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 2019 version is available now and at 622 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 Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber. All but deGrom were in the top five when the 2018 began and he replaced Clayton Kershaw, who is now 6th. Some of the biggest drops since a year ago were Jake Arrieta (from 9th to 33rd), Madison Bumgarner (#11 to #46) and Gio Gonzalez (#14 to #47). On the positive side, Trevor Bauer (26th to 8th), Aaron Nola (59th to 10th), Blake Snell (84th to 13th) and Patrick Corbin (66th to 15th) were the shining stars.
> 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. Mookie Beets ramped up his MVP credentials by leading all RF with 20-runs saved. The only other OF with a mark of 20 was Brewers CF Lorenzo Cain. The leader among LF was Alex Gordon of the Royals with 18. If you’re wondering if Harrison Bader will be in the starting OF of the 2019 Cardinals, think about this – he had 8-runs saved playing RF and another 11 playing CF. The 1B & 2B races were very close with Matt Olson (14) edging out Branson Belt (13) while Kolten Wong (19) barely topped DJ LeMahieu (18). 3B was dominated by the A’s Matt Chapman, who with 29-runs saved, had more twice the total of the runner-up. Perennial Gold Glover Andrelton Simmons was great at SS once again (21), but Nick Ahmed of the D’Backs also had the same number. Jeff Mathis has been in the big leagues for 14 seasons with a lifetime BA of .198. How does that happen? He led all Catchers with 17-runs saved. 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) Ryon Healy & Josh Bell -9 each
2B) Daniel Murphy (for the 2nd straight year) -18
3B) Miguel Andujar -29
SS) Xander Bogaerts -19
LF) Rhys Hoskins -24
CF) Charlie Blackmon -28
RF) Nick Castellanos -19 (was the worst at 3B last year)
C) Nick Hundley -19
> 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. The 2017 numbers seem to show that the optimum advantage has been reached, as the figure dropped slightly to 26,700. But 2018 put every number in the rear-view mirror with over 34,600 (a 30% increase). 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. Then in 2018, it increased to 592! The shift lowered the Batting Average of shift candidates by 23 points. The batting average for all of major league baseball was .248.
> 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. The top five were Jose Ramirez (+48), Lorenzo Cain (+40), Mookie Betts (+37), Mike Trout (+34) & Brett Gardner (+33). The two worst? Yangervis Solarte (-34) & Wilson Ramos (-32).
> 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 & James Pazos.
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.