Abstracts From The Abstracts
By Rich Lederer
Part Two: 1978 Baseball Abstract
Although Bill James made less than $100 selling approximately 70 copies of the 1977 Baseball Abstract, he proceeded to write, compile, and publish a second book. The 1978 Baseball Abstract, which has a celery-green cover, was expanded to 115 pages.
"The 2nd Annual Edition of Baseball's Most Informative and Imaginative Review" features a Dear Reader letter by Bill James, Editor and Publisher, dated May 30, 1978. The letter is intended to "take the place of the notes (James) used to mail."
The following is an excerpt of the third paragraph from James' letter:
I would like to produce here the most complete, detailed, and comprehensive picture of the game of baseball available anywhere--and I would like to avoid repeating anything that has ever been written before. Obviously the two conflict. The book is full of "new" statistics, but the poorest qualification of a statistical category is its newness. Baseball is overrun by statisticians who, working with the ten or fifteen basic categories available anywhere, can spend a book or two multiplying and dividing them in "new" ways. I try to avoid any of that nonsense. Virtually all of my statistics focus on specific areas of performance, previously not measured or poorly measured, and attempt to devise ways to assess player performance in them.
James thanks his readers, stating that he hopes they enjoy their Abstract "but if you don't, your money will be cheerlessly [my emphasis] refunded".
Unlike the 1977 Abstract, the information in this book is provided team by team rather than alphabetically by league. James begins with the N.L. East with monthly won-loss records, team age analysis, fielding records, come from behind records, and opposition errors presented in table format on one page.
James writes notes on each of the teams in what I call a dot, dot, dot format. They are as fun to read today as they were 26 years ago. Here are excerpts on each of the teams with an emphasis given to stats and strategies that weren't widely understood or appreciated at the time:
Philadelphia Phillies: "Despite the publicity given to Schmidt and Luzinski's strikeouts, this team strikes out exceptionally seldom for a team with such great power. Their HR/K ratio was easily the best in the league...Schmidt, in particular, has an excellent SO/W ratio--last year 104-122 or 1-1.17, against a league average of 1-1.62. But for some reason, the strikeouts draw attention, while the walks, which are far more important, are ignored...Schmidt's HR/Game ratio is similar to Aaron's, though he will never play enough games to make a run at the record."
Pittsburgh Pirates: "Dave Parker's defensive stats are among the most impressive records of the 1977 season. His 26 outfield assists are the most in the majors since 1963. He has as many outfield DP as any other NL team. But even more imposing, Parker led the NL in Putouts as a right fielder--without playing an inning in center field. The last time a non-center fielder led the league in PO was 1947. His range factor of 2.63 is unheard-of for a right fielder...Several Pirate regulars had SB percentages that suggest they shouldn't run quite so often, particularly the departed Al Oliver (13/29 or 45%) and Dave Parker (17/36 or 47%)...The Pirates would be better off if they were 0 for 0."
St. Louis Cardinals: "The Cardinals are an exceptionally weak road team, playing at 52-31 in St. Louis, but 31-48 on the road."
Chicago Cubs: "Dave Kingman's SO/Walk ratios since he reached the majors are interesting. In his first year as a regular (1972), he walked 51 times and struck out 140, a ratio of 1-2.75, not good but not really all that bad. But since then he has gone to 1-2.98 in '73, 1-3.38 in '74, 1-4.50 in '75, 1-4.82 in '76, and 1-5.11 last year. Not only that, but SO/Walk ratio is the one area of performance in which almost all ballplayers improve over the years, and the league SO/Walk ratio has levelled off since 1972. I think that says more about Kingman's chances of hitting 50 HR than the park he is playing in. Frankly, I don't believe he could hit 50 HR playing in a pay toilet."
Montreal Expos: "The Expos front office was kind enough to send me all of the statistical breakdowns you see on the following pages. My thanks."
New York Mets: "Although I am impressed with some of the trades the Mets have made in their rebuilding program, I confess I don't understand the deal for Montanez, a fine 30-year-old first baseman. If I were rebuilding a team, first is the last position I would start with, for a very basic reason: They are inevitably going to wind up with either a youngster who can hit but not handle the position he was given, or with two good kids both at the same position. When that happens you have to shift somebody between positions--and when you do that, you have to shift to a less demanding fielding spot. Since first base is the least demanding of the eight positions--you can play it with no arm, bad feet and aching knees--it invariably becomes involved in those shifts."
After James reviews the N.L. East teams, he inserts a two-page explanation of "what all of these numbers are." James admits that a "well-organized editor would do this at the end of the book, or the beginning...But as I write this, the season is already a month gone, and I've got to get this thing out."
Moving on to the N.L. West...
Los Angeles Dodgers: "Davey Lopes holds the major league record for highest stolen base percentage, lifetime (min: 300 attempts)--.808...Ron Cey, a .241 hitter, had a better On-Base Percentage than Steve Garvey, with a .297 mark."
Cincinnati Reds: "I still rate (Joe Morgan) the best player in the game. Among Joe's most amazing stats are his GDP. How a #3 hitter with 300 men on first base ahead of him can ground into only 7 double plays over two seasons is just beyond me...George Foster didn't hit 62 HR last year, but he clearly established that it is possible. This is a tough home run park--George hit 31 on the road. Given a 'normal' home park advantage, he would, pressure aside, have hit 65. In Boston or Atlanta, hitting the ball exactly the same way, he would have hit over 70. Maris' record can definitely be broken."
Houston Astros: "Almost every Astro pitcher had a better ERA in the Astrodome than on the raod. Joacquim (sic) Andujar had a sharp 2.97 ERA in the dome last year, but was 5.19 on the road."
San Francisco Giants: "Two Giant hurlers were among the worst in the league in Opposition Stolen Base rates, Halicki at 1.189 per start and Montefusco at 1.440, second highest in the league. Both were also among the worst in '76, Halicki being #3 with 1.129 and Montefusco #6 with .917...Barr has been the best in that category both seasons, with a .622 mark in '76 and .632 last year."
San Diego Padres: "Nobody knows for sure how old Perry is, but it's rumored that when Seaver wrote: 'How I would Pitch to Babe Ruth,' he interveiwed Gaylord for his research."
Atlanta Braves: "The Braves unofficial stat sheet last year claims that they allowed 192 Opposition Stolen Bases last year, a bad enough total as it is. But I count 204, most in the league by a whopping 45. It's funny--most of the teams count OSB, but apparently not too carefully. Several teams sent me sheets showing fewer OSB than I counted from the box scores, not one showing more. I don't know who is right, but I got the same league total as the league office."
On pages 42-51, James provides one of his first essays, entitled "On All These Numbers." He estimates the book contains "some 40,000 statistics" with the bulk "compiled one by one, picked out of box scores" and sorted into groups with titles like "Triples hit by Larry Parrish in July." James laments, "That's a lot of work, folks, and apart from a rather obscure and esoteric chance that I will make some money off of it in a few years, one would wonder what motivates it."
James evaluates the merits of certain statistics, including month-by-month breakdowns ("surprisingly informative" in his words), team age analysis ("intriguing"), defensive efficiency record ("excellent"), come from behind records ("surprising"), opposition errors ("very puzzling"), opposition stolen base records ("satisfactory"), pitcher run support ("it's there"), pitcher DP support ("very interesting"), attendance by pitchers ("disappointing"), game times ("significant"), three hit games records ("Echh!!"), umpiring statistics ("very tenuous"), isolated power ("correct"), range factors.
With respect to team age analysis, James admits "there may be more to this than I thought when I made it up." He points out that 10 of the 12 youngest teams in the majors in 1976 improved their records in 1977 and the two that didn't only fell by 1/2 game and two games. Regarding "power percentage," James gladly adopts Branch Rickey's "isolated power" terminology, volunteering that "dragging his name into the argument is always good for a few cheap points."
Moving on to the A.L. East...
New York Yankees: "A number of numerical attacks on Reggie Jackson's status as a superstar have attempted to downgrade him by making statistical inferences which I think are misleading...He is described as a ballplayer who has never hit .300--but that is lilke describing Roberto Clemente as a guy who never hit 30 home runs, or Ty Cobb as a player who never hit 20. The fact remains, Jackson does an awful lot of things well, and most often does them well when his team needs them. His On-Base percentage last year was .378, better than most .300 hitters, and it's a more important statistic. His excellent SB% (.850), GIDP/AB ratio (1/175), and slugging percentage (.550) add up to a hell of a lot more than the eight singles by which he missed .300. But more to the point, Jackson has never played a season in a good hitting ballpark. His three home parks, in Oakland, Baltimore, and New York, are, except for Anaheim, the 3 toughest places to hit in the league. To compare his stats in Yankee (sic) to those of, say, Jim Rice in Fenway, is just ridiculous."
Boston Red Sox: "It is difficult to say anything intelligent about the Red Sox without discussing the park they play in. The public perception of this team is that of a heavy hitting outfit with a suspect pitching staff. But the fact is that the heavy-hitting Boston offense, in 81 road games, scored only 365 runs, essentially an average total, while the 'mediocre' Boston pitching and defense limited their opponents to 305 runs on the road, the lowest total in the league. You might want to read that sentence again, because it is surely the most shocking contention in this book."
Baltimore Orioles: "I would probably have voted for Eddie Murray for Rookie of the Year, although Mitchell Page had a sensational season for Oakland. But I feel, because of his youth and because of his blazing finish, that Murray will probably have the better career...the word 'superstar' would certainly be premature, but it's a reasonable projection if Murray learns just a little."
Detroit Tigers: "Rusty Staub, having led the league in grounding into double plays twice in a row, becomes only the 5th man and the first left-handed batter to accomplish (?) that" [the use of the question mark is James' and not mine].
Cleveland Indians: "The American League's answer to the San Francisco Giants--a team mismanaged into perpetual mediocrity. They don't have the patience, or don't understand the necessity, of building for 5 or 6 years at a time, as the Tigers have. They build for a year or two, then they make a big push, win 80 games, and drop back and lose for 3 more years. They haven't put winning seasons back-to-back since 1959."
Milwaukee Brewers: "Milwaukee designated hitters last year--in fact, the last two years--have been just awful, batting .217 and .231, with little power (10 HR and 54 RBI in '77, both last in the league). You can't tell me that there isn't a minor league first baseman or outfielder around somewhere who could do a lot better than that." [My note: Is this one of the first references, albeit indirectly, to replacement value?]
Toronto Blue Jays: "On the basis of one season, this might be the second-best hitting park in the league. The 'park adjustment factor,' for adjusting offensive totals, was 1.09, not comparable to Boston's 1.34 but higher than Detroit (1.08) or Minnesota (1.06), the next best hitting parks in the league."
Kansas City: "I confess to being a Royals fan. I'll try not to let it influence my work."
Texas Rangers: "The division's best defense in '77, turning .704 of opposition hit balls into outs...I agree with Hunter's decision to lead (Hargrove) off. If this team wins, he just might turn around the trend toward .240 hitting lead-off men who can run."
Chicago White Sox: "The worst defensive efficiency record in baseball...Francisco Barrios, who doesn't believe in throwing a pitch the hitter can't look up to, was last in the majors in DP support, with only 11 being turned in his 31 starts."
Minnesota Twins: "There is something unusual about the way in which Gene Mauch uses his relievers which causes them to have high victory totals. For one thing, he will always come up with a good one--always has, regardless of what was written about the bullpen before the season started. But since 1972 he has had Mike Marshall (14 wins in '72 and again in '73), Dale Murray (15 wins in '75), Bill Campbell (17 wins in '76), and last year Tom Johnson (16 wins). That's 5 relievers in 6 years with 14 or more victories, while the rest of baseball there have been only 2 with that many. Maybe he brings them in a batter earlier or something."
California Angels: "When you acquire any player over 28, you are getting about 40% of a career--and that on the downhill slide. You can do that, perhaps, to fill a hole. But what happens when you try to build a whole team that way? Your replacement-rate goes out of sight. If you've got eight players on a downhill slide, two of them are going to slip and fall--either that, or you're defying the law of averages."
Seattle Mariners: "One of the largest surprises that I had in compiling this book was to find that the Kingdome, noted for it's (sic) close fences and artificial turf, is apparently a pitcher's park. The Mariners scored only 303 runs here, 321 on the road, and allowed 417 at home, 438 on the road. There must be a bad hitting background, or perhaps, like Houston's Astrodome, the ball just does not carry well here."
Oakland A's: "The A's had all kinds of trouble against left-handers, going 16-34 against them, a .320 W/L Pct compared to .423 against right-handers."
After James finishes commenting on each of the teams, he writes a 4 1/2 page essay "On Ratings and Records." Regarding ratings, James asks "what constitutes a good one?" and proceeds to evaluate them in four ways:
1. The first, unstated, law of elementary arithmetic is: never divide A by B unless there is a damn good reason for dividing A by B.
2. Any system which is never surprising is never interesting. Any system which is consistently surprising is probably wrong.
3. The final test of any statistic is whether or not it correlates with winning. Since the two sub-categories by which games are won are runs scored and runs prevented, the most valid test of most statistics is their correlation with runs scored and opposition runs.
4. Any statistic the meaning of which can be expressed in understandable terms in a common English sentence is always to be preferred, other things being equal, to one which cannot.
In closing, I find the last sentence of James' essay appropriate:
For the attention of my reader's interest, I'd better stop now.
Next up: 1979 Baseball Abstract.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Thanks for doing this project, I'm really enjoying it. It's great to get a glipse into those books. A friend recently loaned me the 1981 book, which I'd never seen, and I have same feelings of fresh discovery and reacquaintance. What strikes me is how young he was when he did this originally. Now I'm curious to see if you pull the same stuff I thought was notable from the '81 book.
Posted by: Chris DeRosa at July 16, 2004 11:42 AM
I'm planning on posting reviews for the 1979 and 1980 books this weekend. The 1981 review will have to wait until next week. Be sure to compare your notes with me after it's up.
Posted by: Richard at July 16, 2004 3:26 PM