The Bill James Handbook 2010
What a pleasant surprise it was to receive a review copy of The Bill James Handbook 2010 on Halloween Day before the third game of the 2009 World Series. The Handbook is not only the first baseball stats annual to hit the market each year but the most comprehensive as well.
The book, featuring Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria on the cover, combines many of the best features of The Sporting News Baseball Register and Baseball Guide—both of which are now defunct, thanks in no small part to Bill James and the team at Baseball Info Solutions and ACTA Sports. This is the eighth year of the Handbook, which I have been reviewing since the 2004 edition was released in November 2003.
Whereas The Bill James Abstracts from 1977-1988, the Bill James Baseball Books from 1990-1992, and The Bill James Player Ratings Books from 1993-1995 were full of commentary from James himself, the Handbook is devoted more to the presentation of stats. However, I'm happy to say that the number of pages penned by James has grown from five six years ago to over 30 this year.
In addition to staples like Team Statistics, the Player Career Register, Fielding Statistics, the Fielding Bible Awards, Park Indices (including the new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field), and Win Shares, new features in this year's book include a history of Instant Replay and Pinch Hitting Analysis.
Major League Baseball introduced instant replay in late August 2008 to determine whether disputable home runs were fair, foul, or interfered with by a fan. In just over one full season, umpires have consulted instant replay 65 times and 22 calls have been overturned. The Handbook provides the details of each and every instant replay review in 2008 and 2009.
James attaches his byline to Team Efficiency Summary, The Baserunners, 2009 Relief Pitchers, Manufactured Runs, The Manager's Record, Young Talent Inventory, Hitter Projections, Pitcher Projections, and Pitchers on Course for 300 Wins.
The most efficient team in baseball is usually the Los Angeles Angels—anyway it was in 2009, and it was in 2008, and it has been in other years. The Angels do little things so well that they are consistently able to grind five or ten more wins a year out of their team than what one would think was available. We don't really understand how they do this, to be frank, but since they do it every year, we know it's not luck. Saying that they "do the little things well" is just a way of covering for the fact that we don't actually know how they do it.
If it wasn't for the Angels, we might think it was all luck. There are a couple of parts of the Angels' success that we do understand. For one thing, they run the bases extremely well. They picked up about 96 bases last year, or about 20 runs, just by running the bases better than the average team. Twenty-two of those bases are "stolen base gain," but 74 of them are bases gained by things like going first-to-third on a single or tagging up and advancing. That helps a lot. The Angels in 2009 had 221 "Manufactured Runs," by far the most of any major league team. Second, they usually have a good bullpen, which means that they can put a good pitcher on the mound when the game is close. Even in 2009, when they didn't have a really good bullpen, they also didn't have a really bad bullpen. Those things help to make a team "efficient," as we are using the term.
The least efficient team? The Washington Nationals. Based on category performance such as team batting average and home runs (both offensively and defensively), James contends that the Nationals and the Houston Astros "could have been expected to win about 70 games." Nonetheless, the Astros won 74 games and the Nats were "dreadfully inefficient" with only 59 victories.
The Career Register includes career stats through the 2009 season for every major league player who participated in a game last year, as well as 32 bonus players, including those who missed the entire campaign due to injuries (such as Justin Duchscherer and Ben Sheets) and "potential foreign imports" (like Ryota Igarashi and Hisanori Takahashi). With approximately four or five players per page, this section comprises nearly 270 of the 514 numbered pages.
The Handbook provides traditional and advanced fielding statistics (G, GS, Inn, PO, A, E, DP, Pct., and Range plus SBA, CS, CS%, CERA for catchers), Runs Saved and Plus/Minus leaders, and the Fielding Bible Award winners.
Here are the results of The 2009 Fielding Bible Awards, as determined by a panel of ten analysts, including James, John Dewan, Peter Gammons, Joe Posnanski, and Rob Neyer (with the following commentary provided by Dewan). A complete record of the voting can be found in The Bill James Handbook 2010.
1B: Albert Pujols, STL - Four Fielding Bible Awards in four years. What's left to say?
2B: Aaron Hill, TOR - Hill wins the tie-breaker on the strength of four first-place votes, as opposed to only one for runner-up Dustin Pedroia.
3B: Ryan Zimmerman, WAS - Third base is a strong, deep defensive position in baseball right now, but Zimmerman has set himself apart by becoming the leader in Defensive Runs Saved over the last three years.
SS: Jack Wilson, PIT/SEA - Even though he split time between leagues, Wilson was the best shorstop in baseball this year, leading all shorstops in Runs Saved by a wide margin (27 compared to Brendan Ryan's 19).
LF: Carl Crawford, TB - No player has ever won with a perfect record (10 first-place votes from 10 panelists), but Crawford came as close as possible, garnering nine out of ten possible first-place votes. His 99 total points is an all-time record.
CF: Franklin Gutierrez, SEA - Winner of the 2008 Fielding Bible Award for right field, Gutierrez moved over to center field in 2009. His 31 Runs Saved were tied with Chone Figgins for the most in baseball.
RF: Ichiro Suzuki, SEA - Hunter Pence gave Ichiro a run for his money, but Ichiro finished with 93 points to Pence's 84. This is Ichiro's second Fielding Bible Award.
C: Yadier Molina, STL - Everyone knows about Molina's incredible throwing arm (well, maybe not the eight guys he picked off this year), but Molina was also the third-best bad-pitch-blocking catcher in baseball behind Carlos Ruiz and Jason Varitek.
P: Mark Buehrle, CWS - Buerhle has defensive chops, but his ability to hold runners is legendary. In the last four years he's allowed a total of 15 stolen bases, picked off 14 baserunners, and thrown over to first—only to have the runner break for second and be thrown out—16 times.
The chapter on Baserunning is always one of my favorites, partly due to the hard-to-find numbers and the six pages of James' insights. While Baseball-Reference.com has advanced baserunning stats on each player page, I'm not aware of an alphabetized table that is as readable as those in the Handbook.
Before listing the best and worst baserunners by position, James compares Chone "Gone" Figgins (23-for-43 going from first-to-third on a single and 26-for-31 second-to-home on a single) with Prince Fielder (1-for-45 first-to-third on a single) and David Ortiz (2-for-16 second-to-home on a single), Emilio Bonafacio (10-for-10 first-to-home on a double) with Mike Lowell (0-for-10), and Denard Span (moved up a base 31 times on a WP, PB, Balk, SF, or Defensive Indifference) with Geoff Blum (never advanced a base on any of those plays).
Most people will tell you that we should have Carl Crawford in left field ahead of Ryan Braun, and people will tell you that Yadier Molina actually runs well for a catcher, or at least for a Molina. We don't base this on reputation. Carl Crawford was 8-for-27 going first-to-third on a single. Ryan Braun was 15-for-41, which is better. Crawford was 4-for-9 scoring from first on a double. Braun was 7-for-9. Crawford moved up 24 bases on Wild Pitches, Passed Balls, Balks, Sacrifice Flies and Defensive Indifference. Braun moved up 26 times. Crawford grounded into 7 double plays in 136 DP situations; Braun grounded into 7 in 172 situations. Braun was thrown out 5 times on the bases. Crawford was thrown out 10. Crawford is a very good baserunner—the second-best baserunner among major league left fielders in 2009, including his base stealing—but Braun was better. And Yadi Molina grounded into 27 frigging double plays, which is a record even for a Molina brother.
As James points out, "the difference between the best baserunner in the majors (Michael Bourn) and the worst (Juan Rivera) was 95 bases, or about 24 runs" [editor's note: equal to about 2 1/2 wins].
That's nowhere near as large as the difference between Ryan Howard's bat and Willie Bloomquist's. It is not as large as the difference between Tim Lincecum's arm and R.A. Dickey's, or the difference between Zach Greinke and Luke Hochevar. It is not as large as the difference between having Franklin Gutierrez in center field or Vernon Wells, nor even as large as the difference between Franklin Gutierrez and an average defensive center fielder.
It is not that large, but it is not meaningless or insignificant, either. It counts. We count everything because everything counts; that's our motto, or ought to be. On a team level the difference between best and worst baserunners is about 170 bases, or 40+ runs.
In the section on Relief Pitchers, the Handbook details 22 categories (with attendant commentary by James), including Games Pitched, Early Entries, Pitching on ConsecutiveDays, Long Outings, Leverage Index, Inherited Runners, Inherited Runners Who Scored, Inherited Runners Allowed Percentage, Easy Save Opportunity, Clean Outing, Blown Save Win, Saves, Save Opportunities, Holds, Save/Hold Percentage, and Opposition OPS. The stats of every pitcher who appeared in relief are listed in a table sorted by team and by job (closer, setup man, lefty relief specialist, long man, utility reliever, and emergency reliever).
James defines Manufactured Runs "loosely as any run on which two of the four bases result from doing something other than playing station-to-station baseball)" and gives a more technical description encompassing six rules. He says "the most critical element to manufacturing runs, in modern baseball, is speed. . .the bunt, yes, but modern teams don't bunt that much, and it doesn't lead to a lot of runs even when they do."
The best teams in baseball at Manufacturing Runs, pretty much every year, are the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Minnesota Twins of Bloomington. Those two teams were 1-3 in 2006, 1-2 in 2007, 1-4 in 2008, and 1-2 in 2009. They're good at that. The Angels led the majors in 2009 with 221 Manufactured Runs.
In The Manager's Record, James admits "there are many things that a manager does that are beyond the scope of our analysis." However, he points out that there are "certain things that one manager does differently than another manager that we can study" (likes to use a fixed lineup or experiment; propensity to platoon; use of pinch hitters, pinch runners, and defensive substitutions; quick hooks and slow hooks; tolerance for long outings by starting pitchers; number of relievers and those used on consecutive days; stolen base and sacrifice bunt attempts; hit and run; pitchouts; and intentional walks).
After two years of including Young Talent Inventory, James decided that this item "does not really belong in this book"—opting to move it to the Bill James Gold Mine—for three reasons:
First, this is a book about facts, as opposed to a book of analysis that is in any way speculative. We try to make a record of the season, and we try to include information that has never been seen before, and we try to pull that together as quickly as we can so that we can make it available to you while the breath of the season still hangs in the air.
Second, the work process necessary for this book is not compatible with the needs of the Young Talent Inventory. This book is pulled together at a breakneck pace in the ten days following the end of the regular season. There is not a lot of room here for contemplation and review—and wouldn't be, even if that was all we were trying to do.
Third, the issue of which team owns the most talent is a forward-looking question, the sort of thing that one asks in the spring, as the season is getting underway: Who owns the future?
Of course baseball fans care about the future of their franchise as much in the fall as they do in the spring; I'm not suggesting that they don't. But I think it's a question that is more naturally asked in a spring annual than a fall summary, and we're going to move it over there where it belongs. I hope you understand.
The Bill James Handbook 2010 has much, much more to offer, including 2009 Leader Boards, mostly derived from the complex pitch data collected by Baseball Info Solutions. A lot of this information can be found at Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, but there is something magical about flipping through a book and stumbling across the ten longest home runs in the A.L. and N.L., the ten longest average home runs in each league, the lowest and highest first swing %, the best and worst batting average plus slugging on pitches outside the strike zone, and the most pitches thrown at 95 or 100 mph. Trust me, there's enough enjoyment here to get you through the long winter.