The Bill James Handbook 2008 - Part One
A United States Postal Service Priority Mail envelope was sitting on my desk at home when I returned from a two-day trip to Arizona last Friday. I opened it up and was pleasantly surprised to find The Bill James Handbook 2008 inside. In the department of trick or treat, this one qualifies as a definite treat.
Like everyone else, I turned back my clocks on Saturday night. Doing so not only pleased my wife but gave me an extra hour on Sunday to devour the always eagerly anticipated annual baseball reference guide. While the New England Patriots-Indianapolis Colts game lived up to its hype yesterday afternoon, the Handbook is certain to provide baseball fans a lot more than 3-1/2 hours of enjoyment this fall and winter.
The Handbook, which is produced by Baseball Info Solutions and published by ACTA Sports, offers readers more than 480 pages of facts, stats, and lists, as well as several short essays by Bill James. Features include career data for every 2007 major leaguer, pitcher and hitter projections, team statistics and efficiency summaries, park indices, plus season-by-season and career Win Shares, Fielding Bible Awards (along with plus/minus leaders at each position), improved Manufactured Runs and Baserunning Analysis, expanded Manager's Record, and the newly added Young Talent Inventory.
Introduced in 2006, the Fielding Bible Awards are included in the Handbook for the second year in a row. Albert Pujols was the only repeat winner. As John Dewan writes, "There are quite a few new award winners and we think that's great. Through our extensive fielding research over the past few years, we're finding that, just like hitters and pitchers, fielders have good seasons and bad seasons. We were somewhat worried the awards might turn into a mirror of the Gold Glove Awards, in which it seems once a player wins, he keeps winning until retirement, injury, trade or a position switch. With a second year now in the books, that is definitely not the case with the Fielding Bible Awards."
A panel of ten experts, including Dewan and James, once again selected this year's award winners. First place votes received 10 points, second place 9 points, third place 8 points, etc. A perfect score was 100. Unlike the Gold Gloves, only one honoree was named at each position (rather than separate winners for each league).
Here are the results of the 2007 Fielding Bible Awards (with commentary excerpted or paraphrased from the book):
1B: Albert Pujols, STL (91 pts.) - the only repeat winner; his excellent defense is becoming as well-known as his prodigious offense.
2B: Aaron Hill, TOR (82) - edged out the 2006 winner, Orlando Hudson, by two points; Hudson's injury late in the year may have come into play, but it's Hill who has led the majors in plus/minus at second base in each of the last two years (+22 each year).
3B: Pedro Feliz, SFG (89) - he is especially adept at handling bunts and rates an A+ in this area over the past three years.
SS: Troy Tulowitzki, COL (87) - with the biggest margin of victory of all nine winners, Tulo is the rare rookie to win a fielding award.
LF: Eric Byrnes, ARI (85) - barely beat out incumbent Carl Crawford; led all left fielders in plus/minus (+28) and was one of the leadeers in Good Fielding Plays (23), a new defensive category being tracked by Baseball Info Solutions.
CF: Andruw Jones, ATL (86) - reversed spots with Carlos Beltran, who won last year; both center fielders have great range, but it was probably Jones' intimidating throwing arm that swayed the voters; thought to be slipping a year ago, Jones could also be crowned with the "Comeback Fielder of the Year."
RF: Alex Rios, TOR (73) - last year's runner-up in right field fills the spot vacated by Ichiro Suzuki, who finished third in center field.
C: Yadier Molina, STL (83) - threw out 49% of would-be base stealers and upstaged last year's winner Pudge Rodriguez, who threw out only 26% (down from 46% in 2006).
P: Johan Santana, MIN (62) - dethroned last year's Fielding Bible Award winner (and 16 of the last 17 NL Gold Gloves); Greg Maddux finished a close second but probably lost out to Santana due to his inability to control the running game; 32 of 34 base stealers were successful against Maddux, whereas only 11 base runners attempted to steal against Santana and five of them were gunned down.
Dewan points out that Manny Ramirez had the worst plus/minus in all of MLB over the last three years (-109). "Does that make him baseball's worst defender? Maybe, but there is a question because of the wall in Fenway Park. Are his numbers hurt by the wall? The answer is clearly yes. Balls that hit the wall might be catchable in other parks. It's an adjustment we need to make but haven't gotten around to as of yet, mostly because unique park configurations like Fenway are not as common elsewhere. Ramirez was below average in road games as well, though nowhere near as poor as his overall numbers would suggest."
The author proceeds to ask if Derek Jeter (-90) is the worst defender? "Well, Jeter's poor numbers do not have a caveat like Manny's do. There are no significant park effects clouding his stats. The numbers suggest that Jeter has hurt his team defensively as much or more than any other player in baseball. Having said that, you can still make a good case for Jeter being the best shortstop in the game. Given all that he brings to the team – hitting, baserunning, leadership, overall baseball savvy (including as a defender) – nearly every baseball general manager would prefer Jeter over almost any other shortstop. But, defensively, he's not the best. Do I personally think he's the worst defensive shortstop in baseball? No, but he's far from deserving to be a guy who will probably win his fourth Gold Glove in as many years. He's a below-average defender who should never have received a Gold Glove in the first place."
As with fielding, baserunning tends to get a disproportionate amount of my time when reviewing the Handbook because so little quantifiable data is available to the public. James delves into the subject by stating, "It is universally recognized that there is a difference between being a good base stealer and being a good baserunner. One can be a good baserunner by reading the ball well off the bat, figuring out quickly whether the ball will be caught or will drop, making good decisions and, to an extent, running good routes. It is difficult to be a good base stealer by making good decisions. That requires speed. One can be a good baserunner without being a good base stealer; one can be a good base stealer without being a good baserunner, and somebody should have zapped me with a stun gun two or three sentences ago for belaboring the obvious."
James explains that "baserunning is a very complicated concept, and we're working on measuring it all, but we're not there yet." The system gives credit for stolen bases for the first time. "The title at the head of the page doesn't say 'Baserunning other than Base Stealing;' it just says 'Baserunning.' Base stealing isn't all of baserunning, but it is part of baserunning." Interestingly, the method chosen to measure stolen bases gained is the same one I have used in the past (SB minus two times CS).
Inputs on baserunning include runners going from first to third on a single, scoring from second on a single and from first on a double; moving up on a wild pitch, passed ball, balk, sac fly, or defensive indifference; runs scored as a percentage of times on base; and baserunning outs. Lo and behold, the top base stealer in the majors was also the best baserunner, independent of stolen bases. Jose Reyes led the majors in stolen bases (78), net stolen bases gained (36), and baserunning gained above the league average (34), which generated an overall rating of +70 by adding the latter two categories. The worst? Todd Helton (-35). He was 5-for-42 moving from first to third on a single and ran into six outs.
Mike Cameron was the best baserunner at going from first to third on a single in 2007 (15-for-23) and 2006 (15-for-22). Jason Varitek (0-for-18) was on the other end of the scale this year. Rob Mackowiak was 11-for-11 at scoring from second on a single. Bengie Molina was 0-for-9. Ronnie Belliard was 7-for-7 at scoring from first on a double. Helton was 0-for-10.
The 2008 Handbook also includes team baserunning. As James writes, "There will be a time in the future, probably not too long from now, when this baserunning data will be published for all teams and all players over the last 50 years. When that happens, we'll be in a better position to understand the role of baserunning (other than base stealing) in creating runs. This data is the first step along that road."
The top five teams were as follows:
1. New York Mets 111
2. Philadelphia Phillies 104
3. Tampa Bay Devil Rays 82
3. Arizona Diamondbacks 82
5. Los Angeles Angels 76
The bottom five:
26. Pittsburgh Pirates -13
27. St. Louis Cardinals -18
28. Toronto Blue Jays -25
29. Chicago White Sox -35
30. Houston Astros -50
In a new section of the book, James evaluates the best young players in the majors under the age of 29 and ranks them based on their projected value through age 33. He excludes prospects or minor leaguers. "We're discussing proven major league players who are still young." His methodology combines youth and performance, employing runs created for position players and runs saved for pitchers as the basis for the latter.
"We are sitting in a historic bubble of young talent," James says. "Arguably there is more outstanding young talent around right now than at any other moment in baseball history." He believes the young talent in 2007 exceeds the previous peak in 1964 (which included Dick Allen, Lou Brock, Johnny Callison, Rico Carty, Dean Chance, Tony Conigliaro, Willie Davis, Bill Freehan, Jim Fregosi, Jim Kaat, Mickey Lolich, Sam McDowell, Dave McNally, Tony Oliva, Gaylord Perry, Vada Pinson, Boog Powell, Pete Rose, Ron Santo, Wilie Stargell, Luis Tiant, Joe Torre, and Carl Yastrzemski, among others).
The top 25 young players according to James are as follows (with ages as of 6/30/07):
1. Prince Fielder, 1B, MIL, 23
2. Hanley Ramirez, SS, FLA, 23
3. Fausto Carmona, SP, CLE, 23
4. David Wright, 3B, NYM, 24
5. Felix Hernandez, SP, SEA, 21
6. Scott Kazmir, SP, TB, 23
7. Jose Reyes, SS, NYM, 24
8. Matt Cain, SP, SFG, 22
9. Grady Sizemore, CF, CLE, 24
10. Cole Hamels, SP, PHI, 23
11. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, WAS, 22
12. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, COL, 22
13. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, FLA, 24
14. Ryan Braun, 3B, MIL, 23
15. Justin Verlander, SP, DET, 24
16. Nick Markakis, RF, BAL, 23
17. Jake Peavy, SP, SD, 26
18. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, SDP, 25
19. Tom Gorzelanny, SP, PIT, 24
20. James Shields, SP, TB, 25
21. C.C. Sabathia, SP, CLE, 26
22. Curtis Granderson, CF, DET, 26
23. Brandon Webb, SP, ARI, 26
24. Chad Billingsley, SP, LAD, 22
25. Chris Young, CF, ARI, 23
Teams were also listed by James in order of overall young talent in the majors. Here are the top ten:
1. Colorado Rockies
2. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
4. Florida Marlins
5. Cleveland Indians
6. Milwaukee Brewers
7. Pittsburgh Pirates
8. Kansas City Royals
9. Oakland A's
10. Toronto Blue Jays
. . . and the bottom ten:
21. Texas Rangers
22. Baltimore Orioles
23. Cincinnati Reds
24. Chicago White Sox
25. Seattle Mariners
26. St. Louis Cardinals
27. New York Yankees
28. Detroit Tigers
29. Chicago Cubs
30. Houston Astros
"Competitive teams don't have as much room to let young players thrash around," explains James, "and consequently most of the top teams don't show as having a lot of young talent. They may have the young talent; it just isn't in the lineup yet."
Part two will dig into the numbers, including the statistical leaderboards with a focus on many that receive little or no attention during or after the season.
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I have been reviewing The Bill James Handbook since 2003. The previous reviews can be accessed at the following links:
2007 - Part One, Two, Three
2006 - Part One, Two, Three
2004 - The Handiest Reference Book of 'Em All
[Additional reader comments and retorts at the Baseball Think Factory/Baseball Primer Newsblog.]