Visiting With Bill James
Many baseball fans from the “Baby Boomer” generation haven’t really bought into the immense change in how statistics are viewed. They still look at the game with their eyes and are only concerned with the numbers on the back of the baseball card. For those of us more immersed in the details of the game, the man who guided us through the wilderness is Bill James. Starting in the late 70’s, he published an annual “Baseball Abstract” that began the task of analyzing data in new and different ways. By 1985, he wrote the first “Historical Baseball Abstract” and that 700+ page volume still sits on the bookshelf in my office.
For baseball fans in general and Fantasy Baseball players who participate in keeper leagues, Bill also helps us get through the winter while we’re longing for box scores. Each November, The Bill James Handbook gives us a review of the season, lifetime stats of every major league player and numerous articles and lists to make the “hot stove” season tolerable. The 2016 version is available now and at 601 pages, offers just about something for everyone. The Old Duck has an annual exercise, where I take my initial cursory glance at the book and begin discovering information that surprises and enlightens me.
So, here are some random observations from my first time through the pages…
> In golf and tennis, fans can easily find current rankings on each player. The systems are set up so that the rankings move up and down based on performance and are not just for the current season. James has developed a similar idea for ranking starting pitchers. The current top five are Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta & Madison Bumgarner. Jacob deGrom was 94th going into 2015, now he’s 22nd. Carlos Carrasco was at #120 and now sits 28th.
> Most spectators are much more aware of pitch velocity than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. With radar guns in stadiums and in every scout’s hands, we focus on that statistic and assume a pitcher’s performance will deteriorate with diminished velocity. This year’s handbook charts average fastball velocity by age and actually shows how little difference there is for most pitchers. For example, Kershaw’s average velocity for the last eight years has been either 93 or 94 mph. Looking for outliers, however, shows that from 2008 to 2015, Felix Hernandez has dropped from 95 to 92, Johnny Cueto from 93 to 91, Tim Lincecum from 94 to 87, Ubaldo Jimenez from 95 to 91, Jered Weaver from 90 to 83, Jonathan Papelbon from 95 to 91, C.C. Sabathia from 94 to 90, Bartolo Colon from 92 to 88 and C.J. Wilson from 93 to 90. On the flip side, Tommy Hunter increased from 91 to 95 and Glen Perkins from 91 to 94. Even when you look at a disastrous performance like Matt Garza’s 2015 campaign, the obvious assumption of diminished velocity doesn’t hold up…he’s been at 93 or 94 for the last eight seasons.
> Fielding metrics are relatively new and not yet accepted by fans or even by many statisticians. The handbook’s “Defensive Runs Saved” chart does help us verify what we think we’re told by our eyes. The Royals defense in the post season was a major part of their winning formula the last two seasons, so it isn’t difficult to understand that Alex Gordon saved 50 runs during the last three years to lead all Left Fielders and Lorenzo Cain trails only Juan Lagares with 49 saved among Center Fielders during the same span. Most observers think Andrelton Simmons is the best SS in the game and his 25 runs saved in 2015 seems to verify that opinion. Jason Heyward’s 22 runs saved was the best for Right Fielders this past year and will contribute to his free agent value. Watch out for the Rays CF Kevin Kiermaier, as he accumulated 42 runs saved in his first full season and was far-and-away the best defensive player in baseball. For all the cynical fans out there, we can’t leave out the worst fielders in the game and how many runs they cost their teams…
1B) Pedro Alvarez -13
2B Johnny Giovotella & Howie Kendrick -12
3B) Yunel Escobar & Pablo Sandoval -11
- SS) Danny Santana & Ruben Tejada -15
- LF) Hanley Ramirez -19
- CF) Angel Pagan -20
- RF) Matt Kemp -15
- C) Blake Swihart -16
- P) Jon Lester & Jimmy Nelson -8
> A consistently debated topic among fans and media is the dramatic increase in defense shifts. In 2013, shifts were utilized over 8,000 times, in 2014 the number increased to over 13,000 and in 2015, it grew again to over 17,000. To the naysayer, the question becomes, would teams be shifting more if it didn’t work? According to the “Runs Saved” statistic, shifting saved 135 runs in 2013, 196 runs in 2014 and 266 in 2015. Only five teams (White Sox, Mariners, Brewers, Cardinals & Braves) shifted less than the previous year. The Orioles led all of baseball by saving 29 runs through utilizing the shift. Using ground balls and short line-drives as the criteria, the chart of the top shifted batters shines a spotlight on this trend. Five batters are now hitting into the shift at least 90% of the time…David Ortiz, Chris Davis, Lucas Duda, Ryan Howard & Adam LaRoche. As a group, they hit .199 with the shift in place. And some players below the 90% threshold can probably expect more shifting in 2016…Adrian Gonzalez hit .148 in these situations while Edwin Encarnacion & Albert Pujols hit .196.
> In the past, players were judged as good baserunners if they swiped a lot of bases. Not only weren’t their other baserunning skills not considered, even their caught stealing stats were ignored. However, as Tom Boswell pointed out over 20 years ago, a caught stealing is equivalent to two outs because it not only removes a baserunner, it also causes an out. Now we have information that tells us how often a player goes from 1st to 3rd or 2nd to home plate on a single. The handbook grades baserunning on the net amount of bases a player gains in a given season. The Rangers had a surprisingly good season in 2015, which resulted in new skipper Jeff Banister winning AL Manager of the Year. Every year, however, fans wonder if a Manager really makes a difference. Think about these stats – in 2014, the Rangers had a +24 in baserunning, which was near the middle of the pack…in 2015, they led all of baseball with a +142! And over 100 of those bases were due to the team’s aggressiveness on the basepaths, as opposed to just stolen bases. Only one MLB player gained over 50 bases for his team in 2015 and it was the Reds Billy Hamilton at 67. Ben Revere was 2nd with 44. The Tigers were the worst team at -107 and the two worst individual players were Billy Butler (-38) & Jhonny Peralta (-33).
> If you’re wondering how the top five pitchers ascended to that rank, The “Pitcher Analysis” in the handbook gives you some insight. Old-school fans would tell you that getting ahead in the count is extremely important and digging deeper into the stats seems to confirm that logic. When you check how many times these hurlers got ahead in the count 0-1, the numbers are amazing. Arrietta is at 49%, Greinke at 52%, Bumgarner at 53%, Kershaw at 55% and Scherzer had an 0-1 count on 537 of the 899 batters he faced…that’s 60%!
> Were there any successful major league pitchers who threw their fastball over 90% of the time? The “Pitchers’ Repertoires” section will answer that question by telling you that there were four and all were well-known Closers…Kenley Jansen, Jake McGee, Sean Doolittle & Zach Britton.
That’s just a taste of the information in this year’s edition and we haven’t even looked at the individual player stats. No wonder that “stathead” is now an accepted baseball term.