The Bill James Handbook 2009 - Part One
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.
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.
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.
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
James also lists the teams in order of overall young talent currently on the big league squad:
1. Minnesota Twins
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: