each position regardless of league. No Mets took home the virtual hardware, though Carlos Beltran finished second in the center field voting to Andruw Jones. Beltran is vindicated in the plus/minus fielding section, as he narrowly edged Jones for that crown, technically the more objective of the two measures.

I have a love/hate relationship with the next section of the book, its largest by a good deal. As they did in the first four incarnations of the BJH, the editors included career registers for all active players. This means career batting statistics for any hitter who was in the league in 2007 and pitching statistics for any pitcher who was un-retired in 2007. It's an incredible collection of numbers, and it can certainly come in plenty handy if you need to look something up and aren't within arm's reach of a computer. That being said, 265 of the book's 482 pages are consumed by the career registers, and given the utter availability of internet access I can't help but wonder if their inclusion is a bit superfluous.

Following the career registers are the 2007 basic fielding stats for every player in the league. Again, it's a nice thing to have if your intertubes go down, but otherwise there is nothing here that you can't find at ESPN.com or elsewhere.

Enough complaining and onto some more good stuff. The BJH includes player baserunning tables that feature far more than your standard stolen bases and caught stealing. For every big leaguer we get detailed baserunning data that clearly illustrate who the good -- and the bad -- baserunners are. We get 1st-to-3rd, 2nd-to-Home, and 1st-to-Home, plus extra bases taken, outs committed on advancing, times doubled off, and aggregate plus/minus ratings for each player. I talked about this particular section back in November, so refer to that post for more information on these fun stats and their specific methodologies. In addition to individual player baserunning measurements we also get those same metrics at the team level

Next we've got a neat little section called "Pitchers Hitting, Fielding and Holding Runners" and "Hitters Pitching", which are collection of data not normally (or easily) found within typical baseball stat pages. Apparently Aaron Miles pitched two innings spanning two appearances, allowing a couple of runs on three hits.

Next (getting a little tired of that particular noun) are "Manufactured Runs" is an effort to quantify that portion of run scoring that happens incrementally and without the customary benefit of extra-base hits. Or, in some cases, any hits. BJH defines a manufactured run as one that includes at least two non-hit, non-walk bases. In other words, if a runner scores and only two (or fewer) of the four bases he covered came as a result of a walk or a hit (by himself or a teammate), we consider that a manufactured run. Stolen bases, wild pitches, ground outs, fly outs, etc. all contribute to manufactured runs. Unlike Buster Olney's ill-fated Productive Out Percentage from a few years back, BJH isn't claiming that manufactured runs are nearly as important as their non-manufactured counterparts. We are just trying to get a handle on how these runs score and who is good (and who is bad) at scoring them.

"Manager's Record" is another fun section, which gives a snapshot of managerial tendencies such as lineup variance, pinch hitting/running, pitching changes, allowing starts to go deep into games, and even such minutia as the results of intentional walks. As James himself points out in the introduction to the section, the purpose of including this information isn't to determine which managers are good and which aren't, but rather to "understand better how one manager is functionally different from another.".

BJH also includes park factors for 2007 as well as three-year factors for 2005-2007. In addition to the customary factors for runs, homeruns, etc., we also get platoon factors -- LHB and RHB -- for batting average and homeruns. This helps to differentiate between a good homerun park and one that *looks* good but actually just greatly inflates homeruns for one type of batter and not another. For instance, PNC Park in Pittsburgh has an overall homerun factor of 79, meaning that it suppresses homeruns by 21%. The platoon splits tell us that PNC has a homerun factor of 107 for left-handed batters and 66 (!) for right-handed batters.

Speaking of platoon splits, BJH includes lefty/righty splits for every batter and pitcher in baseball for 2007.

League leaderboards are up next, and in addition to having pedestrian rankings of RBI and homeruns, amongst others, we get into some great lists that are exclusive (to my knowledge) to the BJH. Some tidbits:

  • Grady Sizemore led the AL with 3,112 total pitches seen.
  • Ryan Braun led the NL with a 1.306 OPS on curveballs.
  • Barry Bonds led the NL with 67.2% of his pitches taken.
  • Scott Thorman had the longest average homerun in the NL at 409 feet.
  • Ryan Howard led the NL by swinging and missing at 25% of the pitches he saw.
  • Greg Maddux led the NL by throwing 57.6% of his pitches for strikes.
  • Matt Morris led the NL with 1,550 pitches that were slower than 80 MPH.
  • Matt Lindstrom led the NL with 9 pitches over 100 MPH.
  • Tom Glavine led the NL with by throwing changeups on 44.1% of his pitches.
  • Brandon Webb led the NL with a .251 OBP against versus batters leading of an inning.
We also get career win shares for all active players, which makes for a handy reference.

The "Young Talent Inventory" is basically a Top-50 young players in baseball, or the proverbial "guys you would start a franchise with". This section also represents the only significant bit of writing that Bill James contributed to the handbook, which is a shame. The Baseball Abstracts, aside from being groundbreaking with respect to the information they presented, also represent some of the best baseball writing you'll find. James has a very readable, humorous style to his writing that I really enjoy, and the fact that an annual bearing his name features just one entry of considerable breadth is disappointing, to say the least.

That said, the "Young Talent Inventory" is a very interesting read, and includes David Wright at #4 and Jose Reyes at #7.

The BJH is rounded out with 2008 batter and pitcher projections, something called "Career Targets" (which replaced James's Favorite Toy), and a very useful and verbose glossary of terms.

Overall, BJH2008 is a very solid pickup for around $20. It makes a great stocking-stuffer this time of year, and despite the fact that it seems to have less and less to do with Bill James with each passing year, it is still one of the few must-own baseball annuals of the offseason.

Other Reviews
Baseball Analysts Part I, Part II