The 13th edition of The Hardball Times Baseball Annual is now for sale! That link takes you to both the print and Kindle version of the book. You can also click here to listen to me discuss the book with noted podcast host, Carson Cistulli.
The book is a labor of love for me and our fabulous editors–Joe Distelheim, Jason Linden, Dustin Nosler and Greg Simons. Travis Howell designed the cover once again, and Sean Dolinar came back to edit all the book’s graphs, which look fantastic. The book clocks in this year at 291 pages and is priced at $15.99.
The book is broken into four sections — 2016 season, Commentary, History and Analysis. Below, I’ll give you some excerpts. Usually, I break these into separate articles, but this year I streamlined the process. We know your time and your clicks are valuable. Here’s what you’ll find in the book:
The 2016 season
- Division reviews by Stacey Gotsulias (AL East), Emma Baccellieri (AL Central), Kate Preusser (AL West), Alex Remington (NL East), Alexandra Simon (NL Central) and Stacie Wheeler (NL West). We once again examined the three games/series that swung the division odds the most in each division and again included a sidebar about the 10 things you should remember from each division. We feel this moments-based look back is one that feels different from the season recaps you’ve probably already read and forgotten by now.
- Brad Johnson recaps the postseason through the lens of ChampAdded.
- John Paschal’s “The Year in Frivolity.”
- Jeff Sullivan explains why pitch framing was doomed from the start.
- Patrick Dubuque figures out the most under- and overvalued baseball cards.
- August Fagerstrom, in his last piece of public writing (for now, anyway) delves into the complicated relationship between sports writing and fandom.
- Jack Moore reckons with baseball’s (and America’s) amphetamine history.
- Eno Sarris tells you why (baseball) mud is chaos.
- Sara Nović ruminates on baseball, writing and finding your people.
- Eric Longenhagen writes about the Cuban talent pipeline drying up.
- Joon Lee introduces the concept of the José Fernández Joy Award.
- Sarah Wexler discovers the Sultan of Swat Award, also known as the Babe Ruth Crown.
- Steve Treder wonders what the heck was going on with the 1957 Kansas City Athletics.
- Dan Epstein takes you back to October of 1989, when the Rolling Stones played six shows at Shea Stadium.
- Adam Dorhauer recounts the history of farming and Branch Rickey‘s role in it.
- Jeff Zimmerman finds that one of Scott Boras’ claims in Jeff Passan’s book, The Arm, is all bark and no bite.
- Rob Arthur introduces a marvelous new defensive statistic called LARS.
- Corinne Landrey finds there has been a rise in positional offensive parity.
- Neil Weinberg gives us the lessons from a season of back pick research.
- David Kagan and Chris Mitchell quantify the effect the marine layer has on fly balls.
- Shane Tourtellotte looks at historical WAR distributions across major league history.
- Gerald Schifman details how much Hope and Faith is in each season.
- Carson Cistulli offers a Fringe Five retrospective.
- Mike Petriello uses Statcast data to determine how much a catcher’s arm strength matters.
I hope the table of contents has you sufficiently excited. But in case you need some more convincing, let’s look at some excerpts. The first I’d like to share with you is from Kate Preusser’s piece on the 2016 American League West. Kate is new to THT, though not to baseball writing, as she now is the co-editor of Lookout Landing. As I mentioned the other day, her introduction is one of my absolute favorite parts of this year’s book.
In 1883-1884, William Randolph Hearst was in his sophomore year at Harvard, and he was miserable. He had a cold he couldn’t shake despite his most valiant attempts to coax, torture or asphyxiate it out of existence. He dismissed the winning baseball team he played on as “decidedly amateur.” He was struggling to make even a gentleman’s C in his classes. Worst of all, he was terrifically homesick for his home state of California, writing in a letter to his mother:
“I hate this weak, pretty New England scenery with its gentle rolling hills, its pea green foliage, its vistas, tame enough to begin with but totally disfigured by houses and parts which could not be told apart save for its respective inhabitants. I hate it as I do a weak, pretty face without force or character. I long to see our own woods, the jagged rocks and towering mountains, the majestic pines, the grand impressive scenery of the ‘far west.’”
Other divisions in baseball have playoff graphs that look like the gentle rolling hills Hearst so despised. The AL West’s, fittingly, echoes the landscape that surrounds the coastal California location of Hearst Castle. The Athletics and Angels fall into the Pacific relatively quickly, while the Astros, Rangers, and Mariners weave in and out of contention like the precipitous heights and hairpin turns of Highway 1 through Big Sur.
The Rangers’ playoff hopes climbed steadily through the season, outside of one significant dip in July during which the baseball gods had a conference call debating whether allowing one team to win so many one-run games was deeply funny or just cruel. The Astros, early favorites to win the division thanks to their stable of young talent, swooned early, stormed back in late June and July, then saw their division odds fall from almost 45 percent on July 28 to just 3.9 percent 11 days later. (There’s a Tal’s Hill joke to be made here, but by the time this comes out, Tal’s Hill will be consigned to the scrapheap of Astros memorabilia, along with a Colt .45s jersey and the shag carpeting from Roy Hofheinz’s Astrodome apartment.)
The Mariners were maybe the most quixotic of all, alternating between stretches of fire-breathing play and dismal plateaus that would have made young Hearst reach for a book of matches. This was a team that scored the fifth-most runs per game in baseball this year and that on June 2 mounted the largest comeback in club history against its hated rival, the San Diego Padres; this was also a club swept by the struggling Minnesota Twins at home.
The only teams that kept things uninteresting were Anaheim, where Billy Eppler continues frantic Google searches with keywords like “how close human cloning,” and Oakland, whose starting rotation immediately went into a synchronized death spiral that earned top marks from the Russian judges. When Wallace Stegner wrote that “one cannot be pessimistic about the West…the native home of hope,” he probably wasn’t thinking about the California-based AL teams. Overall, however, the AL West’s playoff picture this year mostly resembled a Hearst dreamscape, all outrageous crag and jagged peaks, fissures that briefly knit together before spinning away into the untamed expanse of the offseason.
Something that has been far easier to tame is pitch framing. Jeff Sullivan writes in this year’s book about how the advantages from pitch framing are disappearing. Before he gets to his actual evidence though, he writes a succinct recap of how we got to this point, including this passage.
The closest José Molina ever came to being a superstar was on the internet. On the internet, he was the face of pitch-framing statistics. According to numbers from Baseball Prospectus, the way Molina caught was worth 36 extra runs in 2008. The next year, it was worth another 19, and then that went up to 24 in 2010. Pitch framing was specifically cited as a reason why Molina wound up with the Rays. Molina always had a talent, but, at last, its real value could be quantified.
Not that Molina was the only catcher who stood out. The numbers have also celebrated guys like Russell Martin, David Ross, Jonathan Lucroy and Francisco Cervelli. On the other side, when there are players who are good at something, there have to be players who are less good. The opposite of Jose Molina was Ryan Doumit. Unlike Molina, Doumit could hit. But, as it turns out, Doumit couldn’t catch. His framing in 2008 cost his team an unfathomable 63 runs. The next year, in less time, he cost his team 29 runs. Then 24. Doumit was a defensive negative. The impact was worse than one would’ve imagined.
All right, let’s pause. Think about what was happening when the ball started to roll. It was being demonstrated, for the first time, that there were real differences in value among catchers, just based on how they caught. That actually flew in the face of prevailing sabermetric consensus at the time. Evidence mounted as the teams continued to shift toward being more number-savvy. Just in theory, what do you think would happen?
You’d think smarter teams would start to seek out good receivers. You’d think, additionally, that smarter teams would attempt to develop good receivers. That’s not as easy as just flipping a switch—that requires a lot of video work, to see what catching techniques help and what catching techniques hurt. But, just in general, you’d think pitch framing would be more heavily prioritized. What happens when something gets prioritized by an increasing number of teams?
You’ll want to read Jeff’s entire article to see how he answers that question.
Elsewhere in commentary, we find Joon Lee discussing José Fernández’s legacy, and how baseball can honor it. His ruminations to honor Fernández led him to look at other current players who could be honored with an award for bringing joy to the game. One such player was Adam Jones.
This summer while interning at The Washington Post, I went down to Camden Yards to report on the cultural transition of Hyun Soo Kim. Orioles public relations staff told me to wait in a certain part of the clubhouse for Kim when Adam Jones, sitting slouched in a chair, yelled over.
“Hey, what’s up,” Jones said.
“Hey, how’s it going,” I said as I turned back around.
“Dude, I’m your elder. Doesn’t Korean culture say you’re supposed to bow and greet me?” Jones said with a chuckle and a big smile. He then told me to come over to his locker, eager to talk about how much he enjoyed learning about South Korea from Kim.
Jones is different from some of the other guys on this list. He’s very intense when he plays, always focused on maximizing his performance. He plays hard, running out every grounder, every fly ball. Off the field, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s regularly seen photobombing TV spots of teammates. And he’s popular. Buck Showalter once told ESPN writer Tim Kurkjian that Jones could run for mayor of Baltimore when he’s done playing baseball.
But what separates Jones is his willingness to speak his mind. He’s thoughtful and brutally honest. When asked by USA Today about Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the National Anthem, Jones said “Baseball is a white man’s sport.” While the quote certainly jumps off the page, it was rooted in reason rather than emotion. In a sport that tends to skew conservative politically, Jones was unafraid of the backlash that came with a lightning bolt of a quote.
Off the field, Jones also likes to impersonate his manager, something that is known to send Showalter into a fit of belly laughter. And when Tim Tebow announced he was going to pursue a baseball career, Jones responded on Twitter. “After this @MLB season, I’m going try out for the @NFL this offseason. I haven’t played since HS but I’ve played in a few Turkey Bowls since!!”
As we move into History, we find one group of people who are seemingly ageless — the Rolling Stones. While the Stones aren’t typically THT Annual material, they do hold a special place in baseball lore for the following reason — during October of 1989, they played six shows at Shea Stadium. Research shows this to be a historically unique happenstance, and Dan Epstein — who has made a habit of blending baseball and music in his writing — delved more deeply into it.
Though the Mets were still very much in contention at this point—their 4-1 win over the Dodgers on Aug. 19 pulled them within 2.5 games of the National League East-leading Cubs, and kept them a half-game ahead of the third-place Expos—there were no worries about the Stones possibly having to share Shea with the Mets during the World Series. Even with the 1985 expansion of the League Championship Series to a best-of-seven format, the baseball postseason rarely stretched past mid-October in the pre-Wild Card era. And since the ballpark was owned by the city and not the team, the Mets organization was absolved from any involvement in the promotion or logistics of the concerts. “Honestly, I have absolutely no memory of anything about those shows,” says legendary Mets PR man Jay Horwitz, who has worked for the team since 1980. “They happened after the season was over.”
“I’ve seen the Stones 15 times, but I wasn’t at the [Shea] shows,” says Ron Darling, who went 14-14 with a 3.52 ERA in 33 starts for the ‘89 Mets. “When I was with the Mets, whenever we didn’t make the playoffs, I always went away for a month to Europe. I hate when I miss them, but I have seen them all over.” Darling, who grew up in the blue-collar town of Millbury, Mass., says he always identified with the Stones’ working-class vibe. “They were my band when I was a kid. The Beatles were just too pretty for where I was from. The Rolling Stones were more like the people I knew—tough kids, tough language, tough music.”
The Mets inadvertently gave the Stones an assist on Sept. 25, when a 2-1 loss to the Phillies officially eliminated the team from postseason contention. The Davey Johnson-led squad would finish the season in second place with a 87-75 record, six games behind the Cubs. “It was another one of those disappointing post-’86 teams where they could have won it all, but they didn’t,” remembers music publicist Jim Merlis. A diehard Mets fan since childhood, Merlis was 23 years old and working as an assistant publicist at Columbia Records, the Stones’ label, when the band came to Shea. “There were several years in a row after 1986 where it was like, ‘This is a good team…so why aren’t we playing up to our capacity?’ They were in second the whole season and never made their move; that seemed to happen a lot in those days.”
But if the Mets couldn’t use Shea Stadium in mid-October, the Stones certainly could. Four days after the team was eliminated, the Stones announced that a fifth date—Oct. 10—would be going on sale. When tickets to that one sold out within hours, a sixth concert on Oct. 11 was added. “I really lucked out this time,” says Walsh, who managed to score tickets for both of these shows, in addition to the first four. “My kid brother’s friend had just started working as a stock boy at the [TSW] store, and he told me to just let him know how many tickets I wanted for each show. I bought the maximum eight for one show and four for the other, as it was all I could afford at that point—[$30] was a steep price at the time for a concert ticket.”
Another hot ticket is Rob Arthur’s article, entitled “Solving the Defensive Quandary with Statcast: Introducing LARS.” In it, Arthur does what the title implies — he introduces a new defensive metric that he has named LARS (no, it’s not named after Lars Anderson, or even Lars Ulrich). He walks through some of his methodology here.
The information from Statcast is a new and more powerful kind of data. Implicitly, a method like UZR assumes that two balls hit to the same zone, with the same trajectory class and the same speed class are equally difficult to field. That’s likely not always the case, however. A ball hit into the edge of the zone on a flatter trajectory with a higher exit speed will be much more difficult than one hit into the center on a higher trajectory with lower exit speed. UZR is necessarily constrained by the data given to it, which is a product of stringers who can’t distinguish between a 10 degree launch angle and an 11 degree launch angle. Because Statcast’s measurements are quantitative, and not binned, we can parse the difference between any two batted balls with greater resolution.
There is one major issue with Statcast: lost data. The system misses a lot of batted balls, failing to record tracking numbers for about 10 percent of all struck balls in 2016. Furthermore, although we know that Statcast is capable of measuring horizontal angle off the bat, MLBAM has not yet released those data. As a result, there are blind spots in the numbers.
One possibility would be to simply discard these missing data and make do with exit velocity and vertical angle. But there’s a better way. To fill in the missing data, I blend the incomplete numbers from Statcast with information from stringers employed by MLB. These observers estimate the location at which every batted ball was fielded, and this data is provided in the same Baseball Savant files that record Statcast numbers. By regressing the batted ball characteristics on the stringer coordinates (in cases where we have both datasets), I can substitute in the best guess about batted ball characteristics on the occasions when the radars lose track of the batted balls (the accuracy of those guesses are about r=.7 for exit velocity and r=.9 for launch angle).
From the stringers’ coordinates, I can also calculate horizontal angle, using some geometry and the fact that batted balls generally travel in relatively straight lines from home plate. So, for example, if a right fielder catches a ball pulled straight along the foul line, the location would be recorded by the stringer relative to home plate, and by drawing a line between home and the stringer’s coordinates, I can estimate that the ball was hit on a +45 degree horizontal angle.
Combining the stringer information with Statcast’s numbers allows me to create a complete dataset on the horizontal direction, launch angle, and exit velocity of every batted ball in the major leagues in 2016. Although the advantage of Statcast data is muted somewhat by needing to rely on stringers to fill in the gaps, I believe this dataset still represents the most accurate and complete compendium of information on batted ball characteristics.
You’ll have to get the book to see all of his gory math, as well as the metric’s initial results.
Math and physics, music and literature, culture and history and humor. Our great game absorbs all these, and vice versa. The writing in The Hardball Times Annual reflects that.
I could go on posting excerpts all the day long. We’re very excited for you to read every piece in the book. But we’ll stop here. I genuinely hope you will purchase a copy — you won’t be sorry!