|Thursday, April 11
Updated: April 17, 5:42 PM ET
Bill James is back with "Win Shares"
By Rob Neyer
There was a time, not so many years ago, when I tried to make a living as a freelance writer. The life of an incompetent freelance writer offers many freedoms: freedom from money, freedom from those pesky trips to the bank, freedom from food. For more than a few months, my trips to the grocery store came only after a check arrived in the mail. The only problem was that those arrivals were both infrequent and unpredictable. I'd listen for the mail truck, followed by the sound of metal scraping metal as the door on the mailbox was opened, then closed. I'd pad out to see if I'd be eating well that evening, and of course most of the time the answer was a stomach-churning negative. When a check did arrive, however ... well, that was a big day for me, a cause for celebration (or supper).
Enough with the ancient history. The point of this story is that since those days, I had not enjoyed the U.S. Mail so much until Tuesday afternoon, when my friendly carrier delivered a copy of Bill James' latest book. Yes, Win Shares had finally arrived.
I say "finally” because I've been waiting for ... gosh, I think it's been at least three years now. Bill sent out early drafts of the book a few years ago, and I was lucky enough to receive one. Amazing stuff, as Bill unlocked some mysteries that nobody even knew existed before, let alone solved. The only problem was that in this book called Win Shares there weren't actually many Win Shares at all. No, the real book with the real Win Shares was supposed to be released a year or so later, after Bill had refined his methods.
A year became two, and two became three, and still no Win Shares. Fortunately, in the meantime Bill did write another book, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (covered in this space when it was published last November). And those of you who have the NHBA already know something about Win Shares, because Bill discussed them briefly in that book, and based his player rankings on them.
For the rest of you, Win Shares are thirds of a win created. If, for example, the Expos win 100 games this season, there will be 300 Win Shares to be spread around among the players. Essentially, what Bill James has done is invent a method to distribute those Win Shares (and, by extension, those 100 wins).
It may sound complicated, and it is. Win Shares (the book) contains 725 pages, and the first 120 or so are devoted to explaining how the system works, and why it was designed the way it was (by the way, I've read those 120 pages twice now, and I'm convinced that Win Shares "works"). The next 140 pages are filled with a variety of "Jamesian" (you know what I mean) essays, and the rest of the book is Win Shares presented in various ways.
Just flipping through at random ... in 1902, Christy Mathewson earned 22 Win Shares, which means that he was personally responsible for approximately seven of the New York Giants' 48 victories that season ... in 1963, Sandy Koufax earned 32 Win Shares for the Dodgers, who won 99 games (and thus had 297 Win Shares to be split up) ... Honus Wagner earned far more Win Shares, 421, from 1900 through 1909 than any other major leaguer, and he earned 655 in his career ... Roberto Clemente earned 377 Win Shares in his career ... his nephew Edgard earned 2 Win Shares in his career ... Frank Robinson earned 519 Win Shares: 468 with the bat, 51 with the glove ... Anyway, as I said, that's just flipping around.
There will be some -- even some among you, I'll bet -- who find this shocking. How can some middle-aged writer with thick glasses and three kids have the audacity to reduce a baseball player's season, reduce his career, to a single number?
To which I would reply, we all do it every day. If I throw, say, "Greg Maddux" and "Bobby Witt" out there, what do you think of? Do you think of their families and their sophisticated senses of humor and their golf games? Or do you think of numbers?
You think of numbers, of course. And on some level, you come up with single numbers for each of them, even if you don't know you're doing it. You can choose your own scale, but if it's 1-10 then of course Maddux is a 10, and Bobby Witt is, what, maybe a 4?
The difference here is that Bill James isn't guessing; he'll actually put his single numbers down on paper. And once you start putting numbers down on paper, there are a lot of fun things you can do with those numbers.
Scoring trades, for example. Let's take a look at just one trade through the lens of Win Shares. On December 5, 1990, the Blue Jays and Padres got together on a blockbuster.
To the Padres: Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez
The trade was, on its surface, quite an even deal. Both McGriff and Carter were noted "run producers," while both Alomar and Fernandez were slick-fielding middle infielders. Carter was a few years older than McGriff, but Fernandez was a few years older than Alomar.
So how does one evaluate such a trade? We could just look at hitting stats ... but how can you evaluate a trade without considering each player's defensive contribution? And how can you evaluate a trade without looking at not only the players in question, but also any players they were later traded for, and any players those players were later traded for, etc.?
Win Shares lets you do all of that. If you know where in the book to look, you can find every Win Share earned by every major leaguer from 1876 through 2001. Using nothing more than Win Shares and Excel, I came up with the following ...
Tony Fernandez earned 39 Win Shares as a Padre before getting traded to the New York Mets for Wally Whitehurst, D.J. Dozier and Raul Casanova. Neither Dozier nor Casanova earned any Win Shares for the Padres, but Whitehurst earned 7 Win Shares for the Padres before they released him. McGriff earned 59 Win Shares before the Padres traded him to the Braves for Melvin Nieves, Donnie Elliott and Vince Moore. Moore never played in the majors, but Elliott earned 2 Win Shares in 1994, and Nieves earned 3 Win Shares before getting traded to the Tigers.
It gets a little complicated here, because Nieves was one of three players traded to the Tigers for three players. However, Nieves was the best player the Padres gave up, and the best player they got back from Detroit was Sean Bergman. So we can cheat a little, and say it was Nieves for Bergman, and add Bergman's 4 Win Shares for the Padres to the equation. Bergman was traded to the Astros for James Mouton, who played for the Padres but didn't earn any Win Shares before he was released. Which brings us to the end of the "trade chain." So, adding them all up, we get ...
Win Shares McGriff 59 Fernandez 39 Whitehurst 7 Bergman 4 Nieves 3 Elliott 2 Total 114
It's a lot easier to figure the Blue Jays' end of the deal, because they never traded either Alomar or Carter. Alomar left the club as a free agent after the 1995 season, and Carter left as a free agent after the 1997 season (though he'd earlier signed two deals with the Jays while a free agent).
Win Shares Alomar 118 Carter 109 Total 227
What if we base our evaluation on just the two seasons in which all four players played for their post-trade teams? Same result, though not nearly as extreme.
Win Shares Alomar/Carter 106 McGriff/Fernandez 91
And there's one more way to look at this deal. Completely disregarding trades and free agency and all those other things that complicate the life of a general manager, who was right? Who got more talent in the deal, based purely on how the players fared after the deal? Actually, the story's not finished yet, because of course Alomar and McGriff are still plugging away.
But through the 2001 season,
Win Shares Alomar/Carter 399 McGriff/Fernandez 359
... and that gap is only going to get bigger, as Alomar is both younger and better than McGriff.
So by virtually any measure, Pat Gillick (Toronto's GM in 1991) "won" the trade from Joe McIlvaine (San Diego's GM).
All of which you may or may not find particularly interesting. But people are always wanting me to rate general managers, and you can't rate general managers without evaluating trades, and you can't evaluate trades without an objective method for measuring the performance of groups of players in groups of seasons, and Win Shares is the best method yet devised for doing that.
Evaluating trades and rating general managers is fun, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. As James notes in his introduction, in addition to using Win Shares to score trades, you can also use Win Shares to compare players, to evaluate free-agent signings, to analyze aging ("in hundreds of ways"), to evaluate amateur draft picks ... there are more of these, and there are many more that James hasn't even thought of.
Bill's now come out with two great books in the space of six months, which I presume means we'll have to wait quite some time for the next one (and no, I haven't heard what he's working on next). So this might be a good time to talk about what sets Bill James apart.
For a lot of people, you say "Bill James" and the first thing they think of is "statistics." There's a much smaller group of people who will say, "I know about the numbers, but what's always attracted me to Bill is his writing."
And what I say is, "How can you separate one from the other?" Bill's a brilliant analyst, but there are a fair number of brilliant analysts. Bill's a fantastic writer, but there are a fair number of fantastic writers. What makes Bill special is ... wait, let me back up for a moment here ...
Who was the greatest baseball player ever? Babe Ruth. And why? Because he combined two rare abilities: the ability to win 20 games as a pitcher and the ability to hit 60 home runs as an outfielder.
Who's going to be the greatest baseball player for the rest of this decade? Alex Rodriguez. And why? Because he combines two rare abilities: the ability to play solid defense at shortstop, and the ability to hit 50 home runs.
Who's the greatest baseball writer? Bill James. And why? Because he combines two rare abilities: the ability to write beautifully (in a populist, Stephen King/William Goldman sort of way), and the ability to think about baseball as very few of us have.
Many of you already know all of this. But I present the above as a public service for everybody else reading, because you don't know what you're missing. You really don't.
To purchase bound or electronic editions of Win Shares directly from the publisher, visit STATS, Inc.