I’ve been a Bill James disciple from day one. I was a 20-something fledgling sportswriter when his Baseball Abstracts came out, and they opened up a new world to me. Not that I always understood the math behind the theories, but James’s essential point hit me loud and clear: That conventional wisdom was not always so wise, and traditional methods of evaluating baseball players and teams were in dire need of an upgrade. And James not only provided it, he did so in a literate and highly entertaining manner. He imbued in me a sense of skepticism and an inclination to challenge prevailing groupthink that I’ve tried to maintain over the years. His legacy lives on in the fine analytical work done by Baseball Prospectus and countless other websites, and locally by the likes of USS Mariner and Lookout Landing. Bill James wasn’t the first person to analyze stats — if you want an outstanding history of statistical analysis, read Alan Schwartz’s 2004 book, “The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics” — but he’s easily been the most influential.
I still have my Abstracts from the late 1970s and early 1980s stacked neatly on my bookshelf, and I’ll pull them out occasionally to read a chapter or two. The players James critiqued are long gone (like poor Enos Cabell, whose savaging by James was legendary), but the insights live on, and so does the humor and biting criticism. Mostly, what shines through is the sense that something entirely new was being put forth, something groundbreaking, borderline revolutionary. And I think the ensuing 30 years, and the meteoric rise of sabermetrics — to the point that James himself now works for the Boston Red Sox — has borne this out.
That’s a long way of introducing an e-mail I got today from the publishers of James’ new book, “The Bill James’ 2009 Gold Mine,” published by Acta Sports. The press release includes five of his observations on the Mariners:
“Although he’s often overlooked, Adrian Beltre is one of the best third basemen in baseball. He is at the top of the list in fielding and below average in only one category, plate discipline. He has also been very durable, and his skill set is actually very similar to one of baseball’s saints: Brooks Robinson.”
“The Mariners in 2006 drafted Brandon Morrow with the #5 pick in the draft, rather than local favorite Tim Lincecum, who went to San Francisco with the tenth pick. This is something that people talk about, but–just my opinion–in the long run, I don’t think anybody is going to regret drafting Brandon Morrow. I think he’s tremendous. Morrow had a 3.34 ERA last year, but there are several signals that he may be a better pitcher even than that. Batters hit .174 against him, which is Randy Johnson territory. He made a mid-season conversion from relief to starting, which probably didn’t help his numbers any, and he gave up 10 home runs with just 47 fly outs. A ratio like that is probably a fluke, since the pitcher doesn’t really control the percentage of flyballs against him that become home runs. He may not be a starting pitcher. In five starts in September he walked 19 men, which is too many; even Randy couldn’t succeed as a starter issuing that many free passes. He may have to go back to the bullpen. And I’m not saying he is Tim Lincecum, but…I think he’s a guy who has Cy Young ability.”
“What happened to Yuniesky Betancourt’s glove? His fielding plus/minus figures (the number of plays he makes above or below what an average defender at his position would have made) have dropped each of the past two years, and he was last among all major league shortstops in 2008. He has particularly lost range on groundballs up the middle.”
“Last year, we mentioned that Felix Hernandez threw his slider more often in 2007. In 2008, he changed his pattern again, throwing fastballs more often than anytime in his major league career, and de-emphasizing the slider and curveball.”
“The Seattle Mariners last year had a man on second base, no one out 116 times, and scored only 111 runs in those innings. They were the only major league team to score less than one run an inning when they had a leadoff hitter at second base. ”
Good stuff, as usual — enough to induce me to read the latest Bill James with the same intellectual curiosity I’ve invested in all his other works.