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merely reminders of that old James magic 

 

Think of your favourite music artists from the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Think of the enjoyment you received from their most recent effort this decade. What? You didn’t buy the new McCartney album? You haven’t heard anything from Jimmy Page in decades? What is David Byrne doing these days? You were turned off by some boring music from these guys long long ago?

 

I suppose it is a little different with writers. Many writers burn out or only had one compelling story to tell, but surely most carry on respectably until senility or death. Yet, in some ways Bill James was a pop star. He struck chords that touched pent up feelings inside us. He had hit after hit with studies providing new insights into professional baseball – especially on predicting future success. Often cracking us up with his home spun metaphors, he had a refreshing and clear writing style along with completely original ways of examining the game.

 

The baseball analysis world has changed since the 80s and so has James. I am sure he was never a man to be stuck in a rut. James’ Abstract evolved over the years – and not always for the better. By the last issue he had delegated the task of rating players to his readers. As he became more famous, I’m sure he was burdened with the inescapable trappings of fame and some degree of fortune. I’m sure it was enormously time consuming. In 1989, he ended his Abstracts to make his Encyclopaedia – a fun thorough unique contribution to the history of baseball. He came back in 1990 with something called the Bill James Baseball Book. This was similar to the Abstract, except he didn’t write several of the articles. At this point James was more ingrained in the history of the game. His most interesting contribution to his Baseball Books was the varyingly detailed biographies of every player or manager who reached the Majors. Going alphabetically this project ended with the third and Baseball Book. He never made it to the Cs. The last entry was George Baker. I wonder this Baker was the worse player to ever have a two year plus career in the Major Leagues.

 

… Baker hit just .164 for the Maroons. When the Union Association folded after the one season, the St. Louis club transferred to the National League for 1885. Baker found National League pitching even more of a puzzle, hitting just .122 and the Maroons let him go. Baker opened the 1886 season as one of four catchers on the Kansas City Cowboys’ fourteen-man roster. In his first game, which also turned out to be his last, Baker allowed six stolen bases and was charged with six passed balls…

 

Over the next three years ’93 - ’95 James’ annual baseball paperback was merely a Players Rating Book. It contained a small paragraph about each player and a few lines of standard statistics – nothing more modern than OBP and SLG. That was the end of James’ spring annuals until 2008.

 

Now we have The Bill James Gold Mine. Player quality analysis so inspired by James decades ago has gone far beyond anything James can discuss publicly. After all, he remains an employee of the Boston Red Sox. So James sends up this Gold Mine, which is really just a chest of trinkets.

 

Some of these trinkets are fun. Did you notice that effectively half brothers Livan and Orlando Hernandez are “polar opposites”?

 

... Livan is the ultimate innings eater-and there is great value in that. Livan takes the hill and piles up 200, 220 innings every year. He wins as many as he loses; he loses as many as he wins. Livan has made 203 starts since 2002, third-most in the majors behind Zito and Maddux, and his team is 98-105 in those 203 games. You’d like to have a staff of .600 pitchers, but very few teams do. . .

 

Older brother Orlando, on the other hand, is anything but an inning-eater. He makes, 15, 20, 25 starts a year if you are lucky - but he wins them. Not all of them, of course, but 60% of them. Since 2002 he has made only 112 starts, but his team is 67-45 in those games.

 

Here is a dandy which may have been overlooked by the Tigers when they tried Miguel Cabrera at third base:

 

Last year Edgar Renteria was the best major league shortstop at making plays up the middle (+18) but next-to-worst at going into the hole (-19). He showed exactly the same pattern the year before, ranking as the majors’ second0best shortstop at going to his left but the second-worst at going to his right.

 

Did you know the Marlins have had seven different saves leaders in the last seven years?

 

Essays regarding defense shifts on David Ortiz, increasing irrelevance of E.R.A., and measuring closer fatigue were interesting. In Gold Mine, James was most adept at noticing historical trends in types of skills that show up in statistics. Perhaps, the most obvious of these is the increase in outfielders with both power and speed. High average slow guys are passť.

 

A longer essay on the greatest pennant race reversals (topical based on the National League last year) brings back wonderful memories – more or less depending on how old you are. (Apparently, I am the only one who thinks winning a division is winning a pennant. Despite every professional writer and broadcaster refusing to acknowledge it, teams are rewarded a pennant for winning their divisions – so, why can’t we call division races pennant races? It would sure save trouble when describing these events when you want to include both recent races and those which occurred before divisions were created in 1969.)

 

The point of Gold Mine, I think, is to challenge us to mine gold out of the data James presents. That’s why we were drawn to baseball analysis in the first place, wasn’t it? So we can look at numbers and make our own conclusions? The book is filled with stats – basically traditional stats, but presented new ways. Of course, James does much of the mining for us, but uncovering new truths about team building and player performance prediction is not to be found here. This is all about having fun with baseball stats just for the mind exercise.

 

There are tables showing the best hitters in clutch situations, the most consistent hitters and the biggest one year wonders in history, and Close-but-no-Cigar awards for the players in history missing the most milestones. James even examines the history of making a big deal about milestones. (It happened in 1940.) There are interesting tables on selected individuals showing how well they hit not just by ground balls, line drives, and fly balls, but each of those are broken down to right, left, and center. Some pitchers get their types of pitches broken down into how many of each were thrown to left-handed batters or righties. The pitch results are broken down into how many were swung at, fouled, or put in play and the pitch locations. Team charts among other things the effectiveness of each spot in the batting order and who were the players who hit in that spot most often.

 

The other point of this new book is to plug James’ subscription on-line web site. For $36 per year, it would have to be an upgrade over his book (probably is), but if you can’t afford about the same amount to be a Baseball Prospectus member, than you could probably live without this. I may review the site in another Scoresheetwiz installment. In the meantime here is the Bill James On-Line link and the subscription description is below:

 

Subscription to billjamesonline.com is $3/month, billed quarterly. Your subscription includes access to interesting and informative baseball analysis you won't be able to find anywhere else online. You will have full access to thousands of statistics pages, exclusive articles and columns from Bill James and other baseball writers, polls, arguments, games, puzzles, as well as the opportunity to communicate with other users and Bill himself!

 

The Gold Mine resembles the Abstracts with the shape and size of the paperback and with there being a section for each team.

 

Less than midway through the book, James ends his essay on atypical seasons with a bomb. Some of James’ defenders say he was being tongue-in-cheek – making fun of steroid witch hunters. I couldn’t tell and I won’t repeat it here.

 

Bill James is human. His Gold Mine 2008 is a fun read for a baseball nerd like me almost as old as James himself. It is not going to beef up our fantasy baseball prowess, except to give us just a bit more historical perspective. That can’t hurt no matter how old you are. Enjoy it for what it is or leave it alone if a sketchy tasteless steroid allegation would bother you enough.

John Carter