Book Review: Bill James 2005 Handbook

I’ve been a stats junkie for a long time. The first reference book I bought was the 1981 Sporting News Baseball Register, with George Brett on the cover. I bought my first Sporting News Baseball Guide in 1985, and I have a nearly complete collection of Guides of the last 20 years. I’ve got all but one Baseball America Almanac going back to 1993. Years ago, I had to wait until January to get my hands on full stats from the previous season. Now there’s pressure to get to the market first, and the folks at Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) have done just that with the release of the Bill James Handbook: 2005 (BJH).

The 2005 edition contains over 400 pages and the cover price is unchanged from the 2004 edition at $19.95 ($27.95 in Canada), but available at Amazon.com for just $13.96; for five dollars more you can purchase the spiral-bound edition. It’s a joint venture between Bill James and BIS, a company founded by John Dewan and Steve Moyer (both formerly of STATS Inc). BIS is the source for many of the stats found on this website and in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.

The BJH is the best annual baseball reference book in existence. Both the content and the presentation are first rate (though certainly not as pretty as Studes’ graphs). A lot of thought has gone into presenting the information in a form that is visually appealing. Helpful horizontal lines are drawn to aid in reading from the larger tables and most of the tables have plenty of white space, though there are a few sections where smaller fonts have been used to economize on pages.

For those who aren’t familiar with the 2004 BJH, here are the main features carried over to the 2005 edition:

* Team Statistics – overall standings; wins and losses broken down by division, surface, month, home/road, etc.; wins and losses versus team.

* Team Batting, Pitching and Fielding totals (errors are broken down into fielding and throwing – something I’ve not seen anywhere else).

* Career Register – the bulk of the book – 247 pages in all. Every player who appeared in the major leagues in 2004 is included, plus a few potential Japanese imports and major leaguers who missed the entire season. Players with fewer than three partial seasons in the major leagues have their full minor league record listed. The format is essentially the same as the now-defunct STATS Major League Handbook.

* Detailed Fielding Stats, Managers Register, Park Indices and Lefty/Righty Stats for every player.

* Leader Boards – individual top 10 lists for each league in 129 categories, plus another dozen “Bill James” categories (including a personal favorite – speed scores). There are some unique categories to be found here, such as the average fastball velocity for pitchers with at least 162 innings pitched.

* Active career leaders in 59 categories.

* Win Shares, career total and 10 years’ worth of yearly figures for active players.

* Career Assessments – the likelihood of active players reaching home run, hit and RBI milestones: Bill James’ old Favorite Toy in table format.

What’s New in the Book

Team Efficiency Summary is a Baseball Abstract-style essay on how close/far away a team’s actual win total was from what could be predicted based on Runs Created estimates for runs scored and allowed. James discusses notable efficient and inefficient teams from the 1950s to the present. And of course, there are AL and NL Team Efficiency tables for 2004. The Cincinnati Reds were the most efficient – exceeding their predicted win total by 16% (76 versus 66); the Seattle Mariners were least efficient – undershooting their projected win total by 14% (11 wins).

Player Projections – a feature of the STATS Minor League Handbooks of years past – have returned. While other publications have made player projections the heart of their annuals, James cautions that they should be taken with several grains of salt – they’re meant as entertainment. You’ll find 2005 projections for every major leaguer, as well as career total predictions for most players over 25 years of age.

In the concluding essay, we are introduced to Sig Mejdal, who has been studying how well future injuries may be predicted by past injuries and supplies us with top 10 lists in various injury-risk categories. Mejdal is puzzled by why pitch counts aren’t very useful in predicting pitcher injuries. A detailed treatment of the subject is beyond the scope of his essay, though that doesn’t prevent him from awkwardly groping for answers. It’s not apparent that he factored in strikeouts per nine innings, something that might shed a good deal of light on the subject.

Based on work in the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, it’s likely that high strikeout pitchers are mucking up attempts to distill the effect of high pitch counts. Power pitchers tend to run up higher pitch counts (more strikeouts means more pitches thrown), but it has been demonstrated that they have longer careers than “finesse” types who start out with comparable overall pitching ability.

It’s interesting stuff, and I expect significant refinements over the coming years.

How to Make the 2006 Edition Even Better

I’m optimistic that next year’s book will have even more pages of interesting data. This is what I’d like to see added to the 2006 edition:

1) A couple of extra pages on team stats – for example, full home/road and lefty/righty splits by team. There is a bit of the former in the Park Indices section, but not enough to satisfy. Before I calculate my park factors every winter, I start by assembling all the home/road data from different online sources. It’s a time-consuming endeavor and in the end the data isn’t complete.

2) The bio line for each player in the career register section contains information on batting and throwing handedness, position, height, weight, birth date and age. I suggest adding a second line, or perhaps fitting in data next to the player name (which is in large type, bold and centered). Place of birth, draft year and position (or signing year), and college would be most useful.

3) Include about 140 or so minor leaguers who are very likely to play in the majors during the coming year. Since their careers to date are relatively short, seven players could be fit on one page, requiring only 20 additional pages.

4) In the fielding statistics section, I’d like to see Range Factor (RF) replaced with defensive Win Shares per 1,000 innings, which is a better indicator of defensive performance than RF is. In the Catchers section, wild pitches thrown with a given catcher behind the plate would be usefully added alongside passed balls. This would give us a better sense of a catcher’s ability to block pitches in the dirt or snag the high wild one.

5) I’d love to see three-year lefty/righty splits in a chart that ranks hitters and pitchers from largest platoon split to largest reverse platoon split (of course the batters and pitchers would be grouped according to handedness).

Should you buy this book? The answer is an emphatic yes: buy our book first, then the BJH. And I’m not just saying that because I played an extremely minor role in the creation of the book (I sent tapes to Baseball Info Solutions). I’m planning on buying other baseball reference books this winter because my thirst for baseball numbers is insatiable. But if you’re only going to buy one, this is the one to get.

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