"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
November 16, 2001
BASEBALL: The New Bill James Historical Abstract
Originally posted on Projo.com
Fans of baseball history and statistical analysis -- and, for that matter, fans of good writing about the game, period -- have reason for great excitement this off-season: the long-long-long-awaited arrival of the third edition of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Since the first/second edition (the paperback second edition was only slightly revised) is the one book I'd take with me to a desert island, I eagerly awaited the third edition and dove into it once it arrived.
After a 15-year interval, does the book live up to the hype? Well, James' reputation at this point is such that it would be nearly impossible to do so. Reading Bill James as a teenager didn't just teach me how to think about the game, he taught me how to think, period; the approach to critical thinking that I learned from his books has been invaluable to me in my career as a litigator. Many others feel the same way. In some ways, the relationship of James to his devotees reminds me of Hari Seldon, the character in Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" novels who predicts the future through a set of mathemetical models and then, after his death, has his followers open holographic messages from him at specified times to tell them what's next. Many of us want to see what the master thinks of everything that's happened since we last heard from him, and that's a terrible burden for any writer.
James' work can no longer have the earth-shaking impact it once did, plus as writers get older they sometimes pull punches to avoid being unnecessarily mean -- they become better human beings, and worse writers. There's a little of that here. But if James isn't the best in the business, like Michael Jordan, he's still awfully close, and he still has asides and comparisons that nobody else draws on, and pulls together interesting facts from many sources -- who else would compare Lave Cross to the Emperor Constantine? And did you know (I didn't) that Honus Wagner was the only player of his generation who lifted weights, or that it was said that Bibb Falk could curse for an hour without repeating himself? If you liked his work in the past, or if you missed out but have enjoyed the work of his many imitators -- Rob Neyer, the guys at Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Primer, yours truly -- you really do need to buy this book.
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The original book was divided in three sections: a decade-by-decade history of the game (Part I); a discussion of the players by position, with a comparitive ranking of the top 10 at each position and top 100 overall by both "peak value" and "career value" (Part II); and detailed statistics on about 200 players, including the top 100 plus numerous other significant players (Part III). Part I was the really revolutionary part of the book and the most entertaining, an attempt to go beyond just telling the highlights of each decade to really recapture the flavor of the game at each stage -- where the players came from, how strategies changed, what the controversies of the day were, how uniforms and equipment changed, what was going on in the minor leagues (and how the minors got that way). Part II followed in the footsteps of past books, particularly Pete Palmer and John Thorn's "The Hidden Game of Baseball," but added a lot of individual color to the portraits of some of the players, tried to explain, among other things, what about each player was ability and the perceptions of contemporaries and what was an illusion created by the time and place (the identification of a current player each guy most resembled was a useful insight). Part III included a lot of new statistical information that had not been gathered in one place, like a comparison of each pitcher's W-L record to that of his team and previously unavailable data on annual MVP voting.
Key advice on the new book: don't throw out the old one, which is now out of print. James hasn't substantially overhauled Part I, just adding some new categories (like "Last of His Kind" and "Better Man Than Ballplayer") and a section on the 1990s, but some of the interesting essays are gone or truncated (such as the history of platooning). But Part III has been basically eradicated, no doubt in deference to the availability advanced stats in the STATS, Inc. All-Time Handbook and Total Baseball. This is a loss -- not just because the collection of stats at the back was handy in working through the debates in Part II, but because there was stuff in there like "notes" on player injuries and salary data that isn't readily available in the encyclopedias. In its place is a selection of Win Shares data, an issue I'll get to in a moment.
The changes to Part II are almost as dramatic, and represent the centerpiece of the revisions. The old book had a discussion of each notable player and rankings at the end; here, the discussions are ranked in order, and go far deeper into the talent pool. You can now know where Kevin McReynolds rates among the all-time greats, and Gary Matthews, and Ed Bailey and Ed McKean. But most of the essays from the old Part II are gone, including brilliantly written summaries that captured the essence of players like Yogi Berra, Stan Musial, Al Simmons, Tris Speaker and Rube Waddell. If you read only the new book, you may walk away missing important points about these men that were contained in the original.
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The rankings will no doubt be the most talked-about part of the book, intentionally so, and they aim to be much more comprehensive than the last round, including 19th century and Negro League players, both of whom were excluded the last time around for lack of reliable information. I'll come back to these to quibble from time to time in this space; many of them are uncontroversial but enough are that they will stir up debate. James has ranked players based on a statistical formula, albeit one that includes a numeric value designed to account for subjective factors, and that gives weight both to a player's overall career value and to the height of his peak, thus eliminating the separate lists for career and peak value in the earlier book and abandoning his previous criticism of "great statistics" that seek to roll all evaluations into a single integer.
On another point of great interest, James does a big mea culpa on his prior advocacy of range factors. While that groundbreaking work set the stage for many of the more recent developments in fielding statistics, by focusing attention away from errors and onto a fielderís ability to make plays, James now concedes that the statistical illusions that plague range factors make them too suspect to use as a benchmark for defense. He specifically argues that Total Baseballís rating of Nap Lajoie as one of the top handful of players all time, based on his defensive statistics, is deeply misguided.
The Win Shares system, which is the foundation of the new rankings, is not fully explained, and James will have a book-length explanation coming out in the spring that you will have to buy to examine the statistical underpinnings of this book. The system makes the assumptions that a team's total wins can be rationally connected to its runs scored and allowed. Thus, each player is assigned a share of the team's total wins based on his contribution to scoring and preventing runs. Thus, a team's total "Win Shares" will always be equal to three times its number of wins (1 share per win would be too small to quantify the differences between players). I can't explain the method any further without doing it some violence, but its accuracy will depend in large part on the accuracy of its offensive and defensive measurements and the wisdom of squeezing these measurements into a box tied precisely to team wins.
Because he sets out to rank the top 100 players at nine positions, James inevitably gives some short shrift to interesting players and to explaining all the rankings. I've had this problem myself in columns that try to be comprehensive -- even if you find one or two interesting lines about 900 players, you wind up leaving a lot unexamined. For example, in the first book he wrote a glowing comment comparing George Sisler to Babe Ruth in their primes -- now he drops Sisler out of the top 100 players of all time without addressing whether he's rethought that comment or just placed more weight on the Mattingly-like long, disappointing coda to Sisler's career (and compounds the confusion with a comparitively high ranking for Mattingly himself).
James has generally tried to avoid overrating active players, even at the expense of sometimes underrating them, but he abandons this in one ranking that he has to back away from in an end-of-2000 addendum to the book. In probably the most controversial ranking in the book, he rates Craig Biggio extremely highly, ahead of (among others) Yaz, Reggie, Ripken, Spahn, Seaver, Koufax, Mathewson, Bench, Yogi, Hank Greenberg, Nap Lajoie, and Charlie Gehringer. This for a leadoff man in a high-scoring era with a career high on base percentage of .415, after the 12th season of his career. I'm a big Biggio fan, but James got carried away with Biggio's virtues on this one. (He also ranks Oscar Charleston third all time, but while that's suprising, there's no way to really know how accurate it is, and Charleston has probably gotten the least respect of all the truly great Negro League players.)
Another controversial one is Will Clark, who rates above apparently superior contemporaries like Rafael Palmiero as well as above numerous Hall of Famers, including old-timer Dan Brouthers, who was the best hitter of the 19th century. Though I understand why James cuts down some of the old-timers, Brouthersí low rating conflicts sharply with his high Win Shares totals and is hard to explain.
Jamesí longstanding hostility to Rogers Hornsby has only deepened, and he attacks Hornsby at numerous turns in the book for being a jerk, a bad fielder (Jamesí defensive method rates Hornsby as the worst-fielding second baseman among anyone with a long enough career to be worth rating), and a guy whose career fell apart after age 33 because he didnít take care of himself. I still think it was unfair in the old book to hold Hornsbyís frequent changes of address against him when heís compared to Eddie Collins (who was sold in mid-career by the Aís for reasons similar to those that sent Hornsby from Boston to Chicago) and Joe Morgan (who moved around as much as Hornsby did). But James does have his points on this one.
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I was gratified by Jamesí analysis of the starting pitchers, since I've been working on my own list for some time now and James' methods and resulting list have a lot of similarities to my own, though he rates Warren Spahn a good deal higher than I do, and he drops John Clarkson well below some of his 19th century contemporaries due (I believe) to a failure to take proper account of the value of Clarksonís workload relative to the league.
In the pitcher section, James backs off what I always regarded as the most controversial position in the original: that Lefty Grove, not Walter Johnson, was the best pitcher of all time. Grove and Johnson had similar ERAs, if you adjust for the league and park effects; Jamesí previous argument had rested on three main points:
1. Grove led the league in ERA and winning percentage more often. This is a red herring; Johnsonís ERAs are just as good in context, and he was more often among the league leaders when he wasnít number one. More to the point, Groveís ERA titles were often in years when he didnít throw a ton of innings, while Johnson was working like a dray horse. If you look at the innings, Johnson worked far harder than Grove did even relative to the leagues they pitched in, which made him much more valuable in comparison to his contemporaries. And Groveís winning percentages Ė well, give Walter Johnson Jimmie Foxx for his whole career and see what happens . . .
2. Johnson didnít throw as hard (which James concluded from looking at his motion) and didnít have to throw hard on every pitch. This ignored two things: one, that contemporary observers almost unanimously said Johnson threw harder, which even if discounted for the ďold fogeyĒ factor undermines the idea that Johnsonís velocity was a myth, and two, that Johnson pitched very well in the 1920s, even winning the AL MVP in 1924, even though he was 32 and sore-armed when the lively ball arrived.
3. While Groveís career was shorter, he should get credit for the five years he dominated the International League (Johnsonís best years were at the same age). This is worth something, but, as James now concedes, these would have to be at the level of Groveís best seasons to keep Grove even with Johnsonís quality, and he still doesnít match the length of Johnsonís career.
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Then there are the analytical surprises -- you'll have to open the book to see James' answers to the following questions:
*What player, rarely discussed as a glove man, not only ranks about even with double play kings Bill Mazeroski and Glenn Hubbard as one of the greatest defensive second basemen of all time, but was also off the charts as a defensive player at two other positions?
*What was the best single season starting rotation of all time? This one came as a huge surprise even to James.
*Of all the ways relief aces and closers have been used over the past 50 years, which is the most effective?
*Which DiMaggio was the best defensive outfielder?
*Who was the second-best shortstop of all time?
*What starting pitcher never won a Cy Young award -- but was robbed of several he could have won?
*What third baseman vaulted 30 spots in the rankings when James ripped up his subjective list and forced himself to look at the hard numbers?
* * *
There are plenty of other interesting issues outside the rankings, and and I haven't touched on nearly everything here, including James' prescriptions for shortening games and fixing economic problems. Two more are worth noting.
In one aside, buried in an essay on great teams in Part I, James attacks the two fundamental bases of the team rankings in Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein's "Baseball Dynasties," (a book he gave a glowing blurb to at the time). First, he argues that ranking teams by runs scored and allowed rather than W-L records is largely redundant. This assumes, of course, that wins are the true measure of a team's qyuality -- an obvious point to the casual fan, but controversial to those who follow James' own Pythagorean Theory of how a team that outperforms its expected wins and losses based on runs scored and runs allowed is likely playing over its head (this is a continuing issue also raised by the Win Shares system). Second, Neyer and Epstein assumed that a team's real strength had to be examined by reference to the competitive balance among the league's offenses and defenses, and therefore used a standard deviation method to rank each component of the team. James scoffs at this, noting by way of example that there was a huge split in the standard deviations between the NL and AL in 1974, and asks rhetorically whether this is really a valid basis for giving a much higher rating to the best AL teams (Neyer and Epstein had specifically relied on this in including the 1974 A's in their book).
In contrast to the Biggio controversy, James actually made one prediction in the book that came at least partially true before it was published. In discussing why he thinks teams in the past decade have grown too dependent on power hitting and will soon find themselves defeated by teams that get back to the basics of focusing on getting people on base, he writes:
"Sooner or later, we're going to get some little guy with limited athletic ability who just draws walks and punches singles, somebody will put him in the lineup in front of Albert Belle or Ken Griffey or Nomar or Juan Gonzalez, and the big guy will drive in 175 runs, and everybody else will go scrambling around looking for little guys who can get on base."
Of course, the great sensation of 2001 wasn't a player with limited athletic ability nor a guy who drew a lot of walks -- but Ichiro did punch an American League record 192 singles by basically slapping the ball, led the majors in batting, and set the table for 141 RBI not by one of the big boppers but a career .255 hitter who had averaged 69 RBI a year the prior six seasons. With a team nobody expected to win its division tying the all-time single season wins record, you can bet major league GMs were paying attention.
The book has other failings -- there are an awful lot of typos, and the simple fact that parts of the book are updated through 1999 and parts of others through 2000, with inconsistencies in the positional and overall rankings, is a bit jarring. But these are minor issues. Maybe this book isn't a walk-off grand slam like the prior edition, but it definitely goes for extra bases.
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November 9, 2001
BASEBALL: 2001 World Series Wrapup
Originally posted on Projo.com
Did the Yankees choke? They came into the World Series heavily favored. They entered the weekend with a 3-2 lead after two victories so totally demoralizing that one would scarcely expect any opponent to revive, much less against a 3-time defending champion. Saturday, Andy Pettitte -- the Yankee with the most big postseason starts to his credit -- came out with nothing, the offense was flat, and they lost 15-2. Sunday, they played their first Game 7 in a 7-game series in the modern Yankee era (i.e., since Steinbrenner bought the team), and even after the Yankees came from behind to take a 2-1 lead into the ninth, it wound up a lot like the last one, the 1964 defeat that ended the Yankee dynasty of 1947-64. Should we regard this as a simple defeat, or one of the big choke jobs in postseason history?
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It really all depends how you look at the postseason. There are those, like me, who believe that baseball games are basically determined by four things: (1) talent, including not just physical talent and skill but the collection of abilities ranging from concentration to judgment of the strike zone and on the basepaths that separate good players from bad ones; (2) strategy; (3) matchups, i.e. the fact that the righthanded-swinging 1953 Dodgers would fare much better against Randy Johnson than would the 1927 Yankees; and (4) timing or luck, which may or may not be the same thing. The first is paramount over the long regular season, provided that the strategy isn't so totally awful that a team squanders its ability to put the best talent on the field. In the postseason, though, the other three factors loom much larger because the games are closer, they're head-to-head rather than against a cross-section of the league, and with fewer games a single blunder can turn the tide.
The Yankees were far and away the best team in baseball in 1998, and in 1999 you have to give them the same respect for outlasting the 3 comparably talented teams - the Indians, Mets, and Braves. In 2000 and 2001, though, the Yankees were beating teams that they couldn't keep up with in the regular season. You tip your cap to them, and recognize that they won the Series in 2000 and the pennant in 2001 fair and square. Still, also recognize that this team would have finished third in the AL West.
But there are also those, most prominently among pro-Yankees sportswriters, who view the postseason as a sort of mythical proving ground where true champs are separated from "phony" stars who don't really "have what it takes" (you know, like Randy Johnson). Thus, winning in the postseason becomes proof of a form of moral superiority, or is seen as somehow revealing who is truly the better team. The media loved, for example, revelling in how the Mariners' 116 wins "don't mean anything now" once they lost to the Yankees -- as if the entire regular season was an illusion and in 6 games the shadows had now been cast off to reveal, with Platonic insight, the actual form of the best team in the American League. We heard variations on this line for three years, but the problem with the argument is that it provides no room for the best team to lose - if you lose, by definition, you are no longer "a champion."
Did they choke? Sometimes you put your best pitcher on the mound, and he gets beat. Happens to everybody. Except the Yankees, we were told. We were told wrong.
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One thing I disagreed with was the post-game questioning of Joe Torre for pulling in the infield in the ninth inning. There are two choices in that situation: draw in the infield and hope to get the lead runner at the plate on a weak grounder while risking missing an inning-ending GIDP or allowing a flare to fall for a game winning hit, or pull the infield back, prevent a line drive from falling and hope for the DP. There are two factors at work here. First, the pitcher: you might draw the infield back for a guy like Ramiro Mendoza or John Franco who gets a lot of sharply hit ground balls, but Rivera tends to get a lot of weak dribblers, and do you really want one of them to cost you the World Series? Second, the fielders. Derek Jeter was hobbling like Bill Buckner out there by the ninth inning, and I was starting to wonder why Torre didn't pull him from the game when he had a 1-run lead to protect. Regardless of what you think of Jeter's defense when he's healthy, we've seen what can happen when you let loyalty get in the way of putting your best defensive team on the field with the Series on the line. The only real answer is that the Yankees don't have a backup shortstop Torre can trust -- a sad comment on a team carrying so many reserve infielders on the postseason roster. Anyway, with the infield drawn back, it would have been very difficult for Jeter to reach a slow rolling ground ball.
Like I said, sometimes you make the right call, put the best players you have out there, and you still lose. The Yankees have reacted by firing their batting coach.
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New York Daily News headline Tuesday morning: JASON WHO? The article said that team sources say the Yanks were sticking with Tino and not interested in buying Jason Giambi. The New York Post headline the same day: GET GIAMBI! George orders team to bring in A's slugger. I love New York.
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I can't let this one pass before he retires: am I the only one who thinks
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A minor thing, but it surprised me a bit: Tim McCarver hammering Bob Brenly for leaving in Curt Schilling to hit in the seventh. Now, I know the parallel isn't perfect, since a lot of McCarver's point was that the D-Backs needed runs. But I thought ironic for McCarver to give Brenly no credit for wanting to stand or fall with his horse. When McCarver was a Mets broadcaster, his all-time favorite story to tell was about how he was catching the 7th game of the 1964 World Series, and Bob Gibson was on the mound, and he was visibly exhausted, and Johnny Keane came out to the mound, and Gibson essentially refused to come out of the game, and Keane said afterwords that he left Gibson in to finish the thing because he "had a commitment to his heart." McCarver always told this story with unmixed admiration for both Gibson and Keane - yet he didn't even consider that there might be a good reason for Brenly to feel the same way about Curt Schilling.
Now, Brenly probably should have tried to get an extra bat in there, and there's no question he was managing scared, afraid of his own relief pitchers. But who can blame him for that after Byun-Hyung Kim had a worse trip to the Bronx than Sherman McCoy? Brenly wanted to stick with Curt Schilling unless he absolutely had to take him out. I can't fault the logic.
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Some people around the country were rooting for the Yankees to help the city heal. OK, I can understand that, but for a substantial number of us baseball fans here in NY, watching another Yankee championship would have been about as much fun as that plotline on "ER" last week with the guy who tried to circumcise himself with a pair of scissors. And sure the Phoenix fans haven't really earned a championship, but a lot of them are basketball fans too, and certainly the Suns have paid their dues over the years with two gut-wrenching losses in the NBA Finals. Plus, they've got Bill Bidwell, which should be penance enough for any town. Thank you, Arizona.
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I don't have the stomach for all the financial stuff right now, but as the owners prepare to party like it's 1899, consider this: the last time the baseball owners approved a contraction plan, another major league was formed within two years.
It's appalling that a 100-year-old franchise that's won 6 pennants and 3 World Championships is being targeted for extinction. The Twins (then the Senators) produced the greatest pitcher in baseball history - they are the only franchise to see a pitcher win 400 games in the same uniform. The Hall of Fame is littered with men who earned some or all their way to Cooperstown with the Senators/Twins: Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Joe Cronin, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield, Stan Coveleski, Heine Manush, Bucky Harris, Rick Ferrell, Early Wynn, Al Simmons and Ed Delahanty; the list may yet be joined by Paul Molitor, Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant, Jack Morris, or Tony Oliva.
Legally, the government can always take private property for public use as long as it's willing to pay for it. In these days of tight budgets and a slow economy, that's a daunting task, and taking over private businesses to prevent them from leaving town is an awful precedent. But I personally think it would be hilarious if Jesse Ventura decided to seize the Twins, run them like the Green Bay Packers, and force Carl Pohlad, after years of crying that his team is losing money, to come into court and argue that the state underpaid him for the team's real economic value.
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