Baseball BeatNovember 17, 2008
The Bill James Handbook 2009 - Part One
By Rich Lederer

One of the beauties of November is the arrival of The Bill James Handbook, the most stat-filled annual baseball guide available. The book, produced by Baseball Info Solutions and published by ACTA Sports, is always the first one to hit the market following the just-completed season.

Key features include career data for every 2008 major leaguer, fielding (including plus/minus leaders and The Fielding Bible Awards, which we covered on the last day in October), baserunning analysis, pitcher and hitter projections, team statistics and efficiency summaries, manager records, manufactured runs, win shares, a new section on relief pitching, and much more.

I always read in full anything with a Bill James byline and this year is no exception. Bill tackles Team Efficiency Summary, The Baserunners, The 21st Century Bullpen, Manufactured Runs, The Manager's Record, Young Inventory Talent, Another One Bites the Dust, Introduction to the Pitcher Projections, and Pitchers on Course for 300 Wins. In all, there are more than 20 pages devoted to James' commentary.

In the section on team efficiency – which measures: (1) how many runs did the team score compared to the number we would expect them to score based on their hitting stats? (2) how many runs did the team allow compared to the number we would have expected them to allow? and (3) how many games did the team win based on the number of runs they scored and allowed? – James writes:

If you have a homer, double, single and a walk in an inning, but you only score one run, that's very inefficient. If you have two walks and a single but you turn it into two runs, that's very efficient.

If you're outscored in a three-game series 7 to 12, but you win two of the three games, that's efficient. If you outscore your opponents 18 to 3 in a doubleheader, but you split the doubleheader, that's inefficient.

The most efficient team in the majors in 2008, by far, was the Angels. The least efficient teams were the Braves and the Padres.

In The Baserunners, James writes, "We are not essentially in the business of rating or ranking ballplayers. We are in the world of keeping track of the facts, and making those available to you. It would, however, be somewhat absurd to report each player's hits and at bats, and not bother to figure the batting average, or the slugging percentage, or the on base percentage. A certain amount of primitive analysis is essential to record-keeping."

Hence, the baserunning data that follows. Let us compare Curtis Granderson, who is a really good baserunner, with Magglio Ordonez, who is a great hitter but, at 34, not quite what he used to be on the bases.

Granderson was on first base when a single was hit to the outfield 34 times, and went to third base 10 times. Magglio was on first when a single was hit 21 times, and made it to third only 4 times.

Granderson was on second when a single was hit 26 times, and scored 21 times (81%). Magglio was on second when a single was hit 20 times, and scored 10 times.

Granderson was on first when a double was hit 9 times, and scored 6 times. Magglio was also on first when a double was hit 9 times, and scored only 3 times.

We compare all of these to the averages, which in all of these cases is a percentage better than Ordonez', but less than Granderson's. An average baserunner goes from first to third 27% of the time, Granderson 29%, Ordonez 19%. Granderson is +1, +6 and +2; Ordonez is -2, -2 and -1.

We also look at how often the baserunner moves up on a Wild Pitch, A Passed Ball, a Balk, a Sacrifice Fly or Defensive Indifference. These things, taken together, we call "Bases Taken." Curtis Granderson took 23 bases; Magglio Ordonez took 6.

We look at how many times the player is doubled off on the bases, and how often he runs into an out. We look at how many times he bats in a potential Double Play situation, and how often he grounds into a Double Play.

Finally, we add in base stealing—one point for a stolen base, minus two points for a caught stealing. Adding all that together, Curtis Granderson is +31, making him. . .well, not one of the top 10 baserunners in the majors, but pretty close to that. Magglio comes in at -35, making him grateful for Dioner Navarro's late-season leg injuries.

Here are the top and bottom ten baserunners of 2008, as determined by James' formula:

 1. Willy Taveras            +70               1. Dioner Navarro            -39      
 2. Ichiro Suzuki            +56               2. Magglio Ordonez           -35
 3. Matt Holliday            +52               3. Edgar Gonzalez            -27
 4. Grady Sizemore           +50               4. Yorvit Torrealba          -26
 5. Jimmy Rollins            +46               5. Yunel Escobar             -25
 6. Nate McLouth             +44               6. Mike Lowell               -23
 7. Ian Kinsler              +41               7. Ramon Hernandez           -22
    Randy Winn               +41                  Prince Fielder            -22
 9. Jacoby Ellsbury          +40                  Billy Butler              -22
10. Carlos Beltran           +35              10. Long List of Guys         -21

I believe the aforementioned system does an excellent job of identifying the best and worst baserunners but am of the opinion that it could be strengthened by adjusting for ballpark effects, the number of outs in an inning, and whether there is a full count on the batter at the time of opportunity for advancement. James Click and Dan Fox have tackled these variables as well as the nearly indistinguishable impact from hitters and fielders. Nonetheless, as evidenced by the top and bottom tens, James' methodology is a reasonable proxy for determining baserunning skills. The book devotes more than six pages to tables, breaking down the results for almost 400 baserunners.

In The 21st Century Bullpen, James writes, "The modern bullpen is still evolving very rapidly...leaving stat books in their wake. We evaluate relievers by ERA, but a modern reliever can do a lot of damage with runs charged to somebody else. In the 1950s and 60s we developed the concept of the "Save," and since then have added the derivative concepts of "Blown Saves" and "Holds," but the modern bullpen contains one pitcher who is assigned to save the game and six or seven whose job is something else entirely—something not measured by Saves or anything in their line."

The modern bullpen is staffed by two or three lefties whose job it is to get out lefties, by an eighth-inning guy whose job it is to be a bridge to the closer, by a seventh-inning guy, and by two or three pudknockers whose job is to pitch in where they can. You have a lot of different guys, doing a lot of different jobs, whose records all look pretty much the same.

We're trying to stretch the record book here to cover more of the modern bullpen. This table has 21 categories, not counting the pitcher's name or his team.

James assigns all major league relievers to one of six "positions" in the bullpen: closer, set-up man, lefty, long man, utility reliever, or emergency reliever. He says, "Think about what this means. There have been "field positions" in record books for a hundred years. But, just in the last generation, (a) positions have evolved within the bullpen, and (b) nobody has officially categorized them. That's what we're doing: we're adding "positions" to the bullpen. It's an obvious step, and I don't really know why we didn't do it before now."

The categories include relief games ("no explanation needed"), early entry (sixth inning or earlier), consecutive days, long outings (more than 25 pitches), leverage index (the amount of swing in the possible change in win probability compared to the average swing in all situations), inherited runners, inherited runners scored, percentage, easy saves (three outs remaining and the first batter he faces does not represent the potential tying or winning run), easy save opportunities, regular saves (any save which does not meet the definition of an easy or tough save), regular save opportunities, tough saves (potential tying or winning run on base), tough save opportunities, clean outing (not charged with a run *and* does not allow an inherited runner to score), blown save win, saves ("don't make me explain the Save Rule...I know people"), holds, save opportunities, save/hold percentage, opposition OPS, and ERA.

For the second straight year, James ranks the top 25 individual young players under the age of 29. The rankings are based on "proven major league talents, not prospects or young players who are not yet proven as major league players."

The following list of the top 25 young MLB players includes teams, positions, and 2008 ages:

 1. Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers first baseman, age 24
 2. Hanley Ramirez, Florida Marlins shortstop, age 24
 3. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants pitcher, age 24
 4. David Wright, New York Mets third baseman, age 25
 5. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers left fielder, age 24
 6. Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox second baseman, age 24
 7. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder, age 23
 8. Francisco Rodriguez, Los Angeles Angels pitcher, age 26
 9. Jose Reyes, New York Mets shortstop, age 25
10. Nick Markakis, Baltimore Orioles right fielder, age 24
11. Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals pitcher, age 24
12. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals third baseman, age 23
13. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, age 24
14. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies shortstop, age 23
15. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners pitcher, age 22
16. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox pitcher, age 24
17. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays third baseman, age 22
18. John Danks, Chicago White Sox pitcher, age 23
19. Adrian Gonzalez, San Diego Padres first baseman, age 26
20. James Loney, Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman, age 24
21. Stephen Drew, Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop, age 25
22. Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves catcher, age 24
23. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers first baseman, age 25
24. Grady Sizemore, Cleveland Indians center fielder, age 25
25. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds first baseman, age 24

James also lists the teams in order of overall young talent currently on the big league squad:

 1. Minnesota Twins
 2. Arizona Diamondbacks
 3. Tampa Bay Rays
 4. Florida Marlins
 5. Kansas City Royals
 6. Milwaukee Brewers
 7. Cleveland Indians
 8. Colorado Rockies
 9. Atlanta Braves
10. Boston Red Sox
11. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
12. Oakland A's
13. Los Angeles Dodgers
14. St. Louis Cardinals
15. Cincinnati Reds
16. New York Mets
17. Pittsburgh Pirates
18. Seattle Mariners
19. Texas Rangers
20. Philadelphia Phillies
21. San Diego Padres
22. San Francisco Giants
23. Washington Nationals
24. Baltimore Orioles
25. Chicago White Sox
26. Chicago Cubs
27. Detroit Tigers
28. Toronto Blue Jays
29. New York Yankees
30. Houston Astros

According to James, "2008 really was not a great year for young talent, except pitchers." Bill believes Evan Longoria was the "only really huge talent to emerge," claiming that he "probably would rank as the number one guy on our list, were it not for an injury, but the system relies on major league production."

* * * * *

I have been reviewing The Bill James Handbook since 2003. The previous reviews can be accessed at the following links:

2008 - Part One, Two
2007 - Part One, Two, Three
2006 - Part One, Two, Three
2004 - The Handiest Reference Book of 'Em All


Just about every blogger insisted that the Angels were "just lucky" all season and Bill James blesses them with the title of "Efficient."

I'm curious why James even bothers with that top 25 young players, I mean he has to know it's a crappy list, right?

I wonder that same thing. I mean Drew better than Sizemore? Tulo?

Apparently Bill James does not understand positional adjustments. Oh well, it's always been said he just leaves a tidy mess for others to clean up.

Joe Mauer not in the top 25 young players? That has to be an oversight.

James actually ranked Mauer 33rd. In his commentary, James admits that the process could be improved and argues that the list itself ("which is as good as anybody else's list, but not better") is "not the point of doing this." Instead, he is trying to create a list of the best young players and use that "to study the second and third level of questions, which are issues that are difficult to assess by seat-of-the-pants analysis." These questions include "Who has the young talent now?" and "Which teams have the most young talent?"

Was 29 the age cut off? If so, was Albert Pujols on the list of the top 25 young players? Maybe there were other restrictions - or Pujols is just too obvious.

Yes, age 29 was the cut off for James' Young Talent Inventory. as for Pujols, James has this to say about him in the paragraph on the St. Louis Cardinals, a team he ranked 14th: "The Cardinals best young player, by far, is Pujols, who as we all know is not really 'young' anymore. He is just SO good that he almost makes the top 25 young players anyway (27th)."

How could geovany soto not make the list but Joey Votto can? It makes little sense to me. seems like catchers are not weighed properly.

A few of James' talent rankings seem quirky to me. Ask yourself whether you'd make the following trades, assuming salary, contract status, and roster construction were not an issue:

Would you trade Hanley Ramirez for Prince Fielder? (I sure wouldn't.) Jose Reyes for Frankie Rodriguez? (No way.) Cole Hamels or Evan Longoria for Joakim Soria? (Absolutely not.) Grady Sizemore for John Danks? (Of course not.)

I know those are stray examples -- nit-picking. But I wonder how James justifies them.

James doesn't explain his methodology in the book. I believe he would be better served if he did. Instead, we are all left wondering how this player ranked ahead of that player. It seems to me that James places a lot of weighting on MLB playing time and accomplishments as well as forecasts up to perhaps the age when they no longer qualify as "young talent." If the latter is the case, I think it is flawed as it penalizes too heavily older players like Pujols. It also appears as if there is little regard for positional value (see Fielder over Ramirez despite both being 24 and Mauer being left out of the top 25), including within the ranks of pitchers as two of the top three hurlers are relievers.

Let's hope for more transparency next time around.