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Book Review: The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2008

Every offseason, publishers far and wide churn out baseball annuals. By my count, roughly 384* annual baseball books come out every year, a handful of which are actually worth buying. One of them is The Bill James Handbook. Another is The Hardball Times Annual, which is actually my favorite perennial baseball publication. Every annual has a handy assortment of stats and charts, but the good folks at The Hardball Times distinguish their work from the pack with an unrivaled collection of original baseball writing which I will cover in greater detail later on.

The THT annual is broken down into four sections:

  1. The 2007 Season
  2. 2007 Commentary
  3. History
  4. Analysis
  5. Statistics
Section 1: The 2007 Season

Dave Studenmund, who basically took the THT reigns following Aaron Gleeman's defection to NBC Sports, gets things rolling with a one-page introductory letter and an article entitled "Ten Things I Learned This Year", the latter of which has become a regular feature of the THT annual. From there we launch into divisional reviews of the 2007 season where THT regular John Walsh tackles the NL East, the results of which nobody here would likely care to revisit. Ever.

The divisional summaries are well-written, though each is only a few pages long so you won't necessarily find the detail that team-based summaries might provide. Nevertheless, if you decide a few years from now to revisit what happened in 2007, this section will give you a solid high-level synopsis of the goings-on.

Section 2: 2007 Commentary

Here's where the fun really starts, and where we begin to see the THT annual distance itself from nearly every other annual out there. The internet is a phenomenal resource for baseball statistics, and the need for up-to-date statistical tomes this time of year is no longer a priority. As a result, I find that the books that offer something different -- either more written analysis and commentary or statistics presented in a unique way -- are the ones I keep coming back to. In that respect, the THT annual is second to none. The writing here is unrivaled in both its quantity and its quality, and that's where you'll spend most of your time with this one.

As with the first section, Dave kicks the commentary section off with a neat article on WPA (Win Probability Added), or what Studes calls "The Story Stat". That particular nickname derives from WPA's unique ability to narrate a game play-by-play after the fact, as opposed to just reiterating the cold endgame (not that I don't love me some cold endgame, too). As Dave sums it up:

Imagine a statistic that captures the drama of a game, play by play. Imagine a stat that allows us to quantify the current status of a game, and the importance of a situation. Imagine a statistic that assesses the true impact of a play's outcome, based on what we know of the game at that moment.
Studenmund then looks at several of 2007's more compelling stories -- including the Mets' September collapse -- through the prism of WPA.

Next up is a tabloid-style recap of the 2007 season by Deadspin's Will Leitch, a recap of the season's homeruns by David Vincent, and an article called "Championship Hangover" about the Cardinals' season by Brian Gunn.

The following articles round out the commentary section:

  • "The Year of the Improbable in Seattle" by David Cameron recaps the Mariners' surprising surge towards the playoffs that ultimately fell short but left Seattlites with some optimism about the state of their sinking ship that is hopelessly helmed by Bill Bavasi franchise.
  • "The Top Minor League Prospects" by Chris Constancio of FirstInning is a positional breakdown of some of the game's best minor leaguers. Fernando Martinez is the only Met farmhand included.
  • "The Business of Baseball Report" by Brian Borawski continues to be one of my favorite features of the annual, as well as of the THT website. Along with Maury Brown of The Biz of Baseball, Brian consistently writes interesting and readable articles about the business side of our favorite sport. In this edition he touches on stadium deals, teams for sale, the cable vs satellite entanglement of last Spring, MLB's continued penetration into international markets, and much more.
  • "Fantasy Baseball: Thinking Ahead" by Derek Carty takes an overvalued/undervalued look at some of this year's more interesting fantasy baseball picks.
  • "The Growing Game Abroad, The Changing Game at Home" by Jonathan Helfgott looks at the development of the game of baseball in various areas of the world. His insight into the often cutthroat world of baseball scouting and representation in the Dominican Republic is especially enlightening.
  • "GM in a Box: Dave Dombrowski" by Bill Ferris dissects the Tigers' general manager and his approach to organizational management. Nothing specific about him trying to pawn Bobby Higginson onto the Mets all those times.
Section 3: History

More great articles, bullet style:

  • "The Months of 2007 in History" by Richard Barbieri analyzes one fairly significant baseball event from each month since the prior annual (November 2006 through October 2007. The Mets' announcement of the naming rights to Citi Field is the featured event for November 2006. The deal is worth $400 million over 20 years (assuming Citigroup can still foot the bill come 2009, let alone 2028), the most lucrative naming deal in baseball history.
  • "The Decline and Fall of the MLBPA" by John Brattain is a wonderful chronology of the MLBPA, and includes early attempts and player unionization, the actual realization of the players' union, and the diminishing clout of the union over the past few years. I'm a big fan of Brattain's work at The Hardball Times, Sympatico/MSN Sports as well as his blog. This one's a must-read.
  • "Manager Grinders and Boppers" by Chris Jaffe looks at the relative small ball tendencies of managers through the years.
  • "Billy Southworth ... in a Box" by Jon Daly is a breakdown of the managerial styles of Southworth, manager of the Browns and the Braves in the first half of the twentieth century.
Section 4: Analysis

Still more great articles.

  • "Signals and Noise" by Mitchel Lichtman, aka MGL, projects 2007 team winning percentages based on actual 2007 playing time. The result is a comparison of actual records to expected records which perhaps illustrates which teams might have played better than they appeared to (Yankees, Royals, Giants) or worse (White Sox, Cardinals, Mariners, Diamondbacks).
  • "The Best Fielding Teams of 2007" by John Dewan uses the plus/minus defensive system that Dewan introduced in The Fielding Bible a couple of years ago to break down the defensive prowesses (or lack thereof) of every team. The Mets were second overall in team defense, buoyed by the tremendous outfield duo of Carlos Beltran and Endy Chavez.
  • "A Random Walk Through a Markov Model in 2007" by John Beamer uses Markov chains to calculate expected performance relative to actual performance. Markov models are very useful for analyzing problems that contain distinct states. In baseball's case, we have 24 distinct base-out states, or combinations of outs in an inning and base occupancy. Knowing the particular state at a given time, as well as the historical outcomes of teams in that particular state, we can tell the probability of specific events happening (e.g. runs scoring, teams winning, etc.). Markov models are the basis for WPA.
  • "Mr. Clutch" by Bill James is an interesting lesson in how we (read: Bill James) might go about answering a particular question about baseball. In this case, the question deals with the existence of clutch hitting. What follows is the Jamesian approach to the study of baseball, and is really quite fascinating. If you want to know why Bill James is as revered as he is, read this article (or any of the Baseball Abstracts).
  • "With or Without You" by Tom M. Tango attempts to assign responsibility (read: blame) for the results of non-batter events like passed balls, stolen bases, wild pitches, and more. Definitely an interesting take on a subject that hasn't been covered very much.
  • "With or Without ... Derek Jeter", also by Tom Tango, adds to the growing library of evidence that continues to suggest that, despite what Tim McCarver claims to see with his own eyes, Jeter is very, very bad at converting batted balls into outs.
  • "The Dollar Value of Player Development" by Vince Gennaro looks at the importance of player development in the context of the overall goal of building a successful franchise. Good stuff here.
  • "Do Managers Matter?" by David Gassko attempts to quantify the seemingly unquantifiable: What does a manager add/subtract to the performance of a team in terms of wins and losses.
  • "The Origin of the Platoon Advantage" by John Walsh finds that fastballs and sliders -- off-speed pitches like the curveball and changeup -- lead to the greatest platoon splits.
  • "Of Home Runs and Free Agents" by Greg Rybarczyk is a breakdown of 2007's homeruns by the proprietor of Hit Tracker.
Section 5: Statistics

We have team stats, league leaderboards, and individual player stats organized by team. We get batted ball type percentages, FIP, batting runs, and much more. Most of it is available in some form or another via THT's website, but it's nice to have it all in one handy volume that can be plucked from your bookshelf at a moment's notice.

Wrapping It Up

Hopefully this turned out to be a pretty comprehensive look at the 2008 THT annual. If you like baseball annuals but can't decide which one (or three) to get, definitely put this one at or near the top of your list. All of the annuals have stats, and THT's is no exception. Where this book really shines is in the writing, the commentary and analysis by some of the best and most innovative baseball writers around. All of the articles here are exclusive to the book; none of them can be found on THT's website. If you do decide to pick up a copy for yourself, please consider buying it directly from ACTA Sports. It'll cost you a few bucks more than Amazon, but buying it from the publisher ensures that the folks that made this book possible get the most out of your purchase.

* wild guess, probably wrong