The 2006 Bill James Handbook
I always give thanks for The Bill James Handbook in November. The book, produced by Baseball Info Solutions, is usually not only the first to market with all the statistics from the previous season, but it invariably offers much, much more.
What with Baseball-Reference.com, ESPN, Baseball America, Baseball Cube, Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times, Baseball Musings Day-By-Day Database, STATS, and Retrosheet, I get most of my data online nowadays. Ironically, it might be for that reason why I love getting my hands on a stat book (with the operative word being hands), especially so early in the offseason.
You can be sure that I go directly to anything that has a Bill James byline attached to it. As such, I found the sections on Team Efficiency, Baserunning, Hitter Projections, and 300-Win Candidates of utmost interest. In addition, I can never get enough of the 2005 Leader Boards, particularly those stats that aren't available elsewhere.
The book opens with the 2005 Team Statistics. Included in the more traditional tables for standings are such nuggets as days in first place, last day in first place, and the largest number of games that a team led their division. There were only four teams last year that never held a share of the lead for even just one day. Two of them were the. . .surprise, surprise. . .Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates, possessors of the worst record in baseball and National League, respectively. The other two teams were the New York Mets (83-79) and, get this, the Cleveland Indians (93-69 and just two games removed from the Wild Card). We all know that the Chicago White Sox got off to a great start, but it's easy to forget that the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers both spent at least three days atop the AL Central back in April.
The Baltimore Orioles (74-88) were in first place for 69 days vs. just 20 for the New York Yankees (95-67). Only the division-winning White Sox, Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, and San Diego Padres, as well as the Wild Card Boston Red Sox, picked up more lap money than the Orioles last year.
In the Team Efficiency Summary, James notes that the Indians "should have won their division by a whopping 13 games." The White Sox just so happened to be the "most efficient team" in baseball, while the Indians were the "least efficient" in the league. Cleveland was 22-36 in one-run games and 34-14 in games that ended with a margin of victory or defeat of five runs or more. The Tribe, in fact, was one of five teams with winning records in five-plus run differentials and losing records in one-run games. The other four? The Toronto Blue Jays in the AL, and the Philadelphia Phillies, Mets, and Cardinals in the NL. Does it make a little bit more sense why TOR, PHI, and the NYM are being so aggressive this winter?
The Career Register includes season-by-season and career stats for every major leaguer, as well as full minor league stats for those players who have appeared in fewer than three ML seasons. The Fielding Statistics in the following section are disappointing in that they only include the traditional defensive numbers (such as putouts, assists, errors, double plays, and fielding percentage) plus range factor (which is the number of successful chances times nine, divided by the number of Defensive Innings played) for all positions other than catchers. There is a special table for the latter that details stolen base attempts, caught stealing, and catcher's ERA. The book also includes SBA, CS, and pickoffs for pitchers.
James writes a short essay on Baserunning. This section captivated me more than any other because there is so little data publicly available in this facet of the game.
On April 14, 2002, Matt LeCroy hit a triple off of Steve Sparks of Detroit. Have you ever seen Matt LeCroy run? Neither has anybody else.
James points out that Frank Thomas (0-7 while being thrown out once) and Calvin Pickering (1-for-3 with an out), "who sort of looks as if he might have eaten Frank Thomas for breakfast with peanut butter and pancakes," were even worse than LeCroy. He also tells us that Aaron Guiel was 3-for-3 going first to third, 2-for-2 scoring from second on a single and 3-for-3 scoring from first on a double for an overall total of 8-for-8. Who does James think is the best baserunner in baseball? None other than Carlos Beltran, who was 32-for-47 (68%), second to Aaron Boone (31-for-44, 70%) in advances-to-opportunities.
Are these differences meaningful? Certainly. Let's suppose that a regular player has 40 chances a year to advance on a teammate's hit, and that the range of performance is from 15% to 70%. That's a difference of 22 bases between the players. If you figure that a run is four bases, that's five runs. That's a very meaningful difference.
Pat Burrell, Mark Loretta, and Rickie Weeks were thrown out five times each trying to take an extra base on a hit. Rich Aurilia, David Bell, Milton Bradley, and Luis Gonzalez got nailed four times. As James writes, "If you figure that the team is going to lose a little more than half a run for each runner thrown out. . .that's certainly significant." Hallelujah, Bill.
James has always been interested in managers and the Handbook provides stats on lineups, substitutions, pitcher usage, tactics, and results in a season-by-season and 162-game career average format for every field boss in the majors. Among veteran managers, Tony LaRussa (131 per 162 games) uses more lineups than anyone else, while Bobby Cox (98/162) uses the least. Substitutions are detailed by number of pinch hitters, pinch runners, and defensive replacements. Clint Hurdle, understandably so, and Jim Tracy like to PH the most. Pitcher Usage details quick and slow hooks, long outings (defined as the number of games in which the starter threw more than 120 pitches), and relief appearances. Dusty Baker and, surprisingly, Joe Torre have worked their starters the hardest over the years. Tactics shows stolen base attempts, sacrifice bunt attempts, intentional walks, and number of pitch outs called. Mike Hargrove and Mike Scioscia love to run, while Frank Robinson likes to sacrifice and call for IBB but doesn't believe much in pitch outs (with just 9/162 games).
My second favorite part of the book involves Park Indices. At-bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, strikeouts, and errors are all broken down by park in absolute and relative terms. A park index of 100 is neutral and "can be said to have had no effect on that particular stat." What I like most of all is the fact that batting averages and home runs are also detailed by LHB and RHB. No longer should we rely on one park factor when this type of information is available to us. A case in point that I mentioned in my Friars Roast article discussing Vinny Castilla and his new home ballpark: Petco played to a 51 HR index for RHB last year and 59 for 2004-05, as compared to a 93 and 91 for LHB. This data is significant and should be used accordingly because it gives more color than just saying that Petco Park has a HR index of 66.
Speaking of LHB and RHB, the next section (Lefty/Righty Statistics) breaks down every player's stats vs. LHP and RHP. Suffice it to say, Bengie Molina, Richie Sexson, Gary Sheffield, and Vernon Wells mash southpaws; Vladimir Guerrero, Travis Hafner, Manny Ramirez, Brian Roberts, and Alex Rodriguez torch righties in the AL. Jason Bay, David Bell, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez hammer portsiders; and Carlos Delgado, Todd Helton, Lee, and Albert Pujols have their ways with right-handers.
The chapter on 2005 Leader Boards has 26 pages of top ten lists, the majority you never see anywhere else. There are 87 batting, 89 pitching, and 13 fielding categories for each league. The pitching data (such as fastest and slowest average fastballs; pitches over 95 and 100 mph; pitches less than 80 mph; and highest % of fastballs, curveballs, sliders, and changeups) alone is worth the price of the book ($19.95 cover, $13.57 at amazon.com). I am going to dig deeper into the Leader Boards in a follow-up article.
The Bill James Handbook also includes sections on Win Shares, Hitter and Pitcher Projections, Projected Career Totals for Active Players, Injury Projections, Career Assessments, 300-Win Candidates, and a Baseball Glossary in the back. The projections are basically how a player has performed in the past, modified by age, playing time, and park effects. James admits that they have no idea how the system worked in 2005 but says, "We are certainly obligated at some point to do a serious study of how well our system works and where and when it fails."
Projections involve both skill and luck but no matter how the system worked last year, I can honestly say The Bill James Handbook has always worked for me. It is a must-own for performance analysts, fantasy players, and serious fans alike. If you haven't bought your copy yet, be sure to ask Santa.