The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract
How does one describe Bill James? How do we evaluate the evaluator? He cringes when the term "statistical guru" is applied to him. He is too informal to be called a "baseball intellectual" and he is yet young enough not to be a "diamond sage." He teaches and informs, but is also constantly learning and experimenting. Let's leave it at "master analyst," although his new contribution could well qualify him for some other, loftier title. Yes, the book is that good. To many of us who follow and write about baseball, it has to be the most important work in the field in recent memory.
The first of three parts is an updated version of "The Game," reviewed by decade from the 1870s. Almost all of this appeared in his first, 1985 Abstract, but he has added examinations of the 1980s and 1990s. The standard recipe suggests all-star teams for each decade, lists statistical leaders in both familiar and off-beat categories, and fills us in on all manner of "bests" and "worsts." We also learn about the pastime's good guys and curmudgeons; its boozers, abusers and crooks. His spouse, Susan McCarthy, chips in with amiable opinions on the handsomest and ugliest players and the see-saw evolution of the uniforms. It was fun to re-visit this material after 15 years.
The last part of the book consists of names and numbers related to his recent and primary tool used in evaluating players over time - His "Win Shares" system. This is complicated stuff, essentially involving: 1. The number of runs a team scores above the league season average, "Marginal Runs Scored." 2. The number of runs allowed under the league season average, "Marginal Runs Saved." 3. These run differentials translated into games Won. And, finally, 4. The amount of Shares of these Wins (1/3) earned by individual players through Runs Created (another formula) and Runs Saved (recognizing pitching and defense). Within these numerical gymnastics, he tries to provide some wiggle room for intangibles. My first thought in that regard was: How in the world do we quantify the flip-toss assist to the plate by Derek Jeter in the 2001 AL playoffs? And other athletic, intelligent, instinctive moves, recalled over the past century. The Jeter play was made after publication, but James hints that sort of thing is considered. There is also a commendable concern about fairness - to, for example, hitters in pitchers' eras, fine players on poor teams, relievers in these times of specialization. It probably won't surprise you to learn that the man with the most Career Win Shares is Babe Ruth, with 758. Beyond that, I won't go, instead deferring to James himself to explain all of this to you in a related book just out - Win Shares, from STATS, Inc.
The heart and soul of this remarkable piece of work is the 600-page Part 2 - Player Ratings. After enumerating Win Shares, James presents his rankings of the 100 best players at each position. This may appear to be fairly routine, with Name, Years, Teams, Average, etc., but it is far more than that. There are comments on all the players, including, when applicable, heroics, foibles, special stats, popularity(or lack thereof), personality, human kindness, and even debauchery and criminal activity. Another attractive aspect is the use of a given player profile as a springboard to discussion of a broader issue of interest to the author. To cite just a few of these, with Ernie Lombardi we revisit athletic decline, loss of identity, and personal pain; in Hal Chase, it is a story of charm and slime; through Arky Vaughan we look at offense vs. defense at shortstop; with Augie Galan a sidebar entitled "Great Seasons by Leftfielders;" through Wille Davis, we look at hitting in a pitchers' park during a pitchers' era; and from Bucky Walters, connections to pitching "families," such as "Blow 'em away Lefties"(Grove and Randy Johnson), "Easy Motion Lefties"(Spahn and Glavine), "Right-handed Power Pitchers," some who will give walks(Feller), and others who won't(Seaver). Walters is in a "family" with Bob Lemon. All of the above barely scratches the surface of a pleasant mass of interesting insights.
James' style is a blend of candor, sarcasm, humor, diffidence, curiosity, and respect. It is also almost always reasonable. When he believes the numbers are on his side, he can be adamant:
Norm Cash, 1961. The most famous fluke season in history.
George Kelly was a good ballplayer. So were(others). He was not a Hall-of-Famer on the best day of his life. What put him (there) was a Veterans' Committee salted with old teammates . . .and General Manager.
The Kelly comment hearkens back to his earlier book, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, reviewed here a couple of years ago. However, when the stats are closer or more nebulous, he will leave decisions to the reader:
So if you want to argue it's Thornton over Mayberry, you may well be right.
And sometimes he admits he simply isn't sure:
The ranking of second basemen past spot 35 is almost impossible. I've done the best I could, but there are just a lot of players who are the same.
Among current and very recent performers, James feels ready to rate Piazza, Bagwell, Bonds, Henderson, Griffey, Gwynn, Biggio, and Roberto Alomar within the top 10 at their positions. This is flattering to the modern game, about which some old-timers scoff. All of these particular choices make sense to this reviewer except Biggio. James is enamored with the Astro second baseman as to Win Shares, but I don't see any pennant, World Series, MVP, or more than the one "Black Ink" entry(James' own term for leading a league) - NL steals in 1994. I just can't agree that the Houston hustler is better than Ryne Sandberg, Charlie Gehringer, or Joe Gordon.
It was gratifying to see the #10 ratings for two very underrated players: Darrell Evans at 3rd Base and Minnie Minoso in Left Field. You'll remember the former as a 400-homer man in the '70s and '80s who was a solid fielder at 3rd and later at 1st. Younger readers may not be too familiar with the latter, an exciting player and personality who was a rarity - the kind of slash hitter who could drive in 100 or more runs with fewer than 20 homers, which he did three times. It was also good to see honorable mention for Bob Elliott(most RBI in the '40s), Charlie Keller(five powerful seasons), and Bill Nicholson(underrated power hitter because the earlier War Year of 1943 has been underrated).
Earlier players are rated and discussed. There's Anson and Brouthers and Nichols from the 1800s, the Mathewsons, Cobbs, and Lajoies from the first part of the 20th Century. This fan's interest has always been centered on folks from the first twenty years of my life, the '30s, '40s, and '50s. I followed them religiously and saw many of them play. When I first picked up the book this past January, I thought I'd take a month or so, read portions here and there at leisure. No way; couldn't put it down. Just as it seemed time to close it, who would show up but Andy Pafko, Tommy Holmes, Don Newcombe, Sid Gordon, Granny Hamner, Del Ennis, and Joe Adcock. The Hall-of-Famers are there too, of course, but these other guys are as familiar as my Uncle Billy - and they were good. To fellow fans and readers: Miss this book at your loss and peril. To Bill James: Thanks for the memories.