Baseball BeatNovember 01, 2004
Abstracts From The Abstracts
By Rich Lederer

(After taking a pause for the postseason, the twelve-part Abstracts From The Abstracts series resumes.)

Part Eight: 1984 Baseball Abstract

Twenty years ago, Bill James produced his eighth Baseball Abstract. Although the book was once again expanded (this time to a record 273 pages), the price was maintained at $6.95.

James dedicates the 1984 Abstract to "three men that I don't know--Bob Hentzen, Jim Murray, and Leonard Koppett." The first sentence of Acknowledgments reads, "Sportswriters, not athletes, were the heroes of my adolescence."

In his Welcome page, James announces the new changes for this year's Abstract, including hiring Jim Baker as his assistant; replacing two of the three runs created formulas used in the previous year's Abstract with new ones; changing the method by which players are rated "in light of new knowledge that has been developed;" introducing a section that discusses the characteristics of the managers in the American League; and the onset of Project Scoresheet, "which is one of the biggest things in my life right now."

James concludes the introductory page with the following statement: "I'm sort of a baseball agnostic; I make it a point never to believe anything just because it is widely known to be so."

In Inside-Out Perspective, James discusses the trend toward "inside stuff" in sportswriting when, in fact, "the walls between the public and the participants of sports are growing higher and higher and thicker and darker, and the media is developing a sense of desperation about the whole thing."

This is outside baseball. This is a book about what baseball looks like if you step back from it and study it immensely and minutely, but from a distance.

You know the expression about not being able to see the forest for the trees? Let's use that. What are the differences between the way a forest looks when you are inside the forest and the way it looks from the outside?

The first thing is, the insider has a much better view of the details. He knows what the moss looks like, how high it grows around the base of an oak and how thickly it will cling to a sycamore. He knows the smells in the air and the tracks on the ground; he can guess the age of a redbud by peeling off a layer of bark. The outsider doesn't know any of that.

James admits, "I can't tell you what a locker room smells like, praise the Lord."

But perspective can be gained only when details are lost. A sense of the size of everything and the relationships between everything--this can never be put together from details. For the most essential fact of a forest is this: The forest itself is immensely larger than anything inside of it. That is why, of course, you can't see the forest for the trees; each detail, in proportion to its size and your proximity to it, obscures a thousand or a million other details.

James asks if you can tell the height of a tree by standing beside it and looking up. "No, of course not; it's too big." He says you must stand back and look at the tree from a distance to get an idea how tall it is.

I've never said, never thought, that it was better to be an outsider than it was to be an insider, that my view of the game was better than anyone else's. It's different; better in some ways, worse in some ways. What I have said is, since we are outsiders, since the players are going to put up walls to keep us out here, let us use our position as outsiders to what advantage we can. Let us back off from the trees, look at the forest as a whole, and see what we can learn from that. Let us stop prentending to be insiders if we're not. Let us fly over the forest, you and I, and look down; let us measure every tract of land and map out all the groves, and draw in every path that connects each living thing. Let us drive around the edges and photograph each and every tree from a variety of angles and with a variety of lenses; and insiders will be amazed at what we can help them to see.

Well, how is that for foresight? Two decades later, not only have Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, Theo Epstein, and Paul DePodesta been hired as General Managers but our man Bill James is now the Senior Baseball Operations Advisor for the World Series championship team.

* * * * * * *

In Logic and Methods in Baseball Analysis, James states axioms, corollaries, and the known principles of sabermetrics in the following order:

  • Axiom I: A ballplayer's purpose in playing ball is to do those things which create wins for his team, while avoiding those things which create losses for his team.

  • Axiom II: Wins result from runs scored. Losses result from runs allowed.

  • First Corollary to Axiom II: An offensive player's job is to create runs for his team.

  • The Known Principles of Sabermetrics. Item 1: There are two essential elements of an offense: its ability to get people on base and its ability to advance runners.

  • Axiom III: All offense and all defense occurs within a context of outs.

    That probably sounds so simple as to be childish; it is. It is, at the same time, one of the least understood basic truths about an offense or about an offensive player.

  • The Known Principles of Sabermetrics. Item 2: Batting and pitching statistics never represent pure accomplishments, but are heavily colored by all kinds of illusions and extraneous effects. One of the most important of these is park effects.

  • The Known Principles of Sabermetrics. Item 3: There is a predictable relationship between the number of runs a team scores, the number they allow, and the number of games that they will win.

    The ratio between a team's wins and its losses will be the ratio between the square of their runs scored and the square of their runs allowed. This is called the Pythagorean approach to won/lost percentage. If you score three runs for every two scored by your opponent, you'll win nine games for each four that he wins. If you score four to his three, you'll win sixteen games to his nine.

    ...Another method that I have never tested but which I suspect would work as well as the others would be just to "double the edge;" that is, if a team scores 10% more runs than their opponents, they should win 20% more games than their opponents. If they score 1% more runs, they should win 2% more games. That method would probably work as well or better than the Pythagorean approach.

    If there is just one takeaway from the 1984 Baseball Abstract, it is the above truisms. Read, study, and memorize 'em. You will become a more intelligent student of the game.

    James spends two short chapters on Victory Important RBI and RBI Importance in an attempt to measure "clutch performance," which is not to be confused with "clutch ability"--an area "I see little point in talking about." James later tweaked his runs created formula to account for deviations in performance in clutch hitting, and he uses this advanced version in calculating Win Shares where situational data is available.

    * * * * * * *

    Moving to Section II (The Teams), James compares Montreal Expos first baseman Al Oliver to Greg Brock, the first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Unlike Pesky/Stuart (in which both players were comparable in offensive value despite one having a higher on-base percentage and the other a higher slugging average), Oliver and Brock had almost identical OBP and SLG. The difference is that Oliver's OBP (.348) was achieved via a high batting average (.300) and low walk rate (44) whereas Brock's was due to a high walk rate (83) and a low batting average (.224). Oliver's high batting average also produced the bulk of his SLG (.410) whereas Brock's SLG (.396) resulted from a superior number of home runs (20 to 8). The Dodger first baseman also had a higher stolen base percentage and hit into fewer double plays than his counterpart.

    When you add all this together, Oliver created 81 runs while using 458 outs, which is 4.79 runs per game; Brock created 64 runs while using 371 outs, which is 4.69 per game. Further, Brock created his runs in Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, where runs are scarcer and therefore more valuable than they are in Olympic Stadium in Montreal. When park adjustments are taken into account, Brock actually had a slightly better offensive season than did Al Oliver.

    Although the Chicago Cubs were coming off a 71-91 fifth-place finish the previous year, James encourages readers to take anyone up on a 100:1 offer against winning the N.L. East in 1984. He points to the team's 79-83 Pythagorean record; the change in managers from Lee Elia to Jim Frey; miracles taking place "in leagues where the difference between the best teams and the worst teams is not wide;" the problems of the incumbent division champion (Phillies); steps taken in the winter to improve the team's pitching; and the worst record in baseball on artificial turf (13-35), a "specific, correctable weakness." (Editor's note: The Cubs finished in first place in 1984 with a 96-65 record.)

    In the San Diego Padres comments, James highlights the fact that the team scored 653 runs versus a projected total based on the runs created formula of 602. He attributes the difference partially to the Padres infield (not the players but the playing surface, which resulted in an unusually large number of errors) as well as the effect of a "1-to-4 offense"--an offense that began with Alan Wiggins and ended with Terry Kennedy. "A 'bunched' offense is much more efficient than a spread-out offense; you receive a higher return on your opportunities."

    James claims "you cannot win a pennant with a four-man offense." I wonder if that adage could be updated to "you cannot win a World Series with a four-man offense" in view of the makeup of this year's Red Sox and Cardinals teams?

    In a segment entitled "The Future of Chili Davis," James develops a computer projection system designed to forecast the career totals of several past and present members of the San Francisco Giants. He advises against taking "this thing too seriously. It's just the first step up a long, dark stairway." (Later in the book, James estimates that Wade Boggs, entering only the third year of his career, will end up with 2,446 games, 3,023 hits, 129 home runs, and a lifetime .345 lifetime batting average. Actual totals? 2,439 games, 3,010 hits, 118 homers, and a .328 batting average.)

    James shows us his sense of humor in the opening paragraph of the Detroit Tigers comments.

    I wrote an article last summer for the Detroit Free Press (for which, by the way, they never paid me. So that's what that means; I'd been wondering since I was a kid how they could stay in business giving their paper away.)

    With the Yankees in the early stages of the franchise's biggest dryspell since the pre-Babe Ruth years (with no first-place finishes from 1982 to 1995), James calls George Steinbrenner to task for his free agent signings.

    Another thing that I think people often underestimate is how difficult it can be to accurately assess your needs. A lot of the free-agent signings that have been made in response to needs, it seems to me, have worked out badly. The Padres signed Oscar Gamble because they thought they needed power. The Yankees signed Dave Collins because they thought they needed speed.

    Whenever you talk yourself into thinking that you need a player that's when you pay too much for him. And that's what George has been doing in the last few years.

    Steinbrenner accused of overspending? Dog bites man. The only thing that has changed over the years is the size of the Yankees' payroll--a more than tenfold increase from 1984 to 2004.

    In the Toronto Blue Jays section, James gives Bobby Cox (then 42) credit for being one of a handful of managers who understands the distribution of talent in the major leagues. "Talent in baseball is not normally distributed. This is a fundamental fact of baseball life, and if you have any analytical interest in the game it is terrifically important to understand that." He points out that the most common level in the general population is the norm whereas in major league baseball it is the bottom, "the worst fellow out there." As such, "far more players are below average than are above average. You will always find that those who are above average are further from the average in absolute terms than those who are below average."

    James believes Project Scoresheet will definitively answer questions about baserunning, "one of baseball's unmeasured skills."

    Baserunning is perfectly measurable; it can be easily defined and, given properly maintained scoresheets, easily researched. Our lack of knowledge on the subject is attributable entirely to record-keeping decisions that were made a little over a century ago and have never been intelligently or systematically reviewed. We know so much about hitting that we can talk about it forever and measure it with extraordinary precision because a few men, at the beginning of Time, made some very good decisions about how to record and organize information, decisions that are now so natural a part of our thinking about the game that it is difficult even to see that any decision had ever to be made.

    For this we applaud them. Their decisions about baserunning and fielding were much less wise. They failed to address many issues, and drew arbitrary lines where they drew them at all, and time has laid waste to their designs.

    If this information is known today, it sure isn't widely disseminated. Why don't we know how often (in absolute terms and as a percentage of opportunities) various runners go from first to third on a single, first to home on a double, or second to home on a single? How often does Ichiro Suzuki reach base on an error as opposed to the average batter? Are we limited in recording the data or in distributing the data? Until this information is made available to the public, our ability to fully understand and appreciate all the nuances of the game and its players will be constrained.

    With respect to computers and its effects on baseball, James says "it is not going to do anything and it is not going to change anything."

    We are going to do things with the computer. You and I are going to change the world, and we're gong to change baseball, and we're going to use the computer to do it. Machines have no capabilities of their own. Your car cannot drive to Cleveland. What machines do is extend our capabilities.

    ...The main thing that is happening in computers now is that they are becoming much easier to use. As computers become easier to use, our dependence on "computer people" becomes smaller and smaller. Computer people are not going to be running baseball in a few years; indeed, computer people are not going to be running anything in a few years except computers. The rise of the computer age is not going to put computer specialists into positions of power any more than the rise of the auto age put auto mechanics and bus drivers into positions of power. Don't worry about it.

    I am engaged in a search for understanding. That is my profession. It has nothing to do with computers. Computers are going to have an impact on my life that is similar to the impact that the coming of the automobile age must have had on the life of a professional traveler or adventurer. The car made it easier to get from place to place; the computer will make it easier to deal with information. But knowing how to drive an automobile does not make you an adventurer, and knowing how to run a computer does not make you an analytical student of the game.

    * * * * * * *

    In Section III (Player Ratings), James writes separate essays in favor of and against "the idea of rating ballplayers." He concedes the reason for rating players is because "it sells books, and I have to make a living." However, James says the ratings provide a framework for his comments on players and cautions that his opinions "are offered in the spirit of fun."

    I am very leery of "great statistics," of statistics which consider everything and provide the once and final answer to great baseball questions, questions like "Who was the greatest player ever?" or "Who should have won the MVP award?" or "Who really belongs in the Hall of Fame?" or even, "Who is better, Dawson or Murphy?" It is my considered opinion that we have no business answering those questions by formula.

    James believes that great statistics "consume knowledge but don't yield it. They are not a part of the discussion, they are the end of a discussion."

    Bad sabermetrics attempts to end the discussion by saying that I have studied the issue and this is the answer. Good sabermetrics attempts to contribute to the discussion in such a way as to enable it to move forward on a ground of shared understanding.

    James questions great statistics because they "define out of existence everything that is not included in their measurement" (such as knowing how many times a player was out attempting to take an extra base, how many times a player gave away a base by throwing to the wrong one, how many runs an outfielder prevents by keeping runners on third base, or how many runs a catcher saves by his ability to call pitches or his ability to spot a problem with the pitcher's delivery). "And this is only the shadow of the monster; our whole ignorance is much larger than we can conceive of."

    The work of sabermetrics is not to ignore all of these considerations or to deny them, but to find ways to deal with them. Given enough good sabermetricians, those ways can and will be found. Bad sabermetricians characteristically insist that those things which cannot be measured are not important, that they do not even exist. They run from the monster in terror, and insist that he does not really exist, that there is only That Shadow.

    Here are some of the more noteworthy player comments:

  • Steve Garvey: "...he might do things that will help you sell tickets. Personally, I prefer players who do things that will help you win ballgames."

  • Joe Morgan: "Joe Morgan is quoted in Sports Illustrated (October 3, 1983, page 24) as saying, 'I don't think I've ever had a bad September.' I think we've finally found Joe's weakness: the man has no memory. He has probably had more bad Septembers than any other great player in history. Between 1973 and 1979 he hit below his average in September every year, seven straight years. And no, he was not compensating in other areas of the game."

  • Toby Harrah: "Somebody sent me a clipping from a paper in which Toby said that he liked to guard the lines more than other third basemen (who mostly guard them late in the game), because he figured that balls which got by him in the hole, while there might be more of them, would be singles, while the balls down the line would be doubles if he didn't stop them. This comment explains something which has always puzzled me, which is how Toby could have a good range factor as a shortstop, as he did in 1976, but a low range factor as a third baseman, as he did in 1977 and has ever since. Since he is guarding the lines a lot, the number of fair-ball plays that he makes is lower than it otherwise would be--but, as he suggests, the balls that he gets to are more important than the ones getting through."

    The discussion on Harrah raises an interesting philosophical question not only in terms of defensive positioning but as it relates to the advanced defensive metrics in vogue today. Are such stats tracking the quality of the results (i.e., the percentage of hits that go for singles as opposed to doubles) or are they just measuring the quantity of the balls hit into a particular zone?

  • Reggie Jackson: "Reggie said an interesting thing about Eddie Murray in the World Series when Eddie was struggling, trying to get untracked. He said that he thought Eddie had the 'character' and the 'determination' and the 'fortitude' to fight his way out of this thing and make his presence felt. You get it? What he's saying is, 'I didn't hit all those homers in the World Series play because I happen to be a great athlete. I didn't win two World Series MVP awards because I am strong and have a quick bat and saw a few pitches I could hit and hit them. Oh, no. I did that because I have character and fortitude and determination. I succeeded because I was a better human being than those other people out there on the field.'

    "You hear that stuff every day, although most athletes are smart enough to disguise it a little better. Many athletes truly believe that they are successful at what they do not because God made them strong and fast and agile, but because they're better people than the rest of us.

    "...Reggie Jackson is an ordinary human being, glib but of average intelligence at best, of character unshining and fortitude unknown, who has hit ten home runs in World Series play, and who is not, on that basis, entitled to the stature of a demi-god."

    In the Pitcher Ratings and Comments, James originates the idea of the Warren Spahn, Tommy John and Nolan Ryan family of pitchers--something he developed further in the Historical Abstract. James ranks the starting pitchers but does not provide comments, saving them for what he calls Relief Aces.

    Under Steve Bedrosian, James says "I'm a little skeptical about group bullpens in principle . . . if you don't have a bullpen ace, things can get awfully confused sometimes; one pitcher gets into a slump and then another and another, and you don't really know who it is that is supposed to get you out of this. I like definition in a pitching staff; I like a staff with four starters, a relief ace, a middle-inning man, a spot starter/long man, a lefthanded spot reliever, a mop-up man. I like that . . . it is easier to find five guys who can pitch than it is nine or ten. When you have a group bullpen, you're going to have your #8 pitcher out there on the mound with the game on the line 30 or 40 times a year. I don't like that. It also means that you have to find 8 or 9 effective pitchers, and I don't like that."

    * * * * * * *

    In Section IV (Essays and Articles), James writes about Project Scoresheet, the precursor to all the situational stats that are now recorded.

    PROJECT SCORESHEET is an attempt to build a network of fans to collect those scoresheets, and to construct the necessary administrative framework to get the scoresheets to the public. I'm asking for your help.

    What do you have to do? At a minimum, score some ballgames. Put the scoresheets in an envelope with somebody's name on it.

    ...When PROJECT SCORESHEET is in place, all previous measures of performance in baseball will immediately become obsolete, and an entire universe of research options will open up in front of us. With your help, ladies and gentlemen, there is no need for the next generation to be as ignorant as we are.

    Next up: 1985 Baseball Abstract

    [Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

  • Comments

    I found the following quote interesting:

    **I am very leery of great statistics, of statistics which consider everything and provide the once and final answer to great baseball questions, questions like Who was the greatest player ever? or Who should have won the MVP award? or Who really belongs in the Hall of Fame? or even, Who is better, Dawson or Murphy? It is my considered opinion that we have no business answering those questions by formula.**

    Especially since, just a few years later, he uses these types of metrics to assess several awards (RoY is one I recall), and several years after that, writes entire books based on those types of metrics (Win Shares, Historical Baseball Abstract).

    Thank you for doing this. I wasn't even born yet when these books were published. The history of Bill James is fascinating.

    This was my first abstract, at age 14. I still love it.

    If ever "forest for the trees" were applicable, it was yesterday as the managers and coaches voted Jeter/Boone as the AL middle infield Gold Glovers.

    Great stuff, Rich.