April 4, 2014

Book Review -- New Bill James Historical Abstract

Reading the New Bill James Historical Abstract from cover to cover was my New Year’s resolution for 2014. Growing up in the 1980s, I certainly read my fair share of Bill James. Until recently, however, I had never taken the plunge and endeavored to read every word of his 1,000 page masterpiece.

Now that I’m done, I feel more enriched by this Abstract than any other baseball book I have ever read. Page for page, nothing else compares. 

Since the Historical Abstract has been universally praised, I thought it would be more interesting to summarize its surprising qualities as well as its deficiencies.

Five deficiencies:
  • Baseball is half offense, half defense. Yet, among the positional rankings, 475 pages are devoted to hitters and only 75 pages are devoted to pitchers. Lumping starters and closers together could also be reevaluated.
  • The Abstract leans heavily on a statistic James devised called Win Shares. If you reject the methodology of Win Shares, you thus reject the premise of the rankings.
  • Bill James is from Kansas. Players who are from Kansas or who played for Kansas City get more ink than others do. References to Joe Tinker abound. And brace yourself for George Brett to be mentioned in the same breath as the legends.
  • There are some head-scratchers in the positional rankings in that the treatment seems uneven. Among catchers, James devoted 10 pages to Ernie Lombardi while Terry Steinbach got one sentence. At first base, Jeff Bagwell received a one word tribute -- “Pass”.
  • The author seems to take strange delight in calling players fat or racist. Sometimes both!

Five surprises:
  • I would not have anticipated that the Abstract is a treasure trove of baseball book recommendations.
  • At most positions, after the first 40 or so players ranked out of 100, the difference among them seems irrelevant.
  • Most positions are shockingly thin among the all-time rankings. Two examples: Even at a key position like center field, Ray Lankford clocks in at #49 all time. Juan Samuel, mostly thought of as a dud, is also a Top 100 player.
  • James freely acknowledges the quirks of his Win Shares system. This is very fair of him. I have never read a book with a tone so authoritative yet so modest.

The fifth surprising element is that there are dozens of terrific essays buried among the player rankings. For example, the passage about Ryne Sandberg essentially has nothing to do with the Hall of Fame second baseman. Meanwhile, the passage about Steve Sax is almost entirely about Ryne Sandberg. (Instead of discussing Sax in the Sax bio, James examines how likely a player with Sandberg’s rookie statistics will end up enshrined in Cooperstown.) The downside of this surprise-and-delight approach is that if you find an essay that you want to revisit at a later date, it’s almost impossible to ever find it again.

Some of the best entries include those for Willie Wilson, Ernie Lombardi, Dummy Hoy, Pete Rose and Steve Carlton. My favorite hitter and pitcher entries are Richie Ashburn’s and Tommy John’s.

Overall, the analysis is brilliant. Is there anyone else on the planet who has better dexterity than James with both words and numbers?

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