Hanging Around The Hot Stove With Bill James

'03 Verlander

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 2020 version is available now and at 632 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 Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Cole & Strasburg were not in the top five when the 2019 season began but Chris Sale (who went from #4 to #7) & Corey Kluber (from #5 to #38) both fell victim to the injury bug. Some of the biggest drops since a year ago were Carlos Carrasco (from 10th to 40th), Blake Snell (#11 to #46) and German Marquez (#18 to #34). On the positive side, Jack Flaherty (72nd to 6th), Charlie Morton (34th to 13th), Sonny Gray (75th to 14th) and Lance Lynn (66th to 15th) were some of 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. Cody Bellinger ramped up his MVP credentials by leading all RF with 19 runs saved. Two CF topped that mark with Victor Robles at 22 and Lorenzo Cain with 20. No LF had more that 10. The 1B & 3B races were dominated by the A’s, as Matt Olson posted 13 while Matt Chapman had 18. Kolten Wong (14) was the 2B leader and at SS, Nick Ahmed just outdistanced Trevor Story (18 versus 17). Roberto Perez 29 runs saved led all Catchers. 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) Luke Voit & Pete Alonso -6 each

2B) Jonathan Villar -11

3B) Hunter Dozier -14

  1. SS) Xander Bogaerts (for the 2nd straight year) -21
  2. LF) Justin Upton -13 (in only 63 games)
  3. CF) Ian Desmond -19
  4. RF) Franmil Reyes -11
  5. C) Elias Diaz -23


> A consistently debated topic among fans and media is the dramatic increase in defensive 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). 2019 left that number in the dust with a 34% increase to 46,700. 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. Then in 2018, it increased to 592! 2019 came in at 622 runs! The shift lowered the Batting Average of shift candidates by 32 points. 25 of the 30 teams increased their shift usage, so don’t expect the strategy to go away.


> 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 six were Jonathan Villar (+43), Christian Yelich (+43), Mallex Smith (+42) Jarrod Dyson (+39), Ronald Acuna Jr. (+37) & Adalberto Mondesi(+37).  The D’Backs were the best baserunning team in the game at +122.


> How often did the top five starting pitchers use their fastball? The “Pitchers’ Repertoires” section will answer that question by telling you that it was 50% for Verlander, 54% for Cole, 49% for deGrom and 48% each for Scherzer & Strasburg. See a pattern here? Maybe the pitching philosophy of “Throw him the heater, Ricky” went out about the time of “Major League II”.


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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