Hanging Around The Hot Stove 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 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 2021 version is available now and at 578 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 Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, Trevor Bauer & Max Scherzer. Cole is the first pitcher to start and finish the season at #1 since Clayton Kershaw in 2016. Bieber’s incredible performance moved him up from #24 at the start of 2020. The Cubs had two SP’s in the top ten…Yu Darvish at #6 and Kyle Hendricks at #10. The Reds had the best 5-man rotation rating with Bauer, Luis Castillo (#14), Sonny Gray (#18), Tyler Mahle (#76) and Anthony DeSclafini (#126). Some of the biggest drops since a year ago were Patrick Corbin (from 8th to 33rd), Stephen Strasburg (#5 to #46) and James Paxton (#18 to #57). On the positive side, Kenta Maeda (53rd to 13th), Dinelson Lamet (111th to 17th), Brandon Woodruff (78th to 21st) and Zac Gallen (93rd to 25th) 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 shows a plethora of new players compared to previous seasons and very close results due to the shortened schedule. Evan White of the Mariners was surprisingly awarded the Gold Glove at 1B but his 7 runes saved were better than perennial leader Matt Olson, who had 5. Kike Hernandez & Nicky Lopez led the way at 2B with 8; Nolan Arenado practically lapped the field at 3B with 15 while Dansby Swanson led all SS with 9. There were also surprises in the Outfield with Tyler O’Neill leading the LF with 9, Byron Buxton in CF had 11 and Joey Gallo topped the RF with 13…two more than Mookie Betts! Max Fried led all Pitchers with 5 and Tucker Barnhart was the best Catcher with 9. 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 – 7

2B) Keston Huira – 8

3B) J.D. Davis & Austin Riley – 8

SS) Gleybar Torres – 9

LF) Alex Dickerson, Andrew McCutchen & Juan Soto – 8

CF) Mike Trout – 9

RF) Adam Eaton & Matt Joyce – 6

C) Luis Torrens, Jorge Alfaro & Travis d’Arnaud – 7

> 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 seemed to show that the optimum advantage had 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! If you prorate the 2020 number to a 162 game season, there would have been 64,606 shifts, an increase of 31% from 2019. The shift lowered the Batting Average of shift candidates by 39 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 eight were Mookie Betts (+22), Trevor Story (+20), Kyle Tucker (+17), Brandon Lowe (+17) and four with 16…Xander Bogaerts, Adalberto Mondesi, Robbie Grossman & Starling Marte.  The Rockies were the best baserunning team in the game at +67 and the D’Backs (who led the category in ’19) were second with +59.

> 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 53% for Cole, 45% for deGrom, 37% for Bieber, 48% for Bauer and 46% for Scherzer. 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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