Abstracts From The Abstracts
Part Twelve: 1988 Baseball Abstract
Bill James wrote the twelfth and final edition of the Baseball Abstract in 1988. Citing workload-related burnout, James made a "gut-wrenching decision" to stop producing the "world champion bestseller of baseball" that year. In describing baseball in the late 1980s, the back cover of the green and gold book proclaims: "These are the best of times and the worst of times." Well, for James' fans, it was the latter.
I was shocked when I learned that the Baseball Abstract was no longer to be. I mean, how could someone take away what had become a rite of spring? For me, awaiting the arrival of the Baseball Abstract each year had replaced the anxiety of looking forward to the new APBA cards during the 1960s and 1970s.
I figured we hadn't heard the last of ol' Bill but wondered if we would ever read his work in this type of format again. Oh, there were more Bill James works to come -- the Baseball Books of 1990-1992, the Player Ratings Books of 1993-1996, and the hardcover books about baseball history -- but never has there been another Baseball Abstract as we once knew.
James dedicates "my last Baseball Abstract" to his fellow table-game (Ballpark) league members from the 1970s.
As you reach the end of things, you look back to the beginnings. It was during this period, in trying to win that league, that I became obsessed with how an offense works and why it doesn't work sometimes, with how you could evaluate a trade and understand whether you had won or lost, with finding what information you would need to have to simulate baseball in a more accurate way. I had thought about these things before, of course, but to win that damn little league I had to know. That focused my interest in the game onto analytical questions; and then there was an economic accident, and there I was on the bestseller list.
James once again acknowledges Susie McCarthy, "the best wife in the world. Yes, it's true; the computerized rankings were just released on Tuesday by WWRS (World Wife-Rating Service), and Susie is ranked first again. . .Among husbands, by the way, I rated 912,474,384th, between a Yugoslavian alcoholic and a Jamaican guy who's been dead for several years." He mentions several others, including his agent, editor, Dan Okrent, Dallas Adams, Walt Campbell, Pete Palmer, John Dewan, and Don Zminda. "For all you do. This book's for you."
James writes several essays in the first section of the book. He discusses the best players of the day in "Rain Delay" in a conversational format reminiscent of Abbott & Costello's famous "Who's on First?" comedy routine. James opines that
In "Platooning," James wonders why "we know almost nothing about it" even though "it is an old strategy, dating back at least to 1906." He studies the data from 1984-86 and concludes that the platoon differential is not only real but "a condition of the game, shared by everybody" rather than "a weakness peculiar to some players."
Owing to baseball's decision to reduce the size of the strike zone in theory while making it larger in practice by instructing the umpires to uniformly enforce the new rules, James predicts in "The New Strike Zone" that "runs scored are going to be down this year -- and attendance will be down right with them."
In the history of baseball, whenever runs scored go down, attendance goes down. When runs scored go up, attendance goes up.
A check of the records shows that runs scored declined by more than 12% in 1988 but attendance actually increased by nearly 2%. In 1963 -- the last time the strike zone was enlarged -- runs scored dropped approximately 11% while attendance fell by 4%.
In "Game Scores," James introduces his annual fun stat, "a kind of garbage stat that I present not because it helps us understand anything in particular but because it is fun to play around with." The purpose was to create a way to evaluate pitching performances on a scale of zero to a hundred, starting with 50 and adding one point for every hitter the pitcher retires, two points for each inning the pitcher completes after the fourth inning, one one point for each strikeout; then subtracting one point for each walk, two points for each hit, four points for each earned run, and two points for an unearned run.
James also discusses a couple of spinoffs -- "Cheap Wins" (any game in which a starting pitcher is credited with a victory despite a game score below 50) and "Tough Losses" (any game in which a starting pitcher is charged with a defeat despite a game score of 50 or better), which he details more thoroughly later in an article named after these two concepts. "The unluckiest pitcher, by far, was
In the Team Comments in Section II, James writes a companion piece to the Minnesota Twins review called "The Gap" in which he discusses the need for front-line talent when it comes to the postseason. "I've been trying to tell people every World Series time for ten years that in a short, crucial series, depth don't count."
James leads off the Kansas City Royals segment by announcing, "It is dangerous for a baseball team to have too many players with the same weakness, no matter what the weakness. . .So in building a ballclub, you have to be aware of the weaknesses of your stalwart players, and avoid duplicating those weaknesses among the replaceable players."
The fan in James emerges in "The Hobby", a three-page article that sympathizes with
The problem is, Saberhagen was pitching too much. Now, I don't mean that pitching 161 innings in a half-season is necessarily destructive. Working in a four-man rotation, seven innings a start and occasionally eight or nine, for some pitchers, might be all right. The critical factor isn't the number of innings pitched, but the number of innings pitched when tired [my emphasis, not Bill's].
James lists Saberhagen's innings pitched for his first 18 starts (9, 8, 8, 9, 8, 9, 7, 9, 9, 5, 9, 9, 9, 7 2/3, 9, 9, 7, and 9). "In the game that he pitched 7 2/3 he threw 142 pitches. What makes this so irritating, in retrospect, is that it was so unnecessary. Those games include wins by the scored (sic) of 13-1, 10-2, 6-1, 4-0, 4-1, 6-1, 10-5, 6-0, and 10-3. In Saberhagen's first 16 starts the Royals outscored the opposition 99 to 35. In game after game, the risks involved in letting somebody else finish up would have been minimal; the worst reliever in baseball couldn't have lost more than a couple of those games."
Not surprisingly, Saberhagen "wasn't the same pitcher" in the second half of the year. Sabes went on to win his second Cy Young in 1989, but it turned out to be the last time he pitched as many as 200 innings in a season. Although Saberhagen was an effective pitcher the rest of his career (75-56, 3.47 ERA, 4:1 K/BB ratio), he never approached the supremacy he reached in 1985, 1987, and 1989 when he was 21, 23, and 25 years old, respectively.
James compares his days in the military when "generals were in the habit of thinking of manpower as a free resource" to the Seattle Mariners, who "treat talent as if it were a free resource." At the time, the Mariners had a streak of 11 consecutive losing seasons -- the longest since the Kansas City A's run of ineptitude ended in 1967 -- and it was James' belief that it was "due to the organization's failure to perceive a simple reality: that young men who can play baseball are precious to baseball teams. You shouldn't give one away unless you also acquire one." By the way, it took Seattle four more years before it had its first winning season (out of 15) in 1991.
"As a sports fan you hear a lot about momentum. As a scientist you'll have a hell of a time proving that any such animal exists," James writes in "Momentum, Ad Nauseum." By studying the issue, he concludes "that which is called momentum in baseball is not a characteristic of play but a characteristic of the perception of play." He calls momentum "one of those superficial concepts that is hard to resist if you don't think it through" and says "the illusion of momentum will in time, I think, be overpowered by its own absurdities."
James, in a study regarding lineup construction, reports that the number of runs scored was the highest in the first inning ("the only inning in which you get to decide who will hit"), the lowest in the second inning ("when the bottom of the order comes up"), and almost the same in innings three through seven.
What was surprising, however, was this: If you took the first two innings and added them together, the average was not up from the standard for innings three through seven. It was down. What does that mean? By setting the lineup for the first inning, managers are exercising a degree of effective determination over not one but two innings, the first and the second. They accept the cost of a poor second inning in order to get the benefit of a strong first inning -- and they lose on the deal! They wind up scoring fewer runs than if they just started the lineup at a random point.
The implication is that lineups are not constructed properly. "The largest determination of how many runs are likely to be scored in an inning is whether or not the lead-off man reaches base. If the lead-off man reaches base, the number of runs that will probably be scored in an inning is about three times as high as if the lead-off man is put out. . .The one player who is least likely to lead off the second inning is the number-three hitter. . .Thus, the one player who is most likely to start a successful inning and the one player who is least likely to start the second inning are the same player.
"Further, the traditional baseball thinking puts in the fifth spot the slow-moving slugger with the low on-base percentage. . .Think about it. Who leads off the second inning most often? The first inning ends 1-2-3 a little less than 30 percent of the time. The most common lead-off man for the second inning is the fifth hitter -- the one player in all the lineup least suited to be a lead-off hitter!"
James wonders if it wouldn't make more sense to put the player with the high on-base percentage in the fourth spot and the one with the low on-base percentage in the third spot. What do you know? Maybe Felipe Alou gets it after all. Although I would prefer to see
In the St. Louis Cardinals segment, James writes about the advantages and disadvantages of the running game. He doesn't buy into the incidental benefits generally but does in the case of the 1987 Redbirds.
The stolen base, it is argued, puts pressure on the pitcher, breaks up the infield, and takes the double play out of order. While all of these benefits are real, it is my belief that in general, in the normal case, the hidden benefits of the stolen base are canceled out (sometimes more than canceled out) by hidden costs of the running game. The running game can create a balk, and it can create an error on the pitcher; it can also lead to a runner being picked off first base without being charged with a caught stealing, a hidden cost which doesn't show up in the box score. The running game can distract the pitcher; it can also distract the hitter. Hitters who take pitches to allow the runner to steal often find themselves behind in the count, and for that reason the aggregate batting average of all hitters following a stolen base attempt is awful. The stolen base attempt can break up the infield and allow a hit to get through, but if the runner just stays on first base he'll add 30 points to the batting average of a left-handed hitter by forcing the first baseman to stay close to the bag. If you steal second you give those 30 points back. In general, it's a wash; the negatives and positives balance out.
James explains that first-run strategies are well understood when it comes to the sacrifice bunt but not when applied to a stolen base attempt.
If a batter attempts to steal second and is successful, he increases his own chance of scoring a run, but does almost nothing to increase the chance that any other player will score. If he attempts to steal and is thrown out, however, this decreases not only his own chance of scoring but that of every player who will bat in the inning. There is a big, big difference in your chance of scoring a run if you reach first base with no one out or if you reach with one out.
James develops his idea further by stating that "not all runs in a baseball game are equal. The first few runs that you score are crucial. After five runs, each run is, as economists say, of diminishing utility, meaning that it will have less probable impact on the win column. . .One of the possibly legitimate arguments for the running game, then, is that it tends to rearrange runs into more productive groups."
In the case of the Cardinals, James reports that they were only eighth in the majors in runs scored, yet scored less than three runs fewer times than any other team. He says the Cardinals were 15-9 when they scored just three runs whereas most teams lose almost two-thirds of such games.
In "Management," James reduces a manager's job "into three levels of responsibility" -- (1) game-level decision making, (2) team-level decision making, and (3) personnel management and instruction. James praises Whitey Herzog as a successful manager who "makes decisions on all three levels at the same time." He proceeds to list "some very fundamental premises of Herzog's managing which receive very little attention" such as:
Nonetheless, James correctly predicts that Whitey is "reaching the end of his effectiveness in St. Louis" despite the fact that the Cardinals were the defending National League champions and a World Series participant in three of the previous six seasons. "I suspect that Whitey Herzog may have managed his last championship team in St. Louis." The White Rat resigned 2 1/2 years later, having gone 195-209 (.483) in that interim period.
James questions Frank Cashen in the New York Mets comments about the need for players to spend at least one full year in Triple-A. "My theory is that once a player has proven that he can play AAA ball, every extra game that he plays in the minors will make his career less than it would otherwise have been."
Speaking of Dawson, James ridicules his selection as the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1987. "There are occasions in your professional life that make you think you're not making any progress. The election of Andre Dawson as the National League's MVP is one of mine." He states that Dawson "couldn't have been one of the thirty best players" in the league, listing 20 players who created more runs per out "without adjusting for illlusions of context." James points out that "Dawson's statistics were tremendously inflated by playing in Wrigley Field" (.332 with 27 HR vs. .246 and 22 HR on the road).
So why did he win the MVP Award? I know what some people will say. It wasn't Dawson's statistics, it was his leadership and his throwing arm. People will say that, but you know it isn't. You don't give him an MVP for "leadership" on a last-place team. Half the time, the MVP Award goes to the league leader in RBI. That's not leadership; that's statistics. And if they really understood his statistics, they wouldn't have done it.
In "SQ, IQ" James reviews speed quotient -- a concept he introduced the year before -- and unveils intelligence quotient as "another characteristic of a player that is useful both on offense and on defense." He identifies five characteristics of an intelligent baseball player: (1) the tendency not to make errors, (2) command of the strike zone, (3) effective baserunning relative to speed, (4) consistency, and (5) growth.
Although speed scores "can be independently verified by watching players run. . .I can't say that somebody is stupid unless I can support it." James mentions
The centerpiece of the final Baseball Abstract are the comments in the San Diego team segment that have become known within the sabermetric community as A Bill James Primer.
Of all the studies I have done over the last twelve years, what have I learned? What is the relevance of sabermetric knowledge to the decision-making process of a team? If I were employed by a major-league team, what are the basic things that I know from the research I have done which would be of use to me in helping that team?
Feel free to clip and save this Primer. It's James at his best.
In Section III, James subjectively rates the players and separates the rankings and comments for the first time. Rather than providing brief comments on every starter like in years past, he chooses to focus on 63 players but spends at least one full column on each of them. James also adds a new feature ("in a word") to describe each player.
George Bell, slugger. Wade Boggs, offense.
In Section IV, James informs his readers that STATS (Sports Team Analysis & Tracking Systems), "a company run by some friends of mine (Dick Cramer and John Dewan), plans to collect a pitch-by-pitch, play-by-play database for every game played during the season." He distinguishes STATS from Project Scoresheet ("a not-for-profit group that collects scoresheets from every game for the benefit of its members") and states that he is no longer associated with the latter despite being its founder, "although I'll still do anything I can to help them too."
At the moment, some of the directors of Project Scoresheet and STATS tend to see themselves as being competitors and are engaged in some stupid squabbling over absolutely nothing. There is no fundamental reason why both groups cannot succeed. . .My effort in this field has been to break the Elias monopoly, and to insure for the fans permanent access to the records of the games. I support both groups because I think we're better off with two independent sources for public access, rather than one; indeed, if there were a third credible effort I'd support that, too. But you've got to remember, guys, that Elias is still there and still wants desperately to deny everybody else access to the scoresheets. Nothing would make them happier than for you two to push each other over into insolvency. Watch your ass, OK?
James puts the finishing touches on the Baseball Abstracts in "Breakin' The Wand."
Well, it's time for me to go. The Baseball Abstract has been good to me. Starting this project twelve years ago was a casual decision. . .In retrospect, it is fortunate that I had not the foggiest idea what I was up against. . .I had no idea how difficult it would be, once I had written the book, to turn it into a commercial product.
James believes his work built a bridge between the mountains of traditional wisdom and statistics. "A statistician is concerned with what baseball statistics are. I had no concern with what baseball statistics are. . .I was concerned with what the statistics mean." His audience was not the public but an informed public. "I was aiming at the top of the pyramid. . .By assuming an intelligent audience, I developed a small audience, but an audience with which I had a wonderful relationship."
Okrent wrote an article about James for Sports Illustrated in 1981 and several publishers expressed an interest in distributing the Abstract at that point. He signed with Ballantine Books and the first edition sold well. "The second edition sold better. The third edition sold better. This remains true; I don't think we've ever had a year when the sales didn't increase. It became the best-selling baseball book each season."
After the book became successful, there was a period of years in which it was not rational for me even to consider whether I wanted to keep doing it. Having written the book for several years for almost no money, I couldn't walk away from it the minute it began to pay off. The process of writing this book is so exhausting that...every year since 1978, I have told Susie in the spring that this would be the last year of the Abstract.
James discusses how the relationship with his readers changed over the years from a "virtual love fest" to one in which he was getting "more and more letters that irritate the living hell out of me. People have started assuming that I am a goddamn public utility or something. I get letters from people telling me that I do this well but that I shouldn't do that and I should do more of that and less of this and try some of the other. If they irritate me enough, I write back "Dear Jackass: I am not your employee. It is not my function to write about what you are interested in. I write about what I am interested in. If you want to read it, read it. If you don't, don't. But DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT."
James says that he only wrote about 30 such letters the last year but was concerned about how many more he would need to write in the future. "I think that whenever a writer finds that he is beginning to dislike his own readers, it's a very clear sign that he's heading down the wrong road."
I've also got to say, guys, that having done this, I've now done all I can do. I can't help you any more. . .I leave the field to whoever is playing in it. Because four months a year of cyclical depression has gotten too much for me. Because I am no longer certain that the effects of my doing this kind of research are in the best interests of the average baseball fan. Because I wonder if anything I found now could have any real impact on the game. Because I have been repaid for my years of doing this book in anonymity, and no longer have any claim to go on drawing paychecks from it. Because while I have enjoyed doing this book, I have only one lifetime and many dreams. Because I have confidence that I will make a living one way or another. Because I feel that I am on a collision course with my own audience. Because I suspect that my leaving the field may be in the interests of sabermetrics.
It's been good? Wow! What an understatement. Thanks for the Baseball Abstracts, Bill, and for all your wit and wisdom over the years.
Abstracts From The Abstracts:
1977 Baseball Abstract
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]