James suddenly ended his Abstracts in 1988. He continued for a few years with some interesting historical books and a Hall
of Fame book, then he seemed to go completely into hiding only to hear he’s been hired by the Boston Red Sox. We are,
now, pretty hungry for his wit, his myth slaying, and his wonderful lists. This is his return to form. The Guide to Pitchers
is actually a combination of three books in one.
I is basically a history of the development of the different pitches. This was the most interesting section. It starts with
the stiff armed underhanded 1870s “fastball” pitchers who started cheating by breaking their wrists, swinging
side armed, then eventually overhand. Rules were ignored, if the cheating was popular. (Does this sound like home run hitting
steroids users?) The result was faster and faster pitching. A chapter is devoted to each major pitch. The very first chapter,
actually, tries to categorize each pitch. James and Neyer repeatedly tell us how difficult a job that was. Sometimes, the
same type of pitch was called by different names and very different pitches were called by the same name. The book comes with
a glossary of pitch names. Near the end of this review is a list of each major type of pitch for coding purposes. Each section
lists the top practitioners of each pitch. The best fastballs are listed for each half-decade. Near the back of the book is
a complete list of knuckleballers. Haven’t you always wanted that? I have.
II is the meat of the book. This part in itself has two major sections. First,
James and Neyer each give five biographies of lesser-known outstanding pitchers throughout the ages ending in the 60s with
ERA master Bob Friend. These detailed bios give terrific accounts of the mindsets in the eras in which these men played. It
starts with Tommy Bond who as an 18 year old rookie started all but one of his team’s 56 league games and completed
every one! Although, clearly one of the best pitchers of his era (mid to late 1870s), his historical significance was as a
pioneer in the changing pitching styles. The bio takes us through opening day crowds of 500 and the instability of the teams
and leagues. Dark handsome wax mustached Tony Mullane of the 1880s would roll up his sleeve and flex his muscles for the ladies.
The bios, also, tell us a little about the wildly different background and paths these men they took to stardom. If there
is a common character trait, it could be that these guys were tough I’ll-show-you types.
There are notes on what these men did after their glory years, too. Some of those stories are sad.
largest section of the book describes alphabetically each pitcher’s pitch repertoire and often quotes some of the sources.
There is an entry for hundreds of pitchers going back to the mid 1870s. I’m not sure what the criteria are for making
the list. Esteban Yan made the cut, but Kris Benson did not. It must have something to do with the number of partial seasons
in the majors. This section is a reference tool. James encourages us to make our own studies from it.
Part III is the essay section. Here is one of James’ most controversial articles, yet. Over 20 years ago, James was
a pioneer in warning against abusing pitchers’ arms. Finally, in 1999 Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus
actually devised a method of measuring a pitcher’s likeliness of abuse and future arm troubles called Pitcher Abuse
Points. The premise is that continuing to pitch in a game when an arm is already worn out is the major preventable cause of
future arm troubles. The Abuse Points are accumulated at an accelerated pace as a pitch count goes over 100 pitchers. After
adjustments for age and number of games, each pitcher’s “Workload” index is produced. James tests this measurement
by comparing pitchers of closely matched stats except for their Workload and found the pitchers with the higher Workloads
actually did better! He tried seven different variations of his tests and they all came out with the same conclusion –
the opposite of what Jazayerli & Woolner’s PAP Workload is supposed to warn about. Just as damning as those seven
tests, though, was the eighth test comparing the decline of the Abused pitchers to all the pitchers since 1900 who fell in
particular sample cells giving a reasonable cross section comparable to the Abused pitchers. Again, the Abused pitchers declined
(in Win Shares) less. James makes a few conclusions about what went wrong with Jazayerli & Woolner’s theory. Eventually,
he wonders if damaging abuse comes more from overusing a young pitcher without gradually building him towards a larger and
larger workload. (This was something I suspected before I read this article.)
else, but Bill James would invite someone he was criticizing to read his criticism before publication, so they could provide
a rebuttal? That’s just what this book includes. Jazayerli and Woolner argue that no matter who the Abused Workload
pitchers are compared to, they will likely do better, because the teams of the overworked pitchers felt they could handle
that workload. It’s not a fair comparison. Jazayerli and Woolner compare their overworked pitchers to themselves in
less overworked seasons. These comparisons do support their contention. They, also, point out that some major league teams
have been careful about giving their young pitchers high pitch counts and have those pitchers have remained healthy and improving.
The funny thing is, all those pitchers sited as examples declined significantly this summer! Jazayerli and Woolner do admit
there are many other major contributors to pitching injuries and general decline and that much better studies are needed.
is a small chapter on a formula James devised which indicates how likely someone is to win the Cy Young Award. This has nothing
to do with how good the pitcher is – just how much of a vote getter he typically would be for that pitching award. Applying
the formula to each of the top pitching seasons since 1956, Denny McLain’s 31-6 1.96 ERAed 1968 was the most gloriously
Cy Youngish. This was followed by three seasons by Sandy Koufax, then Gibson’s 1.12 ’68 season. Carlton, Guidry,
Blue, Gooden, and Perry round out the top 10 with their best seasons.
few pages are devoted to the luckiest pitchers in terms of wins vs. expected number of wins given his ERA compared to the
league ERA and the number of decisions that pitcher had. James admitted he was hoping to come up with some fairly recent memorable
lucky seasons such as those from Storm Davis, Bob Welch or Steve Stone, but they didn’t even make the top 12. It was
Detroit’s Wild Bill Donovan in 1907. Paul Abbott’s 2001 came in 11th.
nerdiest chapter was on unique W-L records. Bill James played head games growing up. As he mowed his lawn he would think of
a pitcher who had a season in which he won as many games as rows young Bill had mowed and lost as many games as he had rows
to mow. This evolved into finding W-L records to cover every possibility, and which W-L possibilities are missing. Randy Johnson’s
24-5 in 2002 was a W-L record no one had achieved before then.
James lays out a pitcher’s pitching style shorthand, which he dreams will gain universal acceptance. Count me in. Try their two examples:
Roberts, 1952 R A F-1 H-2 M-2 N-3 B
Steve Trachsel, 2002 R C T-2 M-2 Y-2 L-2 B
the first year or two you would need to memorize what the codes are for. I know that’s not a selling point. A handy
file of it on your desktop would be smart. It wouldn’t take long, though. After
the year, obviously comes R-righty or L-lefty. The next letter rates his fastball. Every pitcher has a fastball. You could substitute an actual radar
gun speed for the letter, if you know it. However, a number doesn’t convey any movement that would make that pitch harder
to hit. Then again, I like to list the actual speed myself, because visually
it looks better (as I do when building my Scoresheet ranking lists).
pairings after the fastball grade represent a pitch code and a rating. The pitch codes represents one of these pitches: (It is interesting to see all the different
pitches in one list.)
(if no 3rd or 4th pitch)
Fastball (Rising Fastball)
(or Hard Forkball)
Ball (or Slip Pitch)
(or Scratched/Defaced Baseball)
Fastball (Breaks in like screwball)
Fastball (Breaks out like slider)
Forkball or Fosh
The last letter at the end of the line indicates the pitcher’s regular arm angle
starting from A (straight down overhand) to G (submarine pitcher). H means the pitcher uses different angles. Most pitches
these days are a B.
James goes on adding ratings for control and know-how, and admits there are many things
that differentiate pitchers which are left out. I’d say he might as well have cut the list a little sooner and let the
regular stats take over that sort of information.
Well, James is alive and well and insanely sane as ever. I’m looking forward to
his next book of treats for us.