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 2018 version is available now and at 606 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 Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Justin Verlander. Sale & Verlander were in the top ten last year and moved up, replacing Jon Lester & Madison Bumgarner. Lester dropped to #18 while Bumgarner stayed in the top ten at #9. The biggest drops since a year ago were Johnny Cueto (from #9 to #34), Rick Porcello (#12 to #32) and Marco Estrada (#13 to #33).
> 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 2010 to 2017, Felix Hernandez has dropped from 94 to 90, Andrew Cashner from 96 to 93, Ubaldo Jimenez from 96 to 90, Matt Cain from 92 to 89 and Clay Buchholz from 94 to 91. On the flip side, Ian Kennedy has upped his velocity from 89 to 92 during the same timeframe. Even when you look at a disastrous performance like Jordan Zimmerman’s 2016 campaign, the obvious assumption of diminished velocity doesn’t hold up…his 92 mph velocity is the same as it was in 2010. Verlander might be the most interesting case study as his velocity was 95 in 2010, then dropped as low as 92 in ’14, but is now back to 95 at age 35.
> 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 Red Sox defense was a major part of their winning formula in 2017, as their three OF’s were superb. Mookie Beets was the 2nd best defensive player in all of baseball with 31 runs saved while Jackie Bradley Jr. & Andrew Benintendi saved 10 & 9 respectively. The BoSox also got a 10-runs saved contribution from 1B Mitch Moreland. Angels SS Andrelton Simmons was the #1 fielder with 32 while the other leading infielders were Reds 1B Joey Votto with 11 and two Rockies…3B Nolan Arenado (20) & 2B D.J. Lemahieu (8). The Yankees Brett Gardner led the LF’s with 17 and the Twins Byron Buxton topped the CF’s by saving 24 runs…not surprisingly, Kevin Kiermaier and Kevin Pillar were close behind. If you’re wondering why Martin Maldonado is penciled in as the Angels starting Catcher, look no further than his 22 runs saved defensively. 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) Tommy Joseph -10
2B) Daniel Murphy -15
3B) Cory Spangenberg -14
3B) Nick Castellanos -14
- SS) Jose Reyes -15
- LF) Matt Kemp -17
- CF) Denard Span -27
- RF) Melky Cabrera -10
- C) Jonathan Lucroy -15
> 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. This year’s numbers seem to show that the optimum advantage has been reached, as the 2017 figure dropped slightly to 26,700. To the naysayer, the question becomes, would teams be shifting if it didn’t work? According to the “Runs Saved” statistic, shifting saved 196 runs in 2014, 267 runs in 2015, 359 in 2016 and 346 in 2017. About half of MLB teams reduced their shifting in 2017 with the Rockies & Cardinals actually going down by over 50%. On the flip side, the White Sox & Marlins almost doubled their numbers. With much more detailed data available, we know that the shift impacted Mitch Moreland & Anthony Rizzo more than any other batters…they both had a net loss of 22 hits.
> In the past, players were judged as good baserunners if they swiped a lot of bases. Not only were 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 one team managed to have a net gain of over 100 bases in 2017 and it was the D’Backs at +106…the worst number belonged to the Tigers at -61. Only three MLB players gained over 50 bases for their team in 2017…Byron Buxton (+55), Mookie Betts (+54) and Dee Gordon (+51). The worst baserunners were Joey Votto & Matt Kemp (-34 each).
> 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 three relievers fit the bill…Kenley Jansen, Zach Britton & Jake McGee.
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.