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 can’t wait for the upcoming season, 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 2017 version is available now and at 609 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, Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, Corey Kluber & Jon Lester. Justin Verlander was 98th in mid-2015 and is now 6th while Felix Hernandez was 12th a year ago and is now at #31.
> 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 2009 to 2016, Felix Hernandez has dropped from 94 to 90, Johnny Cueto from 93 to 90, Ubaldo Jimenez from 96 to 90, Jered Weaver from 89 to 83, Jonathan Papelbon from 95 to 91, C.C. Sabathia from 94 to 89 and Francisco Rodriguez from 93 to 89. On the flip side, Carlos Carrasco has upped his velocity from 92 to 94 during the same timeframe. Even when you look at a disastrous performance like James Shields’ 2016 campaign, the obvious assumption of diminished velocity doesn’t hold up…he’s been at 89 or 90 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 Cubs defense was a major part of their winning formula in 2016, so it isn’t difficult to understand that Anthony Rizzo saved 27 runs over the last three seasons to lead all 1B and Jason Heyward led all RF with 62 runs saved during the same span. Throw in Addison Russell’s 19 runs saved in 2016 alone (trailing only Brandon Crawford at SS) and you can easily understand what a difference that makes. Nolan Arenado topped all 3B with 20, Starling Marte was the best LF with 19, Kevin Kiermaier led the CF’s with 25 and Mookie Betts was the best in the game at 32 runs saved in RF. In addition to Crawford’s heroics, the Giants also had the best defensive Catcher in Buster Posey, who saved 23. 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) Joey Votto -14
2B Ryan Schimpf -9
3B) Danny Valencia -18
- SS) Alexei Ramirez -20
- LF) Robbie Grossman -21
- CF) Andrew McCutchen -28
- RF) J.D. Martinez -22
- C) Nick Hundley -16
> A consistently debated topic among fans and media is the dramatic increase in defense shifts. In 2014, shifts were utilized over 13,000 times, in 2015 the number increased to over 17,000 and in 2016, it grew tremendously (+58%) to over 28,000. To the naysayer, the question becomes, would teams be shifting more if it didn’t work? According to the “Runs Saved” statistic, shifting saved 196 runs in 2014, 267 runs in 2015 and 359 in 2016. Only three teams (Blue Jays, Orioles & Royals) shifted less than the previous year. The Mariners, Angels & Brewers increased their defensive shifting from a few hundred times to over 1,000. With much more detailed data available, we know that the shift impacted Curtis Granderson more than any other batter…he lost 34 hits and gained 10 hits for a net number of -24. Close behind was Kendrys Morales (-21), David Ortiz (-17), Ryan Howard (-16) as well as Victor Martinez & Albery Pujols (both at -15).
> 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. Only three teams managed to have a net gain of over 100 bases in 2016…Padres (107), D’Backs (106) & Indians (105). Only one MLB player gained over 60 bases for his team in 2016 and it was the Reds Billy Hamilton at 68. AL MVP Mike Trout was next at +58, while the worst baserunners were Victor Martinez (-34) & David Ortiz (-32). The worst baserunning teams were the Angels & Athletics, both at -57.
> 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. Kluber is at 49%, Lester at 51%, Bumgarner at 55, Scherzer at 56% and Kershaw was at 57%!
> 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 only two and both are well-known Closers…Kenley Jansen & 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.
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