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 2022 version is available now and at 634 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, Walker Buehler, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler. Scherzer is at the top of the heap for the first time since August of 2019. Wheeler had the biggest jump of the top five as he was #29 at the start of the season. The champion Braves had two SP’s in the top 10…Charlie Morton at #6 and Max Fried at #8. Brewer starters Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff came in at #9 & #10. Some of the biggest drops since a year ago were Yu Darvish (#9 to #29), Zack Greinke (#12 to #45) and Kyle Hendricks (#14 to #74). On the positive side, Robbie Ray (#55 to #7), Kevin Gausman (#33 to #12) and Julio Urias (#44 to #14) led the way.

> Fielding metrics are relatively new and not yet accepted by fans or even by many statisticians. The handbook’s “Defensive Runs Saved” chart shows how players can help their team even when they don’t have a bat in their hand. Paul Goldschmidt of the Cards led all 1B with 9 runs saved, but Lewin Diaz of the Marlins actually matched that number despite only playing 40 games. Whit Merrifield of the Royals topped 2B with 14; youngster Ke’Bryan Hayes of the Pirates led at 3B with 16 while Platinum Glove recipient Carlos Correa was dominant at SS with 20. There were great performances in the Outfield with Gold Glove winner Tyler O’Neill leading the LF with 11, Michael A. Taylor (another Gold Glover) in CF had 19 and Adolis Garcia topped the RF with 13…one more than Joey Gallo. Dallas Keuchel led all Pitchers with 12 and Jacob Stallings was far and away the best Catcher with 21. 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) Rhys Hoskins & Bobby Dalbec – 7

2B) Cesar Hernandez & Jed Lowrie – 11

3B) Alec Bohm & Rafael Devers – 13

SS) Jose Iglesias – -22

LF) Justin Upton – 11

CF) Jarred Kelenic – 16

RF) Jorge Soler – 11

C) Zack Collins – 18

> 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. However, 2021 showed a slight reversal for the first time. This season’s number dropped to a little over 59,000 and it appears that teams are being more selective as to who they shift. Some hitters are “shift candidates” and others are not. Max Muncy hit .151 against the shift while Austin Meadows hit .160. Players of that category won’t see anything different unless there’s an eventual rule change.

> 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 25 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 Starling Marte (+50), Nicky Lopez (+42), Whit Merrifield (+41), Tommy Edman (+40), Myles Straw (+36), Fernando Tatis Jr. (+32), Ozzie Albies (+31 and Trea Turner (+30).  The Royals were the best baserunning team in the game at +86 and the Dodgers were second with +84.

> 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 47% for Scherzer, 52% for Buehler, 57% for deGrom, 48% for Cole and 61% for Wheeler. 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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