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Book Review: The Hardball Times Season Preview 2008

You already know about their website: it features some of the best baseball writers on the internets doing what they do. You already know about their baseball annual: it's more of the tremendous writing you can find on their website, only different and in book form. Now, we've got The Hardball Times Season Preview 2008, a companion piece to the regular annual, which is really a review of the prior season.

The regular THT annual is a must-own for the phenomenal baseball articles, nevermind the divisional recaps and stats galore. Is the Season Preview worth your hard-earned dough? Well, let's have a look at what we get.

The Preview clocks in at 238 pages, the vast majority of which is comprised of 30 team-specific write-ups. The team capsules are written using the "blank-in-a-box" style popularized by Bill James, which is a clever way to pack a lot of information into a small space, though the overall usefulness is probably something less than that of a full-blown treatise, a la the Baseball Prospectus annual.

Each team "box" features:

  • A runs scored/runs allowed projection for 2008
  • A short review of 2007
  • General team comments (strengths, weaknesses, GM tendencies, manager tendencies, ballpark, minor league system)
  • Notable team blogs (including this one!)
  • Keys for 2008 (losses, additions, good news, bad news, likely improvements, likely regressions)
  • Most likely outcome
After that we have batter and pitcher projections for every player likely to don that team's uniform in the coming season. These forecasts are based on a system developed by THT, the details of which -- aside from the fact that they used three years of data -- are not revealed. It isn't terribly surprising that the guts of the system aren't discussed; the casual reader probably wouldn't really care to read about them (perhaps fueled by a "what goes into a hot dog"-like aversion), but mostly because the exact formulas and data points used to derive most projection systems are simply not published. PECOTA has been around for years yet we know startlingly little about what really goes on behind that iron curtain.

Along with 2008 projections, each player is given a short comment, usually two-to-four sentences. It may not sound like much, but when you aggregate the notes for 30-some-odd players the result is a pretty robust team commentary. The Preview didn't go to press until after the Mets had acquired Johan Santana, so his projection and comments all appear (and are relative to) the Mets' section of the book. As with other baseball previews, a chunk of the content here is geared towards the fantasy baller. In addition to the normal stats, each projection line includes a recommended auction amount, a helpful guide if you're in a pinch and you're not sure whether to go to $40 for Jose Reyes or save some chips and settle for a Derek Jeter or Edgar Renteria.

Rounding out the book are a couple of articles ("Rookies to Watch in 2008" by Chris Constancio and "Projecting Career Statistics" by David Gassko), projected 2008 standings (woot, Mets in first!), and a John Burnson invention called "Star Maps", which is a pretty neat graphical (of course!) representation of every big league hitter's value relative to the "big three" of fantasy baseball: homeruns, stolen bases and batting average.

I would love to compare the THT season preview to the more established annual of Baseball Prospectus, but I didn't happen to buy the BP annual and nobody was kind enough to send one to me. Even if they had, I would still give The Hardball Times Season Preview 2008 a strong buy recommendation on its own marits. It has plenty of information about each team and player, and enough unique content to differentiate itself from the other preview volumes out there.

Some parting thoughts: though I dig the whole "team in a box" concept in general, at the very least I would like to see the verboseness of this particular paradigm expanded in future iterations of the annual. The chapters are penned by some of the great baseball writers out there, some from THT and others from baseball blogs around the web (including a handful from SBNation), and I would prefer to read more of what they do best, rather than have them constrained by the "box" format. I would also like to see one-to-three years of historical stats for each player, especially if I'm to use this as a fantasy baseball guide. The 2008 projections are great, but it would really help to be able to juxtapose those with each player's actual performance in recent seasons to get a more complete picture of someone I am thinking about drafting.