Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
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.
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?
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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.