Abstracts From The Abstracts
Part Nine: 1985 Baseball Abstract
Bill James produced his ninth Baseball Abstract in 1985. The previous year's edition was the most successful to date, selling approximately 150,000 copies and peaking at the #4 spot on the New York Times bestseller list. The price of the 1985 Abstract was raised from $6.95 to $7.95 in the U.S. and from $8.95 to $10.75 in Canada, perhaps in recognition of its growing popularity as well as a 70-page expansion in the size of the book since the last price increase in 1983.
This year's Abstract also found competition in the form of The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst, a reference book produced by the Elias Sports Bureau that contained reports generated from play-by-play details that had formerly been marketed only to the major league teams. There is no doubt that Seymour Siwoff & Co. seized upon the success of James' Abstracts in deciding to make this information available to the public for the first time.
The "Baseball fever . . . hatch it!" slogan on the front cover was recycled from the 1981 Abstract. Sport Magazine gives James a glowing review on the back side of the book.
...But success hasn't spoiled Bill James. He's still the Sultan of Stats, the man who's done more for baseball enlightenment in the last decade than any sportswriter alive. And he's back to knock the cover off more myths and misconceptions with all new material for the '85 campaign, including the usual brilliant charts and graphs, arguments and insights that are unmistakeably, well, Jamesian.
Craig Wright writes a two-page foreward, which includes the following definition of sabermetrics and a clarification of what sabermetricians do:
Sabermetrics is the scientific research of the available evidence to identify, study, and measure forces in professional baseball. A sabermetrician is not a statistician. Sabermetricians do not study baseball statistics. Sabermetricians are actually involved in research, scientific study, and the subject is baseball.
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In the Introduction for New Readers, James mentions "a method of translating minor league batting statistics into equivalent major league performance." He proceeds to explain the system in the Introduction for Old Readers.
As a guide to major league performance, minor league batting statistics are reliable virtually 100% of the time. . .In anticipating future major league performance, minor league batting records are of essentially the same degree of reliability as previous major league batting statistics.
Before getting into the evidence supporting his point, James looks at the four foundations of the myth "that minor league batting statistics are not valid as an indicator of major league hitting ability."
1. Major league players actively promote and defend the belief that minor league batting statistics are meaningless because this belief helps to reduce the threat of competition, and thus greatly increases their job security.
2. Members of the media prefer to believe that minor league batting statistics are meaningless because it creates a mystique about major league performance.
3. Given an option to do so, all men prefer to reject information.
4. Minor league batting statistics are, in fact, subject to powerful illusions, and therefore difficult to interpret accurately.
This, of course, is the most important of the four factors; it is this element of confusion which enables the other factors to operate freely. If minor league batting statistics were easy to understand, then the mechanisms for rejecting them would be stymied.
In Making Sense of Minor League Batting Statistics, James adjusts for (1) the run environment, (2) the calibre of competition ["since a player ordinarily loses about 18% of his offensive ability relative to the league in moving from AAA to the majors, we will multiply the environment adjustment by .82"], (3) the levels of major league productivity, and (4) park factors. He completes the process by re-assembling the player's record (in this case, Dick Schofield and Tony Fernandez, two shortstops who were in the minors in 1983 and the majors in 1984) in the same context of games and outs as were used in the minor leagues.
The minor league translation is not a prediction of what the player will do, but an evaluation of what he has done. Incidentally, it is true in most cases that what he does next will be somewhat similar to what he has done in the past.
James concludes that "the most important research that I have ever done" will allow major league executives to project major league performance on the basis of minor league stats, completely altering "the way in which decisions about marginal players are made."
Will the baseball world ever accept that what I am saying here is true? Absolutely. They will have to; it is a truth so powerful that ultimately it cannot be locked out. Some will resist believing it for a year, some for ten years.
And some have already accepted it. They may not have understood the trivial truth--that minor league batting statistics can be accurately projected into the majors--but they have certainly understood the essential truth, which is that good minor league talent is a far better thing to bet on than "proven" major league talent that isn't good enough to win.
James also introduces another projection method known as the Brock2 system. The name is in deference to Greg Brock who, at the time, was a young first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers. This system takes the actual records that a player has produced and projects them for the rest of his career. He admits that his method doesn't create knowledge nor is it necessarily accurate or sophisticated ("I wish it were half as sophisticated as it is complex"). Instead, his reason for including it in the book is that "it's fun to play around with." James offers a complete five-page explanation of the system in the back of the book, located between the glossary and the appendix (both of which are useful for those looking for definitions and formulas).
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In the section on The Teams, James provides the results for and against the Toronto Blue Jays of the first pitch and when the first pitch was put in play--courtesy of Project Scoresheet (which was launched the previous year) and David Driscoll, one of more than 100 volunteers who signed up for a project that James called "a limited success." Upon examining Driscoll's research and analysis, James opines that "the data on the whole does support the Ted Williams-Earl Weaver offensive philosophy very powerfully and very consistently, and, speaking for myself, makes a valuable contribution toward understanding both sides of the issue."
James' comments about the "nibbler's edge" on the first pitch are particularly interesting in the aftermath of the World Series in which disciplined Red Sox hitters negated the first-pitch advantage of the Cardinal pitchers, who succeeded during the year by getting impatient hitters to go after "their" pitch.
This study also inspires James to share the following words of wisdom:
"One player--a leadoff hitter, no less--said a few years ago that if he wanted to walk he'd have been a mailman. Common sense would suggest that the response considered appropriate to such a comment would be to yank the player aside and say, 'Look, you yoyo, you're not out there trying to prove to girls in the bleachers what a big strong hitter you are. We're trying to win ballgames here. You're expected to help.' But no, the attitude was that it was kind of cute that the player wanted to prove himself and disdained the easy advantage of the game. Would a player be allowed to say that he couldn't be bothered to catch flies, that he didn't want to hit the cutoff man because he preferred to show off what a strong arm he had by throwing home or that he just didn't feel like going from first to third on a single? It's the same thing."
"Early in his career, a player realizes (consciously or subconsciously) that when he hits the first pitch his batting average goes up. This is only true so long as the first pitch is likely to be a good pitch, but that is the equal footing on which everyone begins. He also sees that there is no walk column in the newspaper; the thing that draws positive attention is getting hits and getting your batting average up a few points. When his career begins to slide, then, what does he do? If he takes a pitch and is called out, it looks bad; people tell him that he has to become more aggressive at the plate. Trying to drive his average back upward, the player swings at more and more first pitches, until he is locked in a cycle in which his strike zone is growing larger and larger, and the pitchers will throw fewer and fewer pitches over the heart of the plate. The long-term answer for him is to re-establish his strike zone, but he has no time for long-term solutions; the pressure is on him to produce right now. And then one day he discovers that he's become Garth Iorg and the other guy has become Wade Boggs, and it's too late to do anything about it."
James gives Ralph Houk credit for his lineup selection (Boggs, Evans, Rice, Armas, Easler, Buckner, Gedman, Barrett, and Gutierrez), calling it "the best-structured, best-defined batting order in the major leagues."
If you have nine hitters and nine batting order slots to put them in there are 362,880 ways to do it, and only one of them is right . . . It was not only an impressive collection of hitting talent, as was so often remarked, but an order as polished as Wren's buildings, Mozart's music or Angell's prose.
In the Cleveland Indians segment, James offers one of his most famous compositions ("Counting The Stitches") in response to a series of mailings designed to promote the Hall of Fame candidacy of Ken Keltner. James admits that he can follow the logic of "whether or not a player belongs in the Hall of Fame" only this far:
Q. What is a Hall of Famer?
A. A Hall of Famer is a player of the quality usually elected to the Hall of Fame.
Q. What is the quality of player who is usually elected to the Hall of Fame?
A. It all depends.
Given the ambiguity of the question of what constitutes a Hall of Famer, James develops what has become known as The Keltner List--a series of subjective questions ("a kind of common-sense approach") to evaluate where a player stands.
1) Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
2) Was he the best player on his team?
3) Was he the best player in baseball at his position?
4) Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
5) Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
6) Was he the best player in the league at his position?
7) Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
8) Are most of the players who have comparable triple crown stats in the Hall of Fame?
9) Are the player's totals of career approximate value and offensive wins and losses similar to those of other Hall of Famers?
10) Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
11) Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
12) How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP Award? If not, how many times was he close?
13) How many All Star-type seasons did he have? How many All Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?
14) If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
In The Politics of Glory (later renamed Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?), James makes a few revisions to the above list. He combines questions three and six, replaces "triple crown stats" with "career statistics," drops the notion of "career approximate value and offensive wins and losses" in lieu of "Hall of Fame standards," and adds two new ones:
14) What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
15) Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
In the 1985 Baseball Abstract (as well as in The Politics of Glory with minor modifications, including substituting Ryne Sandberg for Dale Murphy), James concludes:
None of these questions is unanimously accepted as a criterion of Hall of Fame selection, and I'm not suggesting that it should be. . .If you review this set of questions for a player of the calibre of Mantle, Mays, Schmidt or Dale Murphy, you'll find that almost every answer is positive. It seems to me that if a man doesn't meet any of the standards outlined here, you've got to ask yourself why you are considering putting him in the Hall of Fame.
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In the Kansas City Royals commentary, James discusses the fact that player walk totals historically had not been accounted for in the weekly batting summaries and daily lists of league leaders compiled by the wire services, The Sporting News weekly batting lists, the box scores, baseball cards, Who's Who in Baseball, The Sporting News Baseball Register, or Daguerreotypes ("another Sporting News publication that is basically a Baseball Register for players from the past").
Because these were the essential sources that were used by announcers and sportswriters, they were largely unaware of whether the player walked a great deal of whether he swung at everything and drew 15 walks a year. . .a walk was something that the pitcher did; the batter was just the guy who was standing there when he did it.
. . .When I began to analyze baseball as an adult, two things were immediately obvious to me. One was that the batter, far from being an innocent bystander to the occurrence, was a larger factor in determining where and when a walk would happen than was the pitcher. Some batters would walk 20 times a year; some would walk 100. This obviously was not coincidence--and, since the hitters who drew the 100 walks were often not the best hitters, neither was it merely a side-effect of the pitcher's reluctance to throw the ball in the strike zone. In fact, the differences among different hitters as to walk frequency were larger than the differences among different pitchers.
The other thing that was obvious was that it [a walk] was just as important as I had always been told that it was. I found that . . .
a) there was a clear, predictable relationship between the individual offensive acts of a team's players--their singles, doubles, home runs, walks, etc.--and the number of runs the team would score, and
b) in the relationship, the number of walks drawn was one of the most important determinants of the number of runs resulting. There are basically three things that are important--batting average, power and walks. Runs result from the proportions of those three.
James gives himself a pat on the shoulder ("through the efforts of men like David Neft, Pete Palmer, Earl Weaver and myself") when detailing the progress that has been made in the last 15 years "in overcoming the legacy of neglect that the walk has suffered." He mentions several sources that now list walk information, including The Baseball Abstract.
Of course, those of us who played APBA and Strat-O-Matic were well ahead of the baseball public at large when it came to understanding and appreciating the value of walks. When evaluating APBA cards and lineup construction, one of the first things I considered was the number of 14s (a base on balls in most instances) on a player's card. I'm sure Strat players did the same.
In the Oakland A's review, James says he would not have traded Rickey Henderson (who he describes as "one of the greatest players in baseball, one of the most exciting players in baseball, and possibly the greatest leadoff man in the history of baseball") to the New York Yankees for Stan Javier, Jay Howell, Jose Rijo, Eric Plunk, and Tim Birtsas the previous December. "Did they get a fair price for Rickey Henderson? It's kind of like if you're an art collector and you have the Mona Lisa, what's a fair price for it? The idea in building a championship team is to acquire players like Rickey Henderson. It's a sad day when you have to give one away."
James discusses the "Johnson effect" (named after Bryan Johnson, a Toronto journalist) and the Law of Competitive Balance in the Chicago White Sox section.
The Johnson effect states that when a team wins more games than it could be expected to win in view of the number of runs scored and runs allowed . . . that team will tend to decline in the following season. When a team wins significantly fewer games than could be expected in view of its runs scored and runs allowed . . . that team will tend to improve in the following season.
James also determines "that there is a Johnson effect which applies to the creation of runs. . .a larger and more powerful than the Law of Competitive Balance" (which suggests that all things in baseball tend to be drawn toward the center).
Under the subtitle "Telling Stories" in the Houston Astros commentary, James writes:
Even before I got into sabermetrics I had always been fascinated by baseball statistics. . .I didn't care about the statistics in anything else. I didn't, and don't, pay any attention to statistics on the stock market, the weather, the crime rate, the gross national product, the circulation of magazines, the ebb and flow of literacy among football fans and how many people are going to starve to death before the year 2050 if I don't start adopting them for $3.69 a month; just baseball. Now why is that?
It is because baseball statistics, unlike the statistics in any other area, have acquired the powers of language.
1) Baseball statistics have the ability to conjure images.
2) Baseball statistics can tell stories.
3) Baseball statistics acquire from these other properties a powerful ability to delude us.
Regarding the first two points, James creates stat lines for two mythical players, asking questions such as "Which one runs faster? Which one is stronger? Which one is older?" As to the third point, James unleashes a two-page, wonderfully thought out and written analysis on Jose Cruz, including home and road splits for the 1981-1984 seasons for the Astro outfielder as well as Jim Rice, Dale Murphy, and Bill Madlock. Cruz' slugging percentage at home was .099 below Madlock's, .126 below Rice's, and .168 below Murphy's, yet his SLG on the road was higher than all three.
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James summarizes a "hard study of the baseball draft" in the Cincinnati Reds segment that was first published as a special edition for The Bill James Baseball Abstract Newsletter. His conclusion 20 years ago has had a profound effect on the drafting strategies of several major league organizations since then with an ever growing appreciation the past decade or so.
Not only is there no basis for the prejudice against the drafting of college players, but in fact the reverse is true. College players, from the beginning of the draft until at least 1978, had been seriously under-valued and under-drafted in comparison to high school players.
James offers three theories why college players have shown an advantage:
1) College competition, operating at a higher level, is more difficult to dominate than high school competition. Scouts are bowled over by people who hit .573 and drive in three runs per game; you can't do that in college. College players are good enough that they expose one another's weaknesses.
2) College players succeed relative to their expectations because there is still a prejudice against them, operating at a lower level. A "preference" for drafting high school players, however small, might cause college players to be drafted lower than they ought to be. This would cause their rates of return to be higher.
3) College players are older and more mature than those drafted out of high school, thus better able to deal with and succeed through minor league life. A player drafted out of high school is going to be away from home for the first time; a player drafted out of college isn't.
James provides four other conclusions from his study:
1) The South has been seriously over-scouted and over-drafted.
2) It is going to be very common for a team to lose a free agent and come out ahead on the deal. The first prominent example of this is that the Seattle Mariners got a second-round draft pick from the Texas Rangers as compensation for Bill Stein; that second-round pick turned out to be Mark Langston. That's a hell of a trade, and there are going to be a lot more like it.
3) Pitchers who have been made very high draft picks (among the first ten players taken) have proven to be quite poor risks.
Moving along, James provides an interesting piece of trivia in the Pittsburgh Pirates comments. In 1984, the Bucs were the first team in the history of major league baseball to lead the league in ERA and finish last. Amazingly, the Chicago Cubs had the division's worst ERA that year and finished first. James indicates that the Atlanta Braves in 1982 were the only other team to win a division despite having the worst ERA in the division. My research shows that no team with the best ERA has finished last and no team with the worst ERA has ended up in first since then.
Upon ranking the top dozen best-hitting pitchers in baseball, James remarks that "it is very unlikely that any pitcher could be a good enough hitter that his batting could have a consistent value of one win per year to his team." He works through the numbers and concludes, "A pitcher's ability to swing a bat plays a very minor role in determining his ability to help the team win, and thus in determining his value to the team."
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In the Player Comments section, James ranks more than 200 players and analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each. He gives us a glimpse of his humor when describing Bill Madlock's weaknesses--"sour cream, fudge, desserts of all kinds"--and "the five most reasonable explanations that I can think of why anyone would trade Don Slaught for Jim Sundberg:
1. Don Slaught is a secret hemophiliac and his hobby is playing with chain saws.
2. Don Slaught likes to jump out of airplanes and frequently forgets to put on his face mask before the start of an inning.
3. Don Slaught made a pass at Ewing Kaufmann's wife.
4. Don Slaught made a pass at Ewing Kaufmann.
5. Don Slaught's agent carries a razor.
If none of these conditions applies, then I really don't understand the trade."
Enos Cabell: In the 1983 Baseball Abstract, James included "an extremely accurate synopsis" of Cabell's contribution to his team. In admitting that this piece was "one of the more controversial things that I've written," James says "it was unkind, and I regret that." However, he says the essential point wasn't that Cabell was a terrible player but that "ballgames--all ballgames--are won and lost on the field of play. 'Attitude' and 'leadership' are very real things; they are on the same plane of existence as 'talent,' 'desire,' 'training,' and 'experience,' which is to say that they are very valuable if you can turn them into on-field results. If you don't turn them into results, and Enos was not at that time, they're meaningless words. . .If you score three runs and the other team scores four, you lose, period; how much 'leadership' and 'ability' you have does not have one blessed thing to do with it. If you lose a ballgame on the field you cannot win it back in the clubhouse, and anybody who thinks you can is a loser."
German Rivera: "Why doesn't somebody do a study of these outfield-to-third base conversions, and see how often they work? I've been watching people try to convert outfielders into third basemen for as long as I can remember, and it doesn't seem like it works one time in twenty." Can you say Austin Kearns? (Paging Cincinnati Reds General Manager Dan O'Brien and Manager Dave Miley...)
Jim Rice: "Virtually all sportswriters, I suppose, believe that Jim Rice is an outstanding player. If you ask them how they know this, they'll tell you that they just know; I've seen him play. That's the difference in a nutshell between knowledge and bullshit; knowledge is something that can be objectively demonstrated to be true, and bullshit is something that you just 'know.' If someone can actually demonstrate that Jim Rice is a great ballplayer, I'd be most interested to see the evidence."
Dale Murphy: "Rates with Mays, Mantle, DiMaggio, Cobb and Speaker as the greatest center fielders baseball has ever had." And to think that I rate Jim Edmonds too highly?
James also publishes the results of Jim Baker's study regarding Murphy's batting records with and without Bob Horner in the lineup, and it was determined that "it makes absolutely no difference" whether Horner is or is not in the lineup or if Horner is or is not batting directly behind him.
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In A History of the Beanball (not to be confused with Billy Beane or Moneyball), James writes a six-page article followed by a four-page Record of Known Cases of Death From Pitched Ball in Professional Baseball (1900-1984) and a Summary of Significant Injuries Resulting from Hit Batsmen (1950-1984).
James revisits "Range Factor" and includes an essay by Paul Johnson, entitled "Estimated Runs Produced," in the back of the book. Estimated Runs Produced is similar to runs created in that "both are designed to calculate the number of runs that individual players produce for their teams."
Lastly, James shares his "Other Efforts," including Project Scoresheet ("an attempt to collect and make available to the public the complete records of each and every major league game"), The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), The Newsletter ("I don't know that to this point we have delivered a quality product . . . but we're trying"), The Baseball Analyst ("for people who have a real interest in hard-core sabermetrics"), and The Historical Abstract (a 721-page hardcover book that was published by Villard Books in December 1985 under the title of "The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract").
I like the book--in fact, I like that book quite a bit better than I like this one. . .This [meaning the '85 Abstract] is probably the heaviest and most technical book that I've written, and I'm not real pleased with it in that respect--but the other one [the Historical Abstract] is certainly the lightest and least technical book, and the most fun book, that I have done.
Next up: 1986 Baseball Abstract
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
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Abstracts From The Abstracts:
1977 Baseball Abstract
1978 Baseball Abstract
1979 Baseball Abstract
1980 Baseball Abstract
1981 Baseball Abstract
1982 Baseball Abstract
1983 Baseball Abstract
1984 Baseball Abstract