Baseball BeatJuly 26, 2004
Abstracts From The Abstracts
By Rich Lederer

Part Four: 1980 Baseball Abstract

The 4th Annual Edition by Bill James was expanded from 120 pages in 1979 to 200 in 1980. The book, which is bound for the first time, features a mustard-yellow cover with artwork of an ape contemplating a baseball. The drawing is discretely signed by James's wife, "SMcCarthy80". It is a takeoff on Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker," and it looks curiously like the logo for the Baseball Think Factory.

According to Rodin, The Thinker was originally meant to be Dante in front of The Gates of Hell, pondering his great poem. In explaining his equation, The Thinker = the Poet = the Creator, Rodin wrote "the fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, he is a creator."

Like Rodin, James was way ahead of his time. Both Rodin and James are rare artists whose works demand repeated visits and study -- precisely the reason behind these reviews.

James wrote a "Dear Reader" letter (which once again can be found on the opening page of the book) for the third consecutive year.

A year ago I wrote in this letter that what I do does not have a name and cannot be explained in a sentence or two. Well, now I have given it a name: Sabermetrics, the first part to honor the acronym of the Society for American Baseball Research, the second part to indicate measurement. Sabermetrics is the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records.

In a ten-page essay entitled "The Elephant Gun," James boasts that The Baseball Abstract has "reverentially avoided rating people" because "a rating is a form of an opinion" and "it takes a certain amount of gall to charge money for them." However, in the next paragraph, he tells us "these reservations...have been superseded" by the Value Approximation Method, which he believes to be "worthy of special consideration." James, who mentions that "modesty was never my strong suit" in his opening letter, says his rating sytem "is potentially the most powerful analytic weapon that the game of baseball has ever had at its disposal."

The Value Approximation Method evaluates records, and not ballplayers, and as such it lacks any knowledge of timing, clutch hitting, base-running judgment, mental lapses, leadership ability, wining spirit, or throwing to the right base. But if the method evaluates talent without regard to deeper insights, it also evaluates talent without regard to favoritism, press clippings, self-promotion, over-exposure or a lack of exposure, or any of the other greater forms of ignorance. It is perhaps not such a bad trade. It is just the facts, reduced into a spare adjective and the adjective into a number, stated, weighted, and approximated in the simplest possible form.

James provides "platoon statistics" (batting records vs. left- and right-handed pitchers) and a Player Ratings Section for the first time in the four Abstracts. He ranks the players by league at each position using their "current established value" and attaches comments.

In the latter, James calls Johnny Bench "the greatest catcher in baseball history," yet a quick look at The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract shows that he rates Yogi Berra ahead of one of the main cogs in the Big Red Machine. I wonder what Berra did during the past two dozen years that moved him ahead of Bench?

James labels Mike Schmidt as "the best defensive player in baseball at his position," projects that the Philly slugger will hit 400-450 home runs in his career, and says that he hopes Schmidt "doesn't get left out of the Hall of Fame because of his batting average." On the same page, James writes "if any active player is to challenge either Maris or Aaron, (Bob Horner) is likely to be the man." Horner hit a career-high 35 HR the following season and finished his career with a total of 218 four baggers.

James also missed badly on Mike Ivie, calling him "a potential MVP if given 550 AB to cut loose" and proclaiming that the San Francisco first baseman "just might be the best hitter in baseball right now." Ivie was out of baseball four years later, having hit a grand total of 18 HR since James sang his praises.

With respect to players' chances of being inducted into Cooperstown one day, James tells us that Dave Parker is "virtually a certain Hall of Famer" and Jim Rice "has virtually qualified for the Hall of Fame already." As to Steve Garvey, James writes "I don't believe there is anyone who has 200 hits in five seperate (sic) seasons, is eligible for the Hall of Fame and isn't in." For the record, Garvey had his sixth and final such season in 1980 -- two more 200-hit seasons that anyone else not in Cooperstown.

Under Bobby Grich's and Dave Winfield's comments, James informs his readers that he would have voted for them for the MVP Award in 1979. James compares Grich with his teammate Don Baylor, the MVP winner that year, "If you were building a ballclub, which would you rather have--a DH who hits .296 with 36 HR, or a fine defensive second baseman who hits .294 with 30? It wouldn't be a tough pick for me."

James introduces the "Power/Speed Number" in his commentary on Bobby Bonds. He writes "it is so crafted that a player who does well in both home runs and stolen bases will rate high, and his rating is determined by the balance of the two as well as by the total."

2 ( HR x SB )

When discussing Bruce Sutter, James counted how many times each reliever was used under what circumstances and determined that the Chicago Cub ace entered the game only 26 times in the ninth inning out of 62 total appearances and 13 times when the score was tied or his team was behind in the score.

Speaking of relief pitchers, James writes a terrific piece on George Bamberger, then the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Bamberger does not develop the bullpen. In all his years in the majors he has never had anything resembling an ace reliever. The Orioles top relievers starting in 1968 posted save totals of 11, 16, 13, 11, 8, 9, 12, 8, 10, and 9. When Bamberger left and Weaver was on his own, he immediately traded for an ace reliever, and the man (Don Stanhouse) posted 24 and 21 saves in two years...The Brewers, meanwhile, are just like the Orioles were--a lot of complete games, very few saves. The top reliever in '78 was McClure with 9; in '79 it was Castro with 6. Bamberger, quite simply, is not interested in having an ace reliever.

It's not that he has had bad bullpens. What he has is 3-out specialists who pitch 50 innings a year with 2.25 ERA's.

James also points out that Bamberger's pitchers "throw strikes" and proceeds to back up his claim by saying that the 1979 Brewers staff had the second-lowest walk total by an A.L. team since 1919.

Interestingly, James analyzes other managers--including Whitey Herzog, Tommy Lasorda, Gene Mauch, Chuck Tanner, Earl Weaver, and Dick Williams -- and their styles and tendencies in more detail than ever before. James says Herzog, who was fired after the 1979 season, "gave away too many games by staying with a starter who just wasn't getting the job done." He calls Lasorda and Tanner "butt-patters" and describes Williams' theory of managing as identifying "the best young talent in the system, and get it in the lineup immediately."

James compares and contrasts Mauch with Weaver, mentioning that "both platoon extensively;" Weaver "doesn't like to bunt," Mauch "bunts more than any other manager;" Weaver "uses pinch hitters a lot," Mauch "uses them obsessively;" Weaver "likes power hitters" while Mauch "builds around high-average men;" Mauch "believes strongly in the one-man bullpen," Weaver "has never had a bullpen workhorse;" Mauch is "engaging and analytical," Weaver is "intense and emotional;" both managers "make very cautious use of the stolen base" and both "make limited use of the intentional walk, a decision which I strongly endorse."

Earl Weaver may be the only manager in the majors today -- Stengel was another -- who uses complex platooning. What I mean by that is that in addition to "simple platooning" along the left/right axis, he alternates players according to several other features, using home run hitters more in home run parks and against HR-vulnerable pitchers, using "defensive" and "offensive" platoons when the circumstances call for it, putting more speed in the lineup when he think he can run, and, of course, batting Mark Belanger second against a pitcher that he thinks Belanger can hit.

Thinking of Garvey, James asks "what causes one player to draw more attention than he should, another less" and lists three "obvious" factors:

1. Players who play in New York and Los Angeles tend to draw more attention than players in small towns.

2. Players on a championship team tend to catch the public eye quicker than players on also-rans.

3. Players who have charisma or who cater to the press tend to make the endorsement circle sooner than those who don't.

James also lists two "arguable" factors:

1. White players may tend to be adopted by the public somewhat more readily than black players.

2. A player who plays in circumstances which emphasize his particular talents will tend to be overrated, because the public takes the statistics as gospel truth, rather than as the product of man and circumstances, as they really are.

Finally, James lists three factors in what he calls the "statisticians corner":

1. Players who happen to excel in those few statistical categories which are understood by the widest public sector tend to be over-rated. Batting average is probably the most over-rated, or perhaps I should say over-recognized, category...The most ignored category, as I've said, is batter's walks, probably for the simple reason that it is not included on a bubble gum card. Low-average power hitters tend to be under-rated in comparison with high-average singles hitters.

2. Players who make their primary contribution to a team through defense tend to be under-rated, the reason being that the assessment of defensive performance in statistics is to some degree unreliable and to a much larger degree beyond the public's comprehension.

3. A player who does one thing well, or who does a comparatively few things well, will acquire more recognition than a well-balanced player who lacks a specialty.

James writes "if you fed a computer this data and asked it to pick the perfect over-rated player, you would get--Steve Garvey:

  • Plays in Los Angeles.
  • Has played for championship teams.
  • Is a television personality.
  • Is White.
  • Is very well suited to his home park.
  • His strengths are exactly the three 'scoreboard' statistics.
  • He is an offensive player with very little defensive value.
  • He does very few things well, but does them very well."

    Among James' various essays is one entitled, "What Does It Take? Discerning the De Facto Standards of the Hall of Fame."

    Understand, I am not in the least talking about what Hall of Fame standards should be. I am talking about what they are. De Facto standards, inferred from a study of who has made it and who hasn't.

    Of note, James takes a couple of potshots at Earnshaw Cook. In discussing outsiders vs. insiders, James writes, "We shouldn't be arrogant about it, as Earnshaw Cook was in Percentage Baseball, a book that virtually assumed that all managers are idiots and nobody but a mathematics professor could really understand the game." Twenty-seven pages later, James, when unveiling his original Pythagorean Theory, writes "I had one formula which I used since I was a teen-ager in the 60's, Dallas Adams has one, Pete Palmer has one, Earnshaw Cook had one (although, like most of his ideas, it didn't work very well.)"

    James adds an Appendix for the first time in the Abstract's history, offering definitions, explanations, and formulas for runs created, isolated power, consistency ratio, defensive efficiency, and the value approximation method.

    In addition, James provides an Index (which is nothing more than a table of contents) and an Acknowledgements section on the last page of the book. He thanks his "beloved wife, Susan McCarthy, without whom there might possibly have been a first Abstract, but most certainly not a second, third, or fourth," Walt Campbell for "heavy statistical help," as well as Dallas Adams and Dan Okrent, "two friends among the many who have supported and encouraged me."

    Next up: 1981 Baseball Abstract

    [Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

  • Comments

    thanks for this great series; i haven't read the abstract reprints in 15 years, but i remember some of the things you've posted as if it was yesterday...

    Thanks for the feedback, Bob. It's always nice to hear from the readers.

    The 1981 review, which is the last of James' self-published Abstracts, will be up this weekend.

    I'll second Bob. I've only read excerpts from James over the years. I've been extremely interested in your reviews (even posted a link on my site). I've started to look for old copies myself. Thanks.

    Great review Rich. 1981 was the first Abstract I purchased, so it is interesting to see what James wrote in the past.

    Regarding what Yogi did post-1979 to surpass bench in James eyes: I think it's more about what Bench DIDN'T do post-1979, and that is "catch". Bench only caught 118 more games in his 3 remaining full seasons plus 1 strike/injury-shortened season, representing about 7% of his total as a catcher. Berra, after his age-31 season, still caught 470 games (28% of his career total) over 7 additional seasons, 5 in which he saw more or less regular action as a catcher/OF. Both players maintained their OPS in the .800 range after age 31, but Berra did it longer, and while playing catcher more often, than Bench.

    I understand that Berra did more than Bench from age-31 on but that shouldn't change James' evaluation of the two. Berra's performance was known at the time James made his argument. If Bench was already the "greatest catcher of all time" in 1980, he surely shouldn't cede that honor at a later date to someone who retired 25 years earlier unless, of course, one chooses to change his mind.