Abstracts From The Abstracts
Part Six: 1982 Baseball Abstract
The Bill James Baseball Abstract took a major step forward in 1982 when Ballantine Books won a bidding war to publish "The One Book All Real Baseball Fans Must Have!" The price of the soft-cover, 213-page book was $5.95 in the USA and $7.25 in Canada.
The Baseball Abstracts had been self-published by James the previous five years. Interestingly, the 1982 edition was the first that included "Bill James" in the title of the book. James' name didn't even appear on an Abstract cover until 1979 and only then as the author.
The use of color on the cover was also a first. Auguste Rodin's The Thinker sits atop a baseball with the caption, "The thinking man's guide to baseball" in red script. The book also features a testimonial--"James finds things in statistics that most people don't know are there!"--from a Sports Illustrated article written by Daniel Okrent the previous year.
Okrent's piece in SI essentially introduced James and his brand of sabermetrics to a segment of the baseball fan base that was hungry for more (and better) statistics and analysis. James credits Okrent, one of the original 75 owners of the 1977 Baseball Abstract, with developing "an affection for my work, an affection which he has worked very hard to share with the world at large."
Okrent was also one of the founding fathers of Rotisserie Baseball in 1980. The birth and subsequent growth of rotisserie and fantasy baseball helped propel James' Baseball Abstracts from a cottage industry into national bestsellers despite appealing to a market that was originally considered too narrow for such commercial success.
In addition to Okrent, James acknowledges his wife Susie (for whom the book is dedicated) and his father George (among others). The Introduction on page three replaces the "Dear Reader" letter, which James wrote each year from the second edition in 1978 through the last of his self-published books in 1981.
If you sometimes get the feeling between here and the back cover that you are coming in on the middle of a discussion, it is because you are. This is the sixth annual edition of a book which throughout its first five years has been read by a number of people who could congregate peacefully in the restrooms in the left field bleachers in Yankee Stadium.
The 1982 Abstract is divided into five parts, namely The Baseball Abstract and Sabermetrics, Team Comments, Player Ratings and Comments, The Game, and Not of Any General Interest.
Each of those five is divided into dozens or hundreds of smaller parts, every one of which is related in one way or another to every other. It traces a circuit among the 26 teams and among several hundred players and among thousands of issues, and around that circuit there is no natural beginning or end. For that reason, the book can be read backward or forward or at random.
In the opening chapter, entitled "Pesky/Stuart: Understanding Offensive Statistics," James discusses the concept of runs created and offers the simplest version of the formula he first introduced in the 1979 edition:
(HITS + WALKS) (TOTAL BASES)
AT BATS + WALKS
It looks so simple that you think it can't possibly work, but it does. 99.9% of the illions of offensive rating indices which are proposed yearly are more sophisticated, more complex and intricate, than this spare 4-element don't-need-no-college-arithmetic-to-understand-it-formula, and 99.8% of them are also less accurate.
When applying the formula to estimate the runs created by a league, it is usually within 1% and almost always within 2%...When dealing with teams, the formula is usually accurate within 3%...When dealing with players, we can only speculate as to what the standard error might be, since we have no independent way of knowing how many runs each player has created. When teams are figured as a sequence of individuals, however, the results seem to be about as accurate as the team estimates shown before.
The standards in runs created are very similar to the standards in runs scored or runs batted in; indeed, individual totals of runs created are usually close to the player's runs scored and RBI counts...A player who creates 100 runs in a season, like a player who scores 100 or drives in 100, is a very good hitter.
James explains that hits plus walks represents the player's ability to get on base, total bases his ability to advance baserunners, and at bats plus walks the number of opportunities. He expresses the runs created formula in three other ways:
Runs = (On Base Percentage) x (Total Bases) or
Runs = (Advancement Percentage) x (Number of Times on Base) where advancement percentage is total bases divided by plate appearances, or
Runs = (On Base Percentage) x (Slugging Percentage) x (At Bats)
Graph courtesy of Studes, Baseball Graphs and The Hardball Times.
James proceeds to compare and contrast Johnny Pesky and Dick Stuart, who regularly debated which of the two was the better hitter "at great length and full volume" on the Red Sox team bus during the early '60s. He concludes that the high-OBP Pesky and the high-SLG Stuart "were arguing about nothing."
There isn't a dime's worth of difference between them. In his three best years, Pesky created 299 runs; in his three best years, Stuart created 300. Pesky did this while using 1,257 outs, Stuart while using 1,259.
Pesky had all three of his good years in Fenway Park; Stuart two of his three in the same park. Pesky may have been a better ballplayer because he was a decent shortstop, whereas Stuart was a first baseman and a terrible one...But that isn't what the argument was about. As hitters, the only thing to choose between is the needs of the team. If you were leaving people on base, you'd need Stuart; it you were having trouble getting on base, you'd need Pesky.
In chapter two, "The Tool Shack," James discusses opposition stolen bases by catchers and starting pitchers. He highlights Gary Carter because his OSB totals "have been outstanding"; John Candelaria as the pitcher "most consistently effective at cutting off the running game"; and Jim Bibby, a teammate of Candelaria's since 1978, who "has truly terrible OSB records."
James points out that the lists of league leaders in fewest stolen bases allowed have been dominated by left-handed pitchers while the lists of league leaders in most OSB have been dominated by right-handed power pitchers.
The number of bases that are stolen against a pitcher will be proportional to the number of pitches that it takes him to dispose of a batter. A pitcher who throws a lot of balls and a lot of strikes, a pitcher with a high strikeout and walk totals, will almost always be victimized by a large number of opposition stolen bases. The reason, I believe, is deceptively simple: he gives the runner more pitches to go on.
Joe Morgan's analysis has been mocked for years but how many of his critics realize that James may have been the first one to expose him?
Another thing that you hear sometimes--I think this is a Joe Morgan original--is that a left-handed pitcher is easier to run on than a righthander because the baserunner gets to watch a lefthander better. This is one of those things which people say in part to counteract the natural assumption that the opposite is true. People say that the lefthander is easier to run on when what they mean is that he is not as much harder to run on as you might think.
James also brings his new readers up to speed on The Pythagorean Method, Offensive Wins and Losses, The Value Approximation Method, and The Favorite Toy. I have covered all of these other than Offensive Wins and Losses in the prior reviews. James creates an offensive won and lost record for each player by combining the Pythagorean and runs created formuals as follows:
(Runs Created/Game)2+(League Runs/Game)2
In "Making Sense of Numbers," James gives a wonderful description of baseball statistics as a form of language.
Suppose that you see the number 48 in a player's home run column...Do you think about 48 cents or 48 soldiers or 48 sheep jumping over a fence? Absolutely not. You think about Harmon Killebrew, about Mike Schmidt, about Ted Kluszewski, about Gorman Thomas. You think about power.
In this way, the number 48 functions not as a number, as a count of something, but as a word, to suggest meaning. The existence of universally recognized standards--.300, 100 RBI, 20 wins, 30 homers--plus the daily lists of league leaders and the weekly summary of everybody, transmogrifies the lines of statistics into a peculiar, precise form of language. We all know what .312 means. We all know what 12 triples means, and what 0 triples means. We know what 0 triples means when it is combined with 0 home runs (slap hitter, chokes up and punches), and we know what it means when it is combined with 41 home runs (uppercuts, holds the bat at the knob, can't run and doesn't need to).
There are many sabermetricians--myself included--who can improve their writing and analysis by heeding the following words of wisdom:
What is disturbing to some people about sabermetrics is that in sabermetrics we use the numbers as numbers. We add them together; we multiply and divide them. Rather than saying that Gunzie Bushcracker is a .300 hitter as a way of saying that Gunzie is a good ballplayer, we say that he is a .304 hitter and that the measurable impact of this is ... [the ellipsis marks are James' and not mine and are meant as a way to "fill in the blank"] In using the numbers in the way that we do, in adjusting them for whatever influences them unfairly, in restating them in unfamiliar forms in which they retain no standards, we rob them of their traditional meaning. Sabermetricians often aggravate this problem by dismissing as meaningless the traditional reference points, so as to emphasize the need for their new methods. It is not surprising that this is disorienting and sometimes irritating to baseball fans who love the numbers as words.
James elaborates on The Defensive Spectrum (shown below) in more detail than ever before.
DH | 1B | LF | RF | 3B | CF | 2B | SS
As a player grows older, and in certain other cases, he tends to be shifted leftward along this spectrum. Sometimes he moves in dramatic leaps, like Ernie Banks, a shortstop one year and a first baseman the next, or Rod Carew, from second to first. Sometimes he crawls unevenly along the spectrum, like Pete Rose. Sometimes, like Willie Mays, the only movement in a player's career is within the area covered by one position; that is, the player moves gradually from being a center fielder who has outstanding range to being a center fielder with very little range. But always he moves leftward, never right. Can you name one aging first baseman who has been shifted to second base or shortstop to keep his bat in the lineup?
James concedes that certain young players whose position-specific skills are either undeveloped or under-utilized can move rightward but notes these shifts are always dangerous and often disastrous. He also points out the implications of the leftward drift in building a ballclub, including the need "to allow the talent at the left end of the spectrum to take care of itself, as it will, and to worry first about the right end."
At the end of Part I, James takes a jab at people who "analyze" the game of baseball by correlating anything with everything and running regression analyses "till hell wouldn't have it."
If it is done with intelligence, it becomes the equivalent of kicking the television set vigorously. If it is done with persistence, it becomes the equivalent of kicking the television set repeatedly. If your TV goes on the blink at a crucial moment, you may derive a certain amount of gratification from kicking it; if baseball mystifies you, you may derive some satisfaction out of correlating things willy-nilly, running regression analyses and making up more and more ways to rate the hitters. But it is not going to fix the television set. Unless you get unusually lucky.
The Team Comments in Part II contain a lot of information presented in the 1977-1981 Abstracts, much of which I have covered in the reviews to date. James provides team and individual player statistics in this section but nothing that is particularly groundbreaking. One noteworthy item in the Oakland A's discussion is the unveiling of The Plexiglas Principle, which "holds that all things in baseball have a powerful tendency to return to the form which they previously held."
The Player Ratings and Comments in Part III are a joy--not for their rankings but for the free form style of writing and opinions that defines James. I love the varying lengths of comments, from one liners in the case of many to 1 1/2 pages for none other than Butch Hobson. James doesn't even mention Hobson by name until the eighth paragraph of an essay on the differences between baseball and other sports, including the psychological makeup of the athletes.
Butch always plays as if there were no game tomorrow. The problem with that is that there is a game tomorrow, and one the day after. I will never understand why baseball fans admire a player who runs into walls. Running into walls is a stupid waste of talent. Playing hard in baseball is so much admired that people make up lists of players who play hard, with the implication that this is a good to be sought after in its own right. The problem is that 80% of the people on those lists are dyed-in-the-doubleknit losers. And the ones who aren't losers are players like George Brett and Paul Molitor who spend a third of the season on the disabled list.
Other player comments that stand out:
Rod Carew: "I, for one, like unusual batting stances...I think that hitters like John Wockenfuss or Brian Downing who have the guts to do things in an odd or different way very often wind up being better hitters than they have any right to be. I think that someday some struggling young player is going to adopt a Wockenfuss or Downing type of stance and, with better luck, become a superstar. Anyway, Carew at the moment is my best example. Great players are those who construct the conventions of the future, not those who accept the conventions of the past."
Mike Schmidt: "On the double MVP award: I'm glad to see it. Schmidt is the most valuable player in the National League, by almost any standard...Some people say, 'Aw, it's somebody's else's turn. Look at the year Davey Concepcion had. Let's give it to him.' I think that opens the door to favoritism and, eventually, to all kinds of politics in the voting. It's not an award to the man whose turn it is. It is an award to the Most Valuable Player, and that is Mike Schmidt." Still very fitting today in view of Barry Bonds' stranglehold on the N.L. MVP award.
George Brett: "The Royals keep talking about about moving him to first base. I hope they don't for two reasons....He will be worth a lot more to his team as a third baseman than he would be playing somewhere else. The other reason is that Brett has a chance to become generally recognized as the greatest third baseman of all time." Fast forward 22 years and you can understand why baseball purists cringed when Alex Rodriguez made the move from shortstop to third base.
Roy Howell: In what James refers to as the Tim Foli Effect, he refutes the argument that players benefit by moving from a poor-hitting to a good-hitting team. "What I think has actually happened in the great majority of these cases is that the player has moved from a poor-hitting park to a good-hitting park, and the change in his hitting record merely incorporates the park illusion...I'm keeping any open mind. But I still see no evidence that it is easier to hit with a good hitter coming up behind you than it is without. And I still see no reason why it should be."
Dale Murphy: "I believe he should stay in the outfield, although possibly in right, and for a simple reason. Talents which are not used tend to deteriorate much faster than those which are tested daily. If Murphy played first base for about two years, he'd wind up a Dave Kingman type, which, physically, is what he is. He would lose the speed and the arm and become unable to do anything other than play first base."
Bobby Bonds: "...with 2 exceptions, every team which has acquired Bobby Bonds has gotten worse when he arrived while, with 2 exceptions, the teams which have traded him away have gotten better. The 8 teams which acquired Bonds declined from 655-637 (.507) to 521-550 (.486); the 7 teams surrendering him improved from 475-503 (.486) to 547-492 (.526)."
Leon Durham: "I'm trying to draw up a list of some people who can be expected to win batting titles in the next three or four years. What things do we know that could help us make such a prediction?" James lists 15 players who he expects will win battting titles in the next five years based on the fact that "over 80% of all batting titles will be won by players who play in one of the four best hitter's parks in the league...about two-thirds are won by lefthanded batters and switch hitters...and virtually all players who are destined to become batting champions will hit .300 (or at least come very close) in their first two or three years in the league."
From James' list of candidates, only Willie Wilson (1982) won a batting title in the next five years. However, he was spot on in his criteria. Nine of the ten batting champs hit lefthanded or both. Six of the ten played on one of the teams nominated by James. And they all hit close to .300 or better early in their careers. What threw James for a loop was failing to account for a couple of players who had yet to play in a major league game--one who went on to win five of the following seven A.L. batting titles and another who ended up leading the N.L. eight times (including his first in 1984). Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn. Boggs fit the James mold to a tee. Gwynn had everything James looked for as well except he didn't play his home games in a hitter's park.
In the comments under Rick Burleson, Bake McBride, and Don Baylor, James takes to task Tony Kubek and the general belief that players do a better job of selecting Hall of Famers, MVPs/Players of the Year, and Rookies of the Year. He then examines the differences between the types of players who win awards voted on by players vs. those voted by writers.
...it simply is not true that the players are more willing than the writers to ignore the offensive stats and vote for some Rick Burleson type who plays defense. In point of fact, quite the opposite pattern exists; the players vote as if they had never heard the word defense mentioned. In many cases where there is a conflict between the votes, it is a matter of the writers voting for a shortstop or second baseman or catcher who combined considerable offensive skills with defensive ability, and the players voting for an outfielder or first baseman who hit a little more.
James then shows the discrepancies with MVPs voted by writers followed by The Sporting News Players of the Year voted by players. Joe Morgan vs. George Foster in 1976; Johnny Bench vs. Billy Williams in 1972; Zoilo Versalles vs. Tony Oliva in 1965; Elston Howard vs. Al Kaline in 1963; Mickey Mantle vs. Ted Williams in 1957; Roy Campanella and Yogi Berra vs. various OF and 1B in 1955 and 1951; Jackie Robinson vs. Enos Slaughter in 1949; and two more examples from the 1930s.
There is, on the other hand, not one single case, not one, in which the players have picked a catcher, second baseman or shortstop, but the writers have ignored him to pick an outfielder or first baseman with better offensive totals.
James does not rank the relief pitchers because he admits not having a "very good way to rate them nor anything very interesting to say about most of them." However, his comments about saves vs. wins and the use of relief pitchers are worth noting, especially in view of the time.
The truth is that saves are far better defined than wins and losses are, that the description is far more carefully tailored to avoid rewarding an undeserving pitcher than is the description of the "win," which requires of a starter only that he last five. People seize on the occasional undeserved save because it is uncommon, whereas they simply accept the large numbers of undeserved wins and losses because they are commonplace.
...The other objection is that saves are imbalanced; there should be a "failure to save" to balance the books. Well, great, count them...People actually say that saves are the only category in baseball where the positive is not balanced by any potential negative, where the player has a possibility of gaining something without any chance of losing something. This is riotous nonsense. Did you ever see a record for runners not driven in? How about double plays not turned? Sacrifice hits not delivered? The record books are full of uncounted negatives.
Not that saves are perfect. They're not, but neither is any other category. People make demands of a "new" statistic that they would never think of making of the traditional data. They demand that the statistic be pure wheat and no chaff. They demand that it tell them all there is to know about the subject. By those standards, all statistics would be found wanting.
As far as usage goes, James attributes Herman Franks with developing "the idea of never, ever using Bruce Sutter except when he was in a 'save' situation or occasionally when tied" in response to Sutter's habit of wearing down late in the season during his first few years. James says, "This strategy took hold like a new flu strain, until within about three years--now--the way in which Sutter was used has become the way in which virtually all relief aces are used."
Over the years, it seems as if Tony LaRussa--for the way that he used Dennis Eckersley beginning in 1988--has superseded Franks in getting "credit" for pioneering the above strategy. In any event, James acknowledges, "The gradual acceptance of saves as the standard of effectiveness for a reliever has, I think, played a major role in hastening the widespread adoption of the Sutter strategy as the correct way to handle a reliever."
Whether this change is "correct" or "logical" or not I have no idea. It would seem to me that a relief pitcher could have just as much impact on his team's chances of winning by preventing a team from going ahead by more than one run as he could in many "save" situations, but I really don't know. I think it would make an interesting study.
In "Looking For The Prime," James determines that "the heights of excellence are scaled most frequently by players aged 26 to 30, not 28 to 32 as was long believed." Drilling down further, James says players attain their greatest value at the age of 27. He also concludes "most players are declining by age 30; all players are declining by age 33."
With respect to superstars and aging, James writes:
In all of my baseball research, I have discovered only one thing which could be described as an absolute rule. That rule is this: any hitter who is destined to become a great ballplayer will reach the majors at an early age. I know of no clear-cut exception to this rule in the history of baseball.
On the heels of discussing theories of aging, James closes the narrative section of the book with the following nugget:
The Baseball Abstract never ends; I will know more about this subject a year from now than I know now. We will never reach the point at which we will be able to say that Mike Schmidt will hit .244 with 21 HR in 1993 and then retire, and because we will never reach that point, we will always be approaching it. The goal of science--and sabermetrics is a science--is not to predict what will happen but to understand what does happen; predictability attains significance only as a test of knowledge. However well we might speculate about the future, it is an article of faith that that future, once accomplished, will resemble the past far more closely than it resembles any of our speculations about it.
For owners of the 1977-1981 Abstracts, the 1982 edition is by far the most redundant--but it is a classic nonetheless. James not only reviews many of the concepts that he introduced previously but he literally reprints several commentaries as if they were being written for the first time. Having said that, James did what was necessary to inform and enlighten his new and growing readership base--myself included, as it wasn't until my brother and I read the 1982 Baseball Abstract that we ordered the first five.
Next up: 1983 Baseball Abstract
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]