Home Book Reviews Book Review: The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

Book Review: The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

by Matt Smith

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James (Free Press, 2003), 1008 pages

The history of baseball can be both fascinating and bewildering to British fans.  Where do you start?  You often hear and read of great players and teams, but it’s not easy to piece them all together, particularly in trying to compare players from different eras.

There’s a natural desire to delve into the numerous stories and to improve your knowledge of the sport’s history, not just because it’s interesting but also to allow you to put current players into some sort of context.  Who were the best players from years past and what does ‘best’ mean when looking at a catcher or a shortstop?

Summing up the history of baseball in one book is an impossible task, but The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract comes astonishingly close to doing just that. 

Bill James is known as the forefather of the advanced statistical analysis of baseball, a discipline often referred to as sabermetrics.  He started publishing his ground-breaking Baseball Abstracts in 1977 and has been challenging conventional wisdom and improving our understanding of the sport ever since.  James first published a Historical Baseball Abstract book in 1985 before releasing a completely revised (hence the word ‘New’ in the title) version in 2001, followed by a slightly updated paperback version in 2003.

The latter is the version being reviewed here and it is a monumental piece of work.  Coming in at a shade over 1000 pages, it is an impressively weighty object filled with an immense amount of information. Each copy is likely to end up a little battered and dog-eared, but that will be due to the regularity with which it is pulled down from the shelf, rather than its use as a door stop or ‘whacking’ tool (although I’m sure it could do a good job as either if pressed into emergency service).

The book is split into three main sections: The Game, The Players and Reference.

James is adamant that the first section isn’t a “railroad history of baseball – this happened, then this happened, and then this happened”.  Instead, his focus was on creating “a history of baseball that would surround you, that would reach out to you and take your hand”.  He does this by bringing together many tiny details that together don’t simply explain what happened at a given time, but “give you a sense of what it was like to be a baseball fan” then.

These details range from strictly performance-based items such as who was the best hitter or who struck out the most batters, to more quirky matters such as uniform styles and the best/worst looking players.  The latter is important to note because James’ reputation as a ‘stats guy’ could lead you to think that this is just a dry book full of numbers.  That is far from the case.

James covers the sport from the 1870s to the 1990s, writing a substantial chapter on each decade and also including an excellent chapter on the Negro Leagues.  For each decade, he sets the scene by answering the basic questions such as how the game was played (rules, strategies etc), who the game was played by (social standing, ethnicity and nationality etc) and where the game was played (geographic location, types of ballparks etc).  He pools together bite-size bits of info while summing up the decade ‘In a Box’ and then offers a range of articles and essays expanding on the key stories, issues, questions and moments of the decade.

Each chapter on its own provides an invaluable overview of the decade in question and collected together they are an excellent guide to how the game has changed over the years and evolved into the one we enjoy so much today.

The first section of the book would be fascinating in itself, but it gets even better with the second section.  Here, James lists the top 100 players from the history of the game at every position.  The format of this section, indeed the underlying intention of this not being “a railroad history” book, means that each entry is not accompanied by a full biography of the player and a host of stats.  Instead they vary from a few short quotes by contemporaries to James using the entry as an opportunity to delve into a particular question.

For example, the entry on Mickey Mantle (per James’ rankings, the third-best centre fielder behind Willie Mays and Ty Cobb) contains a quick study comparing him to Joe DiMaggio.  This approach makes for a more interesting read than a strictly biography-based approach and those details can be found easily from many other books and websites in any case.

While the entries are useful, it is the rankings that are the important part of the project.  All rankings are subjective, a starting point for discussion rather than a definitive statement of fact, and these are no exception.  However, as you would expect, James has not simply cobbled these together on the basis of gut instinct and memory.  There is a considered methodology behind them, explained over 40 pages that some readers may wish to skim through or largely ignore.

Two statistical inventions by James lie at the heart of this methodology: Runs Created and the Win Shares system.  Without going into a full explanation, they provide a new way to assess a player’s contribution to a team’s performance that allows for meaningful comparisons between players at different positions and from different eras.

Once again, this isn’t to suggest that James takes a strictly stat-based approach.  As he explains: “the value of baseball statistics in identifying the greatest players is not that they answer all of the questions involved, but that they provide definitive answers to some of the questions involved, which enables us to focus on the others”.  Further stats based on the Win Share system are included in the Reference section, the third main section of the book.

The only fault that can be found with The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is that it is not now quite as new as the name suggests.  The just-completed ‘2000s’ decade is obviously not covered in the first section and, more importantly, the player rankings only take into account performances up to the end of the 2000 season, although the 2003 paperback version includes a postscript that updates the rankings to that point.

This is something to be mindful of when considering the rankings, but it doesn’t devalue the book in any significant way.  The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is still the best book available on the history of baseball and is an essential purchase for anybody interested in the topic.

Have you read “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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Joe Cooter January 6, 2010 - 11:08 am

I honestly have to say, that as a fan of the game, I am no fan of Bill James or Sabermetrics. I believe that OPS, WHiP, Vorp, and other statisticals devices by this securtity guard from Boston have contaminated the way most writers analysize the game. They have used it to keep out deserving players from the hall of fame, and claim players of average ability are better than they actually abilty. Disples of James have even tried to bring Sabermetrics into the world of cricket, but thus far most people who cover cricket have refused buy into it.

My probelems with sabermetrics are two fold. First they turn the game i love in a mathematical exersise. They try to play the game on a computer, when it was ment to be played outdoors on grass in a field. Quite often, they happen to ignore what is actually going on down on the field. It totally ignores the performance of players who are fighting for a post season birth. This obsession with statistical analysis has produced some rather undeserving award winners in recent years, especially this year when Joe Muaer won the American League MVP. In my opinion he did not deserve to be honored. Of all three examples Muaer sticks out like a sore thumb because even though he had a solid year statistically, he really wasn’t a factor during the twins hot streak the last two weeks of the season. Mauer wasn’t even the most valuable player on his team since they pretty much continued to play .500 ball both before and after he returned from the disabled list. During the twins run, that brought them back from a six and a half game deficit, it was Micheal Cuddayer and Jason Kubel who carried the team as they were the ones who drove in the winning runs night after night. In my opinion they were the two players the twins could not do with out. Yet Muaer was award the MVP award simply because he had a high OPS and won the batting title.

This totally ignored what was going on on the field. Where some much happens that can not be measured using mathematics. There is no room in Sabermetrics for sacrifice bunts, or stolen bases. There is no measurement of range for fielding. No room for the suicide squeaze. Most advocates of Sabermetrics are also advocates of Money Ball, which is the use statistics to try and build a competative team, a theory that says outs are valuable and can not be simply given away. This is poppy cock.

Joe Gray January 6, 2010 - 12:18 pm

I’ve got to say Joe C that Joe G disagrees with you 100% on this!

[advanced statistics] have contaminated the way most writers analysize the game

In fact, by being linked much more closely to each player’s contribution to a team’s chance of scoring runs and winning games (rather than the more basic stats like runs batted in and runs scored), they have enabled the sportswriters who have embraced them to cover the game much more intelligently.

They have used it to keep out deserving players from the hall of fame, and claim players of average ability are better than they actually abilty.

By separating out individual performance from the environmental factors (such as ballparks and teams), sabermetrics allows individuals to receive credit commensurate with their isolated performance level.

They try to play the game on a computer, when it was ment to be played outdoors on grass in a field.

In fact, the computers are used to advise how the front office and managers can get the team to perform better on the field. It still ends up involving plenty of grass blades.

Of all three examples Muaer sticks out like a sore thumb because even though he had a solid year statistically, he really wasn’t a factor during the twins hot streak the last two weeks of the season. Mauer wasn’t even the most valuable player on his team since they pretty much continued to play .500 ball both before and after he returned from the disabled list. During the twins run, that brought them back from a six and a half game deficit, it was Micheal Cuddayer and Jason Kubel who carried the team as they were the ones who drove in the winning runs night after night.

All of this is much more to do with luck leading to players being in the right place at the right time, than any inate clutch abilities. While some players will buckle under pressure less than others, the differential is no way near strong enough to outweigh the effect of luck in all of this. By trying to better understand the power of luck, sabermetrics is actually trying to make MVP awards and the like a lot fairer.

on the field [so] much happens that can not be measured using mathematics. There is no room in Sabermetrics for sacrifice bunts, or stolen bases. There is no measurement of range for fielding.

Reading The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, and plenty of other sabermetrically informed writing too, reveals that sabermetrics allows for all of these and more, but what it doesn’t do is base its recommendations on decades-old superstition, instead giving you a much clearer idea of when stealing or bunting is a smart thing to do.

Most advocates of Sabermetrics are also advocates of Money Ball, which is the use statistics to try and build a competative team, a theory that says outs are valuable and can not be simply given away. This is poppy cock.

As per the last point, sabermetrics tells you when it is smart to give up outs and when it is not.

Essentially, sabermetric thinking has arguably advanced our understanding of the mechanics of baseball more than any other discipline in the past 100 years of the game.

In 100 years time, sabermetrics will be looked back on with nostalgia, and cherished fondly as part of baseball’s cultural history as much as anything else.


Joe Cooter January 6, 2010 - 5:58 pm

If what you are saying is true, then the way that it is being applied is not the way that it should be applied. Especially when it comes to money ball, which preaches against giving outs away at all. At one point Money Ball teams like the Oakland A’s and Boston Redsox wouldn’t sacrific runners or have runners steal bases because they viewed these tactics as giving away outs. I don’t have a problem with compling statistics, but I don’t believe that statistics are the true measure of a player, or a team. Lets not forget the object of the game is to score runs and drive in runs. OPS helps define who can do that, but it misses so much. There are aspects of the game that get overlooked because they are simply incalcuable. You can’t measure what spead can do for a game. You can’t measure how well a sacrifice bunt can help the team, or how breaking up a double play helps. These things can’t be measured by sabermatrics, yet they can prove to be the difference when trying to win a ball game. As a fan, I don’t trust sabermatrics. And I appllaud cricket writers for not falling into the same trap that their baseball counterparts have fallen into. I don’t think that math helps measure who is a good player or not.

Let’s look at the statistics of this years MVP, Joe Mauer who batted third in the Twins Lineup:

This year in 138 games he did hit .365 and hit a career high 28 homeruns and drove in a carreer high 96 runs. Projected over a full season that would be 33 homeruns and 113 runs. Fairly good stats but for a clean up hitter they’re what’s expected. However, if you look at his full five year statistics, they’re not all that impressive in five years he’s only hit 72 homeruns (playing half his games in a homerun friendly park) and driven in 397 that’s an average of roughly 14 homers and 79 tunes batted in. For a guy hitting third in the batting order those are not the kind of production numbers that you want out of those two spots in the order. Those are the kind of production numbers you’d expect out of somebody hitting 6th or 7th in the line-up

Lets look at the statistics of a hitter who hit clean up this year and played even fewer games than Mauer did.

Here are Arod’s statistics for this season.

Games 124 Average .286 Homers 30 Runs Batted In 100.

Projected over a full season those are 39 Homeruns and 131 Runs batted. That’s six more homeruns and eighteen more rbi’s than Mauer batting in the same spot in the Order. In addition Arod had an onbase percentage of .402 to Mauer’s .444, which was again a career high and greatly inflates his career average of .402, indeed over the five full years of his career Mauer has posted Onbase percentages of .372, .427, .382, .413 and .444, the quarter of a season he played in he posted a .369 Onbase percentage. if you take out this years statistics and the quarter of a season he played in 2004 thats an average of that’s career on base percentage of .399, not bad but at the same time wildly inconsistant. This is not to say that Mauer will become more consistent as his career goes on, but right now, I’m not sure he’s as good as they say he is. He’s a good hitter, but not a great hitter.

In addition, I’m not sure he had as great an effect on the Twins as Arod had on the Yankees. When Arod returned to the Yankees in May, they had a record of 13-15. They finished with a record of 103-59. When Mauer returned to the Twins, they had a record of 11-11, they finished with a record of 87-76. That’s a record of 76-65 after Mauers Return and as I said up until the final two weeks of the season they had a record of 76-73, basically they remained a five hundred team. Mauer didn’t have as much of an effect on the twins. Infact, I would argue that the twins were able to withstand the lose of Mauer more than the Yankees were able to withstand the loss of Arod, since Arod Provided protection for Mark Texiera. The twins are a team that is built on defense and clutch hitting. Mauer got on base a lot, but it was the bats of other players such as Cuddyer and Kubel who played the key roles in allowing the twins to get in.

Joe Gray January 6, 2010 - 6:51 pm

Firstly, it’s worth just clearing up that while you are right that sabermetrics is superseding traditional thinking more and more each year, the MVP voting is still based on stats like batting average and runs batted in. So we shouldn’t be saying that Joe Mauer received the MVP award because he was who sabermetricians said should get it. It will probably have been only a minority of the Baseball Writers Association of America who would have used a sabermetric approach to decide on their votes.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting case to consider from a sabermetric angle. One way a sabermetrician might approach the question is to see which player in the AL has the highest WAR (the wins that the player contributed to the team above what a replacement-level player would have).

Among position players, Ben Zobrist (8.6) is the only AL player to have a higher WAR for 2009 than Mauer (8.2) – so the voters did pretty well. However, there was an AL player who trumped both Mauer and Zobrist: Greinke, who had a WAR of 9.4. At least he picked up the Cy Young, though. A-Rod was third among Yankees with 4.4 (Jeter [7.4] and Teixeira [5.1] both bested him). This shows that looking at how a team plays with and without a player (and having a very small sample of games for the without) is not a particularly valuable way to assess contribution.

You are right that sabermetrics does not account for every single factor. (That said, there’s nothing to stop a sabermetrician trying to quantify how good each player is at breaking up a double play, as per your example). However, without sabermetrics how is someone assessing the relative merits of a player going to be able to know how much weight to give to each of the many aspects of a player’s talent? Sabermetrics provides an objective means of working out the relative importance to attach to each skill (stealing, drawing walks, hitting home runs, fielding range, etc.).

Joe Cooter January 6, 2010 - 7:43 pm

I don’t think I’m comfortable with some names of these statistic. I mean Whip sounds like something Madonna would use on one of her lovers. Vorp, sounds a bit like the sound the Tardis Makes when it dematerializes and WAR is something that involves guns. Having said that, I think there has to be room for what you actually what you see with your eyes. One of the off the most feared hitters in baseball when I was growing up, but Sabermatricians argued constantly against his candidacy by arguing his that he didn’t have the high enough on base percentage and his home road splits wweren’t good enough. They used the same arguments to justify denying Andre Dawson, until today when he was elected into the Hall of Fame. I thought all along that Rice should have been a Hall of Famer, simply because when I was growing up as a Yankee Fan, he was the player that I feared the most on the Red Sox. I didn’t really fear Fisk, who in my opinion wasn’t as good as Thurman Munson, and I didn’t fear Yaz. Rice was the player I feared. Infact, he was the one player on the Red Sox that every team feared. That too me, is enough to justify inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

Reality check January 6, 2010 - 8:23 pm

Munson was way over-rated.

Labelle Danciere January 6, 2010 - 9:19 pm

Joe Cooter [er Joe Coot?]:

Joe Gray [a gray Joe?] may err on the side of patience, but to me you seem inordinately motivated by fear.

Being moved by fear is not necessarily a bad thing: it can be an effective survival strategy, and indeed it’s regularly on display across a wide range of organisms.

Nor is it necessarily debilitating, at all, leave aside greatly, even for those organisms with a relatively wide range of effective survival strategies to choose from; it generally depends on context.

With homo sapiens sapiens, however, and particularly in the context of pass-times [as distinct particularly from circumstances engaging survival], assuming of course your posts above accurately reflect your resort to the sources of unexamined personal apprehensions for Baseball’s Hall of Fame [as, by such a standard, leading members of al Qaeda, vipers and many species of arachnoids would surely qualify well before Jim Rice], primal resort to fear can lead to irrational rejection of the opportunity to enjoy vistas that are better, even best, and sometimes only, revealed upon adroit wielding of the tool of sabermetrics [an activity at which James is unarguably no worse than eminent].

Alas, some beings find such casting of light unbearable. Since in the case of human beings and pass-times this is needlessly debilitating, humans have devised a range of technologies to address this problem, including the anti-anxiety medication “Valium”. For a number of reasons it’s presumptuous to suggest that you take one — less so that you consider availing yourself of some part of that range.

Shawn January 6, 2010 - 9:32 pm

You say: Jim Rice was feared and Carlton Fisk wasn’t. This is an opinion. No facts are offered to back it up.

I say: Jim Rice was given 77 intentional walks in his career, Carlton Fisk 105. This is a fact. It stands in opposition to you opinion. It does not disprove your opinion, but it casts doubt on its veracity.

This is “sabermetrics.” It is using facts to support an opinion, rather than stating an opinion as fact. Or, we could say this as “what ‘everyone knows’ is often wrong.”

Labelle Danciere January 6, 2010 - 9:48 pm

Not at all incidentally, by James’ preferred measure of Wins Shared, Raines was almost one-sixth better a ballplayer than Dawson.

I think that bears repeating: measurably better than Dawson by a factor of one-sixth of Dawson. Not one-sixth of Phil Linz, or one-sixth of Sixto Lescano; one-sixth of Andre Dawson. Better.

In fairness to Dawson, his Wins Shared does strongly support his selection to the HoF. But he was still second best in this group — to a teammate who was one-sixth of him ahead. And, of course, even
I thought of suggesting the difference as comparable to watching Usain Bolt eviscerate the best-of-the-rest-of-the-world field at last year’s Olympics — except in Bolt’s case, the field did better.

As the name might imply, I was a very close follower of the late Expos, right from their nascent appearances at Jarry Park until, like so many other faithful, the Betrayal of 1994. Dawson’s plate appearances were routinely suffused with portent: the long muscles twitching, the scowling stare; would he homer, or would we witness a mighty whiff? There were never any such anxieties with Raines: he never seemed to waste any movement, leave aside an out. In that, to me he seems now to have been more akin to the Reds Joe Morgan than anyone else I’ve seen in well over 50 years. Come to think of it, there was always more anxiety in any single ball thrown to Bench or Foster than there was in an entire at bat from Morgan, so routinely reliable was he in not wasting the opportunity.

frank pepe January 6, 2010 - 9:49 pm

not for nothing cooter, but you sure are using a lot of numbers for someone who doesn’t want the game to be turned into a “mathematical exercise.” is there a reason why you can rely on numbers, but saberists and say, bill james (who is not from boston, but who’s counting), can’t rely on others?

Joe Gray January 6, 2010 - 10:43 pm

Joe C:

Not wishing to add fuel to the fire, but this is not going to help you – as a Yankees fan fond of the team’s history – learn to love WAR:

Joe Cooter January 7, 2010 - 4:19 am


I don’t object to numbers persee. However I do resent statitis that seem to be drawn up out of think air. One of the best clutch players in the history was Billy Martin. During the regular season he never compiled the stats the warrents induction into the Hall of Fame as a player, but once the World Series came around in October, he always seemed to be getting a big base hit. I do however believe that he should go in as a manager in part because he was able to turn teams that were mediocre and turn them into Contenders. I think the fact that he was fired five times by the Yankees, he was going to get a sixth term as manager had he not died in an alcohol fueled crash about an hour and a half from where I grew up, is being held against him.


The Intentional Walks have a lot to do with game situations. The fact that fisk had more intentional walks that Rice means very little. I say that Rice was more feared because he was for a period of about 10 years. I can’t tell you how many times I have watched the 1978 One game playoff and still felt fear when Rice comes up in the bottom of the 9th, even though I know how the game turns out.

Andy McG January 7, 2010 - 3:41 pm

I choose to presume that Joe C’s posts are actually being made with tongue firmly in cheek. It’s kinder that way.

Tom N. January 7, 2010 - 5:04 pm

Joe Cooter, I guarantee you the statistics that Bill James and other derived were not “drawn up out of thin air”. There is a logical basis for all of them. If you have the patience and open-mindedness to learn about them, I’m sure somebody will be willing to explain them to you

If there are any stats that were “drawn up out of thin air”, it’s Wins, Losses, and Saves for pitchers. Why 5 IP to get a win? Why is 3 runs the limit to get a save? Those standards seem pretty arbitrary to me…

Joe Cooter January 7, 2010 - 7:45 pm

What I am trying to say is that satistics can not be used to tell the total story of how good a ballplayer is. Sometimes you have to go by what you see on the field. Some stats, such as Earned Run Average are deceptive. A pitcher can go eight inning and give up one run ang load the bases in the 9th before being removed from the game and lose the game because the man who replaced him gave up a game winning grand slam. According to the rules the starter would have an ERA because three of those runs were charged to him. That’s considered an average pitcher, even though for eight innings he was pretty much unhittable.

Another decptive stat is on base percentage. Before Rickey Henderson came along, Lew Brock was considered to be the greatest lead off hitter of his time, in part because he held both the single season and career marks for stolen bases. But he has the second lose on base percentage for any outfielder to get in the hall of fame ahead of only Jim Rice.

Another statistic that has to be taken with a grain of salt is intentional walks because they are as much an effect of the game situation and who is in the on deck circle rather than who is in the batters box. Case in point, during the 1961 season Roger Maris recieved a grand total zero intentional walks and set a single season recond of sixty-one homers. The reasons that didn’t get an intentional walk was because he hit third in the lineup ahead of Mickey Mantle, who ended up hitting fiftyfour homeruns. Pitchers didn’t want to put Maris on base, because they litterally feared giving up two runs on a Mantle homer.

I’m not trying to say that stats don’t have a place in the game, because baseball has been obsessed with statistics since an Englishman from Sommerset named Henry Chadwick started complying statistics in the eighteen sixties. What I am saying is that there has to be room for what fans actually watch on the field.

Adam Brown January 8, 2010 - 11:26 am

You’re right. A lot of the statistics are extremely flawed. Unfortuately, most people are of the opinion that changing them would not be “for the good of the game”, because it’s important to them that statistical measures are kept constant from one decade to the next, so that “fair” comparisons can be made between players of different eras – even though this is by definition a completely pointless and futile task.

Statistics that accurately measure a players abilities are great for the more knowledgable fans, and front offices couldn’t do without them (although certain fashionable measures like VORP or “Wins created” are completely arbitrary and therefore heavily overrated). You say that clutch hitting, or stolen bases and sacrifice bunts can’t be measured – actually they can – you just need to look at the right statistics.

What I don’t like is the obsession people have with statistics and records at the expense of the game itself. Whilst a player’s numbers never “lie” per se, they also never tell the whole story either.

Joe Cooter January 8, 2010 - 12:50 pm

Probably the most flawed statistic is fielding percentage, which doesn’t take into account the how much range a player has on defence. What is more valuable to team in the field I guy with a fielding percentage of .997 and make 1 or two errors a season but letts a lot of balls go through for base hits, or a guy with a fielding percentage of .980 who makes five or six errors a season, but who gets to a lot of balls that would otherwise go through for basehits? It can be argued that the former player, with the higher fielding percentage is less valuable because he can’t prevent base hits as well as the later player.

stanullman January 8, 2010 - 3:45 pm

Sabermetricians have been pointing out that fielding percentage flaw for decades now, and saber-haters have still been using it extensively.

Also – “Another decptive stat is on base percentage. Before Rickey Henderson came along, Lew Brock was considered to be the greatest lead off hitter of his time, in part because he held both the single season and career marks for stolen bases. But he has the second lose on base percentage for any outfielder to get in the hall of fame ahead of only Jim Rice.”

That’s just incorrect. If people considered Lou Brock the best leadoff hitter of all time, the were just plain wrong. They biffed it… and you’re thinking of Dawson, not Rice.

Among other things you’re misunderstanding:

1. Saber-folks and Moneyball folks do NOT claim it is always wrong to give away an out. Most of the time it lowers the number of runs a team will score, on average, in those situations. That STILL doesn’t mean that giving away the out is the wrong thing to do. For example – say you only need one run. It’s totally fine to lower your chances of scoring more than one run by sacrificing if you increase your chances of scoring that one run that you need.

2. It doesn’t matter who you fear. It matters who’s better. You can fear Jim Rice all you want. You can fear Dwight Evans. You can fear Freddie Patek. What matters is what they DO, not how they make you feel.

3. Bill James didn’t invent any of the things you say he did, and WHIP is not advanced. It’s baserunners per inning. It’s less complicated than figuring ERA.

One question: How is OBP a flawed stat?

stanullman January 8, 2010 - 3:46 pm

Oh, your larger hands vs. range point – saber-folks agree with you 100%.

Joe Gray January 8, 2010 - 4:05 pm

Joe C:

You’ve just presented a very compelling argument for sabermetrics by bringing up how flawed fielding average is. Sabermetrics is about providing better statistics, and there are plenty better provided by sabermetrics for fielding, for the very reason that fielding average is so flawed!


Joe Cooter January 9, 2010 - 11:26 am

Yes there may be better fielding statistics for defense but I haven’t seen them used. I heard on Hot Stove this week that one sabermatrician tried to claim that Ryan Howard was a better defensive first baseman than Mark Texiera, too which the Host of the show said he had to laugh.

I simply want to caution people into reading too much into satistics or using them to compare players from differant era’s because the game has changed so much over the last thirty years. Back when I was growing up, players were much more aggressive at the plate and didn’t work pitchers counts as much as the do now. As a result, you had much lower on base percentages. Basically, if a ball was anywhere near the strike zone, players were going to swing at it. Teams didn’t actively look for players who worked the count either.

Infact, all on base percentage really measures is a players ability to be patient and get on base. It is not a measurement of scorign runs. If a guy has a batting average of say .360 and an on base percentage of .400 you can see that he doesn’t walk that much. If a player has an on base percentage .400 and a batting average of .250 you can tell that he works the count. That’s all it measure. But people want to read into statistic more than there actually is, which is a bit of a shame really.

Joe Gray January 9, 2010 - 1:24 pm

Runs are very difficult to score if you don’t get on base.

Adam Brown January 9, 2010 - 1:50 pm

They’re even harder to score with three outs – and seeing as a hitter either gets on base or gets out – OBP is a pretty good measure of how often a hitter helps rather than hinders the cause.

Joe Cooter January 9, 2010 - 1:52 pm

True but just because you get on base doesn’t mean you’re going to score. It all depends what kind of hitters you have around you. If you got a team of singles hitters, you have to incorporate speed into your lineup, inspite of the fact that speed slows the game down. You have to employ tactics like the hit and run, and the sacrifice bunt just to score runs. You can’t just sit back and wait for the three run homer.

Adam Brown January 9, 2010 - 2:05 pm

Like it or not, in the major leagues today, that’s pretty much exactly what they do. Try not to give up outs, try to get people on base, so that if a fly ball does carry into the bleachers there are more likely to be men on.

“Old fashioned” tactics like the bunt, the hit-and-run, the double steal are now virtually only seen in college ball or foreign leagues (such as the BBF).

The most tactical element in MLB at the moment is in each manager trying to get the better of the pitcher-hitter matchups throughout a series.

The individual pitcher-hitter strategic battles actually come into clearer focus in this environment, unfettered with the diverse necessities of situational hitting (I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just the way it is).

Joe Gray January 9, 2010 - 5:29 pm

I’ve enjoyed watching the way teams in Britain will attempt sacrifice bunts or issue intentional walks in some pretty strange situations. British teams do want to win games pretty badly, but – generally speaking – they’re also very keen on executing a full array of baseball tactics in doing so, even if they’re not exactly essential (part of the reason for this is that the league season can be viewed by some as little more than an opportunity for drills, in preparation for the business end of the season – often just a weekend). It’s a bit like artistic billiards in this regard.

I actually think an artisitc baseball challenge could work as a publicity stunt to show off to the general public just how skilled some baseball player are in this country. While a newcomer to the sport may be amazed by a perfect throw from the centrefielder to the catcher, many of the skills (such as executing a bunt just right) will not be appreciated so immediately. To remedy this, and properly showcase the stars, a series of challenges could be set, such as throwing a ball into a target from a long distance, knocking bottles off a wall with a ball, sending a pitch through a small hole in a board, and hitting balls from a pitching machine into a target out on the field.

Chico January 9, 2010 - 8:12 pm

I’ve read this debate from afar. As a player who played through U.S. collegiate baseball and as a coach at the collegiate and high school level most of my adult life and as a fan of MLB (specifically the Chicago White Sox) and having playing friends and coaching colleagues who are now or were in MLB and the minor leagues gives me a bit of experience in our wonderful game. In other words, I am a baseball lifer. With that being said, I understand what Joe Cooter is trying to say. (Joe and I disagreed about the steroid issue, by the way) The game IS played on the grass and dirt of ball fields. And I agree with him when he talks about being too dependent on stats to evaluate the game and players. Not to sound arrogant, but unless one has actually fielded a ground ball or caught a fly ball or pop up, stood on the mound and thrown a pitch, stood in the batter’s box, run the bases, had a collision at a base or home plate, been hit by a pitch or even spit a sunflower seed in the dugout, all of this at a fairly high level of play, one can never truly understand a certain part of the game. I am not against sabermetrics or other ways to evaluate players. However, there are intangibles and some actual unexplainable things that are a part of the game and they simply cannot be measured. The game is big enough for all sorts of folks to enjoy it and disect it and give analysis. Playing it makes all the difference however. An extremely difficult game to learn to play well. The best part is that we all can get out on the field and enjoy trying it. I would encourage everyone regardless of age or ability to get out there this spring and EXPERIENCE PLAYING the best game on earth. You will get a better appreciation of it. Don’t worry: This miserable winter across the U.S. and GB will end! Chico

* Bits and pieces « Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf January 18, 2010 - 4:26 pm

[…] GB (British perspectives on baseball), recently ran this review on The New Bill James Historical Abstract. Upshot: “Summing up the history of baseball in one book is an impossible task, but [this […]


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