All about the latest Bill James Handbook

The offseason is a dull time for baseball fans, enlivened now and then by trades, free agent signings, Hall of Fame voting and, of course, annual baseball books. And one of the very best annual baseball books is the Bill James Handbook, which I received in the mail a couple of weeks ago.

This is the 25th Bill James Handbook, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. In the Introduction, James remembers when the Handbook was just a gleam in the eye of a memo sent to John Dewan and Don Zminda. Upon receiving the memo, John and Don proceeded to publish the Handbook posthaste, and a tradition was born.

James also mentions his early inspiration, the Sporting News Register. The Handbook was conceived as a replacement and/or complement to the Register in terms of content and timing. Like the Hardball Times Annual (you knew I would sneak that in, didn’t you?), the Handbook was published in the fall to offset the dreaded winter months for baseball fans. That it has lasted 25 years is proof of its success.

At the same time, James raises the likelihood that his Handbook will eventually be dwarfed by all of the resources on the Internet. This will be a loss to many of us, but admittedly a lot of the Handbook data already are available on the web. So let’s trip our way through this 25th volume of a baseball publishing classic and ask ourselves what we most value about it. Maybe we can hold onto something that might otherwise be lost.

The people who wrote the thing
Although Bill’s name is the one on the front cover, it is clear that a lot of people put a lot of work into the publication of the Handbook. When a book is published within a month of the season ending, how else could it be? Specifically, the many good folks at Baseball Info Solutions compiled and produced all the data and ACTA Sports printed and distributed the book.

There are many explanations and short essays sprinkled throughout the book as introductions to each section. James wrote some of these and is credited for them where appropriate. The other introductions tend to be more limited and aren’t accredited to a particular author, except for one exception (John Dewan’s Fielding Bible Awards).

This is important only because Bill is such a strong and influential writer that you sometimes appreciate what he chooses to write about, regardless of what he actually says. For instance, would Bill have chosen to write about Dusty Baker in the intro to the manager section? We’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter—except to understand that that particular angle wasn’t necessarily one of Bill’s choosing.

How the book is laid out
Nearly half of the book is taken up by individual player career records. This is the “Register-like” part of the book and, quite frankly, it is the least interesting part. The format hasn’t evolved very much beyond that put together 25 years ago. You can find much more thorough player statistics at FanGraphs, Baseball Reference and many other sites, and the Handbook hasn’t really incorporated some of the insights that baseball analysts have gained in the past couple of decades. I’d be a lot more interested in a pitcher’s FIP than his component ERA.

The rest of the book comprises many smaller sections, specializing in team and more advanced player statistics. This is the real meat of the book and I’m going to review each of them, in order of appearance.

Standings and team efficiencies
The first section lists team standings and other assorted stats. Although it consists of only seven pages, I find this information fascinating. Did you know that the Brewers were 18-35 in day games and played above .500 in night games? Or that the Rangers were below .500 outside of the division but 53-23 within it? Or that right field was the best fielded position in the majors (by Arizona, which was 53 runs above average) and one of the worst (by Houston, which was 22 runs below average—second worst only to Philadelphia’s third basemen)?

In addition, there is a special table that measures the efficiency of each team in various metrics. The Cardinals had the best situational hitting in the majors; the Rays had terrible situational pitching and the Philllies beat their run differential by the widest margin.

A lot of this information is available somewhere on the Internet. Baseball Reference has a good list of basic team stats and Baseball Prospectus has adjusted standings. But I really appreciate having it all laid out in a contained space like the Handbook’s.

Starting the Handbook with team summaries is an important idea. The key question for people in the baseball stats business is: When you digest your baseball stats, do you prefer to see them organized by team or by individual players? When I included stats in the Hardball Times Annuals, I purposely organized them by team. It’s relatively easy to find individual player listings on the web, but those organized by teams are harder to find. Seeing all the individual player stats associated with a specific team helps you better understand what happened to that team.

Focusing on the team-level data first gives context to the later player listings. Really, it depends on what the reader wants, and what the book is trying to communicate. The Handbook primarily focuses on individual player lists after this section, but it also changes to a team perspective in some key sections.

Fielding Bible awards
Next up are the Fielding Bible awards, an award system introduced by John Dewan several years ago to provide a legitimate alternative to Gold Glove voting. Now that Rawlings has incorporated cutting-edge stats into its Gold Glove selection process, it will be interesting to see if John continues to present the Fielding Bible Awards. The structure is slightly different and John is to be congratulated for the transparency of his voting process, but the results this year—unlike previous years——were very similar to the Gold Glove outcomes.

Fielding leaderboards
Backup material to the Fielding Bible awards, including three-year leaderboards. The three-year leaderboards are a nice touch because defensive stats are not as consistent from year to year as some other baseball stats. Many of the Fielding Bible stats in this and later sections are available at FanGraphs. For instance, here is the three-year leaderboard for defensive runs saved at third base.

Career register
Pass.

2013 fielding stats
Plus/minus and defensive runs saved for all players at all positions in 2013.

Baserunning
The baserunning section has a lot of interesting information. It contains breakouts for each baserunner in 2013, such as the number of times he took a base on a non-batted-ball event (wild pitches, etc.), made outs on the basepaths, etc. You can find this level of detail on individual player pages at Baseball Reference, but this is a good example of how individual statistical sections help give context to a player’s stats. It’s hard to know how to judge an individual’s baserunning stats when they’re presented in isolation from other players, but this section shows everyone’s baserunning stats within a few pages.

What’s more, the Handbook sums these stats into a net gain figure, such as Juan “Still Going Strong” Pierre’s 17 bases above average (note that these are not expressed as runs above/below average, as the baserunning stats at FanGraphs are). And they compile all this detail for each team so you can see that the Rangers made the most outs attempting to take the extra base on hits, for instance, and the Rockies were doubled off more than any other team. The Rays, by the way, made fewer baserunning outs than any other team.

Relief pitching
Bullpen reports are organized by team, with individual relievers listed by team. There are some very useful insights here, such as breaking saves into tough (potential tying run is on base), easy (one inning or less and the first batter doesn’t represent the potential tying run) and regular (everything else). These definitions make for some interesting results since many team closers face no tough save opportunities. On the A’s, for instance:

Grant Balfour: 0 tough save opportunities
Bullpen mates: 15 tough save opportunities

Balfour’s fellow reliever Ryan Cook was, unfortunately, 1-for-7 in tough save situations (meaning he allowed the other team to score a tying or go-ahead run when presented with the save opportunity).

I prefer the WPA-based stats available at FanGraphs, such as shutdowns and meltdowns, but there’s a lot to digest here as well. Plus, the groupings by team are a huge plus because they allow you to see how each bullpen congealed into a useful whole (or not). This is another terrific section.

Pitchers’ hitting, fielding and holding runners
Lots of detail, plus a hitters pitching table. Listed by player and not organized by team.

Hitter analysis
This is a new section in the Handbook and it’s the first section with an introduction by Bill. It’s a good read. The fun thing is that they’ve grouped hitters into two types of categories: five types of patience (from very patient to very aggressive) and three types of batted ball hitters (ground ball, fly ball and in-between). Bill makes a couple of good points:
{exp:list_maker}Groundball hitters tend to be aggressive hitters; flyball hitters tend to be patient hitters
There’s really no such thing as a line drive hitter. Line drives are “accidents” and hitters most likely to hit them are those who are least extreme—the “medium” hitters. {/exp:list_maker}
The data are in a straight list showing some basic judgment stats (pitches taken for a strike, foul balls hits) and batted ball stats. Fun fact: Freddie Freeman hit the most foul balls last year; Pablo Sandoval hit the highest proportion of foul balls. I’m not aware that you can find foul ball data anywhere on the webs.

Pitcher analysis
Bill wrote another essay here, in which he makes it clear that he believes groundball pitchers are overrated. He’s made the same argument at Bill James Online and it’s worth considering. He also ends the essay with these two paragraphic gems:

The “highest” level of outcomes is wins and losses, and next is runs and innings. Below that are the “category” outcomes of batters faced, strikeouts, home runs, etc. Modern analysis has shown that… the lower-level outcomes are better predictors of future outcomes.

But below the third level… there is another level of data—pitches, strikes, balls, line drives, etc. It is likely that the fourth-level outcomes are better predictors than the third-level outcomes…. So it is likely that, over time, analysis will slide toward the fourth-level outcomes. I’m just trying to push the process along a little bit.

Pitchers’ repertoires
Another straight list of pitcher pitch data (fastballs, curveballs, etc.) preceded by a James essay. This is familiar territory to many of you and the Handbook doesn’t really add much, but James’ essay is enjoyable. Fun fact: most-similar repertoire to Max Scherzer is Justin Verlander, and the most-similar to Verlander is Scherzer.

Pinch hitting
Player lists, including a career list for active players.

Manufactured runs, productive outs and unproductive outs
This section is just four pages long but has some really fun stats: leaderboard and team stats for manufactured runs (complicated definition, but the bottom line is that no more than two of the four bases gained by the runner who scored were the result of an outfield hit, walk or hit batsman), productive outs (an out made by the batter that moves at least one runner up one base) and unproductive outs (the opposite).

The Rockies led the majors with 175 manufactured runs; the Angels made the most unproductive outs (787). That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Managers’ record
There is gold in this section, which lists all sorts of managerial tactics for recent individual managers for not only 2013 but each manager’s entire career (though a very useful 2013-only table is included). Unlike many other sections, the definitions are included in the Intro, which makes it a lot easier to interpret the tables.

Fun fact: Joe Maddon varied his lineup the most last year, posting 147 different lineups in 162 games. He also led the majors in defensive substitutions.

You could get lost here. In a good way.

Ballparks and park indices
Simple park factors (for example, not regressed or modified for facing different teams at home and on the road. Don’t you hate the unbalanced schedule?) for all the basic counting stats as well as a few fun ones (foul outs, for example, or home runs by right-handed batters).

Walks have been 21 percent more common at U.S. Cellular than on the road over the last three years. Why is that? What’s going on?

Lefty/righty statistics
Full confession here: I’m not satisfied with the way anyone presents lefty/righty stats. It seems to me that lefty/righty splits should be an important part of a player’s basic record. Lefty/righty splits are a fundamental aspect of a player’s performance, just as important as his walks or strikeout rate.

In previous Hardball Times Annuals, I tried to put together a measure for extreme handedness splits directly in the primary batting stats, but it was too complicated and no one ever told me if they liked it or not. So I dropped it. But here’s a plea to Bill James and John Dewan and Sean Forman and David Appelman and everyone else who publishes baseball stats: find a way to make lefty/right splits a part of each batter’s (and pitcher’s) fundamental record. Put it next to strikeouts or home runs or something. Don’t put it on a separate page or in a separate section.

Leaderboards
Leaderboards for all sorts of crazy stats and lots of fun facts. You can find very customizable leaderboards at both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, but it’s also nice to have then laid out in front of you as the Handbook does.

Carlos Gomez had the highest slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers. I’m not sure where else you can find that.

Most of the remaining sections might be categorized as “favorite toys.” They are all kind of unique and fun to read.

{exp:list_maker}Home run robberies (fun fact: Adrian Beltre has been robbed of more home runs than any other batter in the past 10 years)
No-hitter summary
Win Shares (I believe this is Bill’s original published method, not the newer one he has written about at Bill James Online)
Instant replay summary
Hall of Fame monitor
2014 player projections (Bill’s projections are known for being optimistic compared to other projection systems, something he kind of acknowledges in the introduction to this section)
Career targets (a couple of years ago, I thought the career doubles record might be at risk, but it appears to be safe for now)
Glossary {/exp:list_maker}
Bottom line, there is a ton of interesting and useful information in the Bill James Handbook. Most of the best information is in the smaller, specialized sections and the best are those that are also summarized into team-level totals. Let’s hope it stays in business for another 25 years.

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Comments

  1. Carl said...

    Hi Dave,

    Great article.  In my house, the Bill James Handbook and Hard Times Annual are standing requests on my Christmas list.

  2. bucdaddy said...

    Line drives are “accidents”
    —-
    Heh. The folks at SBNation’s Bucs Dugout who know me know I have a long-running argument that there’s no such thing as “luck” in baseball, “luck,” at least, in the sense of some mystical, magical force that seems to work for you some days and against you others. (I’m open to the interpretation of “luck” as “randomness,” but I think it’s a small number of fans who understand it that way, and using “luck” as a shorthand for “randomness” might tend to confuse low-information fans who think it has the other meaning).

    Anyway, when “luck” comes up in discussions, as in, “Bad luck he hit that ball right at the shortstop” or “Bad luck that 12-hopper found the hole,” I’m fond of asking, Why aren’t 500-foot homers and screaming liners into the gap considered to be “lucky”? Given the relative rarity of those events—heck, given the relative rarity of balls falling for hits at all (only 30% of the time)—shouldn’t they be considered “lucky”? The difference between the 500-foot homer and the screamer in the gap and a mile-high popup is, what, probably a 32nd of an inch on the bat. But nobody ever says, after a home run, “Dude just got lucky.”

    If you’re going to go the “luck” route, then I could make a case that virtually EVERYTHING that happens in baseball is a matter of “luck.” But there must be skill involved somehow, or every player would hit .270 over time. I prefer to believe in skill and talent (and randomness) rather than luck.

  3. Peter Jensen said...

    There’s really no such thing as a line drive hitter. Line drives are “accidents” and hitters most likely to hit them are those who are least extreme—the “medium” hitters.

    This is exactly opposite to what Hit F/x tells us.  Most hitters when not trying to hit a home run swing the bat at an angle so that their hardest hit balls leave that bat at a vertical angle between 9 and 14 degrees and a horizontal angle close to where an infielder is standing which is a gap between the outfielders.  Their “mistakes” are either hit too low and end up as a ground ball to an infielder, or hit too high and end up as a fly ball to an outfielder.  Some “mistakes” can also be hit balls too late or too early which either end up as ground balls through the infield or line drives to an outfielder.

  4. studes said...

    For those of you who want to comment on what Bill said, I invite you to join Bill James Online and leave a comment on Hey Bill. Could make for an interesting conversation.

    I’m not sure what Hitf/x says that is different, Peter.  Are you saying that the batted ball data is incorrect, and that most hits are actually line drives?  Are you saying that less extreme flyball and groundball hitters are not more likely to hit line drives? What’s the difference with what Bill stated?

  5. Peter Jensen said...

    Dave – I am saying that there is no such thing as a ground ball hitter.  If there was we would see players whose hardest hit balls had vertical angles below + 7 degrees leaving the bat.  We would also see players that had ground ball distributions with spikes between infielders.  Hit F/x doesn’t show either of those things.  Players who don’t have the power to consistently hit balls out of the park try to hit line drives between the outfielders.  Hitting a ground ball is almost always a failure of what a player is trying to do.  I say almost always because there are some speedy runners that occasionally try to slap hit a ground ball to the   left side to beat out for a hit.  And players may try to advance a runner from second or third by intentionally trying to hit a ground ball to the left side.

  6. studes said...

    And yet there are players who hit 65%+ of their balls on the ground. These may not be the hardest hit balls, but they are the majority of their hits.

    When Bill says “accidents”, he isn’t talking about intent.  He’s talking about outcomes, right?

  7. mlb fan said...

    Read Bryan Solderholm-Diffate’s:

    “The Greg Maddux Anomaly, Parts I: Not a K-Man, But Dominant Nonetheless” and “The Greg Maddux Anomaly, Part II: Maddux at His Best–NL’s Best Pitcher in the 20th Century”  @ Seamheads.com.

  8. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Nice rundown of the book.  I buy it every year and read it cover to cover. 

    I especially agree with your plea for lefty/righty stats being integral information.  I would also add in home/road, too many people either benefit from good homes or are hurt a lot by poor homes.  But first things first, start with L/R first.

  9. Peter Jensen said...

    And yet there are players who hit 65%+ of their balls on the ground. These may not be the hardest hit balls, but they are the majority of their hits.

    From 2000 to 2011 there were more than 1130 position players that had more than 100 hit balls during those years.  Only 6 had more than 65% of their hit balls that were non bunt ground balls.  Only two of the 6 had more than half of their hits on ground balls.  Ben Revere at 52% (65/125 in 511 PAs) and Joey Gathright at 51.8% (160/309 in 1329 PAs).

    If you lower the criteria to having 60% or more of hit balls being non bunt GBs there were 39 players.  Of the 39 only 4 players had more half or more of their hits from GBs. Added were Bernie Castro at 52.1% (25/48 in 209 PAs and Jose Tabata at 50% (105/210 in 823 PAs).

    Major League hitters do not try to hit the ball on the ground and when they do hit balls on the ground they are not very successful in getting hits.  Hitting a ground ball is a mistake; hitting a line drive is a success.  Like many things in life having a success is much harder than making a mistake.

  10. Bill Rubinstein said...

    The 2014 edition has omitted the Bill James Leaders page, which has the leaders in Win Shares, Offensive %, etc. This is the first edition I have seen which has omitted this valuable information. Either this was the editor’s stupid mistake, or his stupid decision. Also, it is interesting to note that WAR, available for free online, has all but replaced either Bill James’s Win Shares, or Pete Palmer’s Linear Weights measures. But is WAR more accurate? Who knows?

  11. Dave S said...

    I know that the stratomatic computer version baseball game has a handedness “balance” rating for every batter and pitcher… on a 1-9 scale, that goes both ways.

    So a Right handed pitcher would “normally” be somewhere in the E-2R range.  “E” means he’s even against right or left.  2R would be slightly better against right handed batters. 9R would be MUCH better vs RHB (than vs LHB).  A “reverse” right handed pitcher would be stronger vs Lefthanded batters.. in the 1L-9L range.

    Lefty pitchers would tend to be the opposite.

    Batters are handled the same way.

    I am not at all sure how the rating is calculated, nor am I aware if there is any sort of list, or how far back this rating system goes.

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