|Wednesday, November 14
Updated: November 15, 1:23 PM ET
Another classic from Bill James
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
The winter has begun for baseball fans, that lonely, four-month abyss when we reacquaint ourselves with the joys of shivering mornings and shoveling driveways. But this year need not be so chilling. It will take the entire four months to devour the "New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," time well-spent indeed.
Thirtysomethings like me remember how in our youth the end of winter officially came not with the arrival of any Punxsutawney ground hog or even the new Topps baseball cards, but with James' annual Abstract. He stopped those after 1988 and has been writing painfully little since -- the main reason being he has spent most of the past five years researching the new Historical Abstract, a 1,000-page anvil of a book which we now have a whole offseason to gnaw on.
Like most of James' work, trying to consume it in one sitting would rival eating an entire dessert menu. This is a book delectable for its small bites, such as:
Reading James' work is like the Internet: Everyone finds a different reason to enjoy it. I, for one, don't particularly like reading about the players of the '20s and '30s; I prefer seeing James dust off names I watched and have read about as active players to see what new tidbits about them he has discovered. Looking back, James sees Cliff Johnson hitting 500 homers if the Astros hadn't wasted half of his career trying to make him a catcher; Rudy Law had the worst outfield arm of the '80s; and how about a platoon combination of Rob Deer and Brian Hunter?
The meat of this book, though, is James' ranking of the 100 greatest players of all time at each position. And for the first time he has done this using his new method of evaluation, a truly revolutionary device called Win Shares.
Win Shares breaks new ground not just because it evaluates position players on their entire hitting-fielding-baserunning package, but starting pitchers and relievers equally as well, with all of them getting one number -- usually between 5 and 25 for a season, then around 25-250 for a career, not unlike starting pitchers -- that can be used for studies and comparisons that once stood beyond our reach. As James reports with infectious glee, the uses for the system are endless: Are players aging differently than in past eras? Are first-round draft picks worth their bonuses? Is trading a young pitcher for a position player smart? Now, with what James calls this "value clamp" -- which he claims evaluates fielding at all positions far more accurately than ever before -- we can answer these questions.
Win Shares allows James to rank Rennie Stennett as the 90th best second baseman of all time, and during the requisite comment discuss how Stennett's emergence in the early and mid-1970s forced the Pirates to trade both Dave Cash and Willie Randolph; and I, for one, didn't know how good Stennett was (he was hitting .336 with 28 steals in August 1977) before a broken ankle sabotaged his career. George Bell (No. 62 among left fielders) made a slew of errors in the mid-'80s but not one of them was costly to his team. And Gaylord Perry (No. 18 among pitchers) was apparently far better than most people ever realized -- his 1972 season with Cleveland, James believes, was the best for any American League pitcher since 1931. Yikes.
Other topics get tackled all over the book: Why knuckleball pitchers are so underappreciated, how to slice dead time out of games (otherwise known as "Stop Messing Around and Play Baseball") and James' prediction that leadoff skills are about to enjoy a renaissance: "All it takes is one dramatic counter-example [to strictly power-based lineups] to change the way people think about the issue. Sooner or later, we're going to get some little guy with limited athletic ability who just draws walks and punches singles, somebody will put him in the lineup in front of [Barry Bonds or Juan Gonzalez], and the big guy will drive in 175 runs, and everybody else will go scrambling around looking for little guys who can get on base." While he doesn't draw many walks, Ichiro did just that this season to Bret Boone, and you can bet it will affect how other teams evaluate players.
The "New Historical Abstract" is not vintage James, though, something he sounds perfectly comfortable with. He depicts the years he spent on the book as roughly as fun as a screaming children convention; it was drudgery, a chore, and that can douse the reader's enthusiasm for what comes afterward. He goes off on a bizarre tangent in which he rips teachers and cancer researchers for being preachy, unaware (presumably) that he has veered off in that same direction. His player comments are too often terse and gruff, rather than showing his Úlan for the topic once so contagious.
But it's still the "New Historical Abstract," still crammed to the gills with Bill James insights, analysis and attitude. The winter just got warmer.
Alan Schwarz is a senior writer for Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com's baseball coverage.