on November 13, 2001
If you like baseball books, in depth analysis and have a keen interest in the history of the game ... you NEED this book.
Bill James' revision to his classic historical abstract weighs in at a hefty 1000 pages and a big price tag. But it's worth it. You really get two books.
Book I: A decade-by-decade look at the game. As James says in his preface, he's not trying to give times and dates. Each section gives the reader a feel for what baseball was like in that decade - who the popular players were, how they played, where they played. Who was the biggest player, the smallest player, which team had the best infield, best outfield, best pitchers. He gives an OJ Simpson award for each decade, a Clint Hartung award for the biggest flop, the Paul Krichell award for the dumbest trades and signings. He also details the biggest problems the game had in each decade. You can read a chapter and almost hear the fans debating Wagner vs. Cobb, commenting on what a jerk Rogers Hornsby was and venting frustration as New York teams dominated the 1950's. He also has one section on the Negro Leagues. The last section has his (brilliant) solutions to the problems the game has in the 90's.
Book II introduces James' new method of player evaluation -- Win Shares. A quantum leap forward in analysis, Win Shares quantifies everything a player contributes - pitching, hitting and defense -- in terms of how many WINS it brought his team. This corrects for park effects, different eras (you'll be surprised to learn how good those 60's hitters were) and is a massive improvement in evaluation of defense. He rates the top 100 players in history based on career value, peak value, clutch performance, etc. This top 100 includes 12 Negro League players and has some surprises (Oscar Charleston at #4). He rates the top 100 players at each position. Some of this can get dull when you get down to the low #'s. But you'll learn a lot, such as that the 1901 Beaneaters had the best pitching staff of the decade, that Arky Vaughn was the #2 all-time shortstop and that Craig Biggio and Barry Bonds are two of the best all-time at their position (this was written before Bonds' historic 2001 season and Biggio's 2001 comeback).
One last thing. Throughout the book, James' cites reference to other great baseball books. You could build an amazing baseball library just from his bibliography.
All of this comes with James' wit, insight and love of the game. He combines hard-boiled statistical analysis with an apprection of the intangible aspects of the game.
on December 27, 2001
The great classic returns in somewhat different form.
The original version was James' greatest achievement and belongs on a short list of the most essential baseball books ever written. And the new version?
Most of the new book has been completely rewritten, yet it retains the same flavor as the original. If pressed, I prefer the earlier edition. This is partly because I read it often in the last decade and thus am somewhat biased in its favor, but also because James' new rating system - Win Shares - is introduced in only in general, without demonstrating the nuts and bolts. James promises that his next book (out next year?) will tell us a lot more about this interesting and probably excellent system, but in the meantime we have to take Win Shares on faith.
However, this reservation pales next to the excellence of the book. The historical overview and the player rankings are a tour de force, as before. In particular, the ranking section is much more ambitious and comprehensive, with many more comments than before.
This is one of those books that is more fun to read by skipping from place to place rather than from cover to cover.
Note: this is actually the 3rd edition of this book. The "original" was actually two very similar editions - a 1985 hardcover and a 1988 paperback.
Here are some things I particularly liked:
* Decade-by-decade outlines of the game.
* Greatly expanded capsule lists of odds and ends in each decade.
* Sidebars descibing interesting events and stories from each decade.
* New 1980s, 1990s, and Negro Leagues chapters. The Negro Leagues chapter is the best addition to Section 1, the historical overview.
* Comments and reasoning about the 100 greatest players overall in addition to raw list.
* Vastly expanded section 2 - now there there are 100 greatest cited at each position (instead of 25 or 50), most of them with substantial comments and/or stories.
* Fielding overview - James clearly explains why traditional fielding statistics mislead.
* The stories and narratives keep the book from revolving around statistics.
* Excellent new articles about the Union Association, the greatest teams ever, the best way to use a relief pitcher, power pitchers, the future of the game, and more.
* Excellent returning articles on the Black Sox era scandals, the evolution of the minors, catchers blocking the plate, and more.
Here are some things I wish were different:
* The layout in the old book was more informal, part of its charm.
* Some outstanding articles from the old book - such as those on the 1912 World Series, platooning, and the history of relief pitching - are gone.
* The old book's glossary is omitted. New readers should have a place to check exactly what "secondary average" and "the pythagorean method" mean.
* The old Section 3 was a reference section showing major players' yearly records, including fielding, hit-by-pitch (omitted from most references!), notes, and more. The new Section 3 replaces this with Win Shares by year for major players. While most of this is available in Total Baseball, it was useful to have it here.
* In the old book, James goes to some length to describe his Runs Created and Offensive Winning Percentage methods, and proves their accuracy. In the old hardcover, he takes Pete Palmer and John Thorn to task for not likewise proving their Linear Weights method. But in the new book, he mentions that there are new, more advanced Runs Created formulas but does not say what they are. Likewise, I must reserve judgement about Win Shares.
* In the old book, James strongly asserts that a player must be ranked for his peak and career value separately. He has two separate lists for each position because it's "an unavoidable concern," and "I think it's silly to try and put them together." In the new book, he does put them together. He is certainly entitled to change his mind, however since he so emphasized this point in the old book, I would like to hear why he changed it.
* The book's tone at times assumes the reader is familiar with James' earlier works. This may disconcert new readers.
James is a brilliant baseball historian. By sharing his insights into the game, many people, including myself, view it through different eyes. He communicates the grand sweep of the game's history very well, and his player evaluations, already fascinating and sometimes amusing, are now much more comprehensive. His statistical innovations have revolutionized baseball analysis.
The only real drawback to this edition is that it sometimes assumes the reader has read James' earlier work. I'm not sure new readers will accept Runs Created or Win Shares, and they may wonder about the meaning of some of James' terms.
My introduction to Bill James was the 1988 edition of this book. I had no problem understanding it, including his explanation of Runs Created and Offensive Winning Percentage. I was impressed enough to read all of his other books out at the time and obtain his later books as they appeared. (I particularly recommend his books on the Hall of Fame and on managers.) If this edition was my introduction to Bill James, I might be less enthusiastic.
My reservations about this book are minor compared to my admiration for this achievement. This is a magnificent overview of baseball's history and its greatest players. This book is too good to get less than five stars.
on January 22, 2008
Bill James is famous for his ability to collect, publish and analyze statistics about baseball. This is the second edition of his history book covering through the entire 20th century. But as James says in his preface this is more than just an update. In reviewing the first book he found that he didn't like a number of things that he did and so he has changed. Some may think for the better others for the worse but in my case I never read his 1980s edition so I have no basis for comparisons.
James is not a professional statistician but has good statistical intuition and is respected by professional statistician who specialize in sports statistics.
James covers the rules of the game and is very detialed about the players and the rule changes and strategy changes. What I enjoyed most about the book was his lists of the all time top 100 players at each position. This is something sports statisticians think about often and using statistical adjustment techniques and Bayesian methods professional statistician like Schell and Berry have written articles and in Schell's case a book on how to do this. Schell's book includes a list of the all time greatest hitters with Tony Gwynn at the top. The book tells you how the list is constructed and teaches statistical methods along the way.
James has no formal statistical method for constructing his lists. At each position he ranks the top 100 players and does a good job of mixing the old timers with the present day players. Though subjective, this is a difficult task for anyone and James is one of the few who knows enough detail of the history and players in baseball to be up to the task. I may not agree with all of his rankings but that is part of what makes talking about baseball fun. James provides descriptions of the players on his list that may be thought of as justification for their inclusion or rank.
The list of number 1 players by position is as follows:
1. catcher - Yogi Berra
2. pitcher - Walter Johnson
3. 1st base - Lou Gehrig
4. 2nd base - Joe Morgan
5. shortstop - Honus Wagner
6. 3rd base - Mike Schmidt
7. left field - Ted Williams
8. center field - Willie Mays
9. right field - Babe Ruth
The American Statistical Association formed a section SIS (Statistics in Sports). I am a member and so are many other statisticians including Carl Morris, Hal Stern, Mike Schell, Jim Albert, Jay Bennett and Scott Berry. We all have the common ground of interest in sports (particularly baseball). The introduction of true statistical methods in sports has turned sports partly intp a science. Mike Schell wrote a statistics book about statistical adjustment of individual player statistics based on the effect of the home ball park. Albert and Bennett have also contributed books. Efron and Morris long before this movement was in full force wrote a major statistical paper for the Journal of the American Statistical Association that used predicting baseball player averages using Stein shrinking estimator (an Empirical Bayes estimator).
It is books like this that amass large amounts of baseball data and use baseball knowledge and common sense ot look at the game in a differnt way.
on November 5, 2001
In his updated version of his classic historical abstract, Bill James dazzles us with his usual analytical genius. Howvever, from the perspective of someone who has internalized the logic and axioms of the original work, this book comes as something of a surprise if not a disappointment. James seems to have abandoned many of the positions he argued passionately in the original book. As an example, one of the fundamentals of the original book was that no reasonable discussion about player rankings could be undertaken unless one first stipulated whether one was discussing "carreer value" or "peak value". In the new work, James disregards this premise and replaces it with one-dimensional player rankings based on his new "win shares" system. While he explains how his rankings are designed to capture elements of both career and peak value, the very notion of combining them was something he regarded as silly in his original book. Having expected to find his original rankings in their original form updated to reflect the players of the last 15 years, this came as a shock.
on November 2, 2001
James's long-awaited update of his seminal 1985 work is finally here, and is indeed a treasure for anyone's baseball book shelf. The decade-by-decade reviews, which are exceptionally educational and fun to read, have been updated through the 80s and 90s. The player ratings have been greatly expanded and now include the top 100 at each position. This is an outstanding book - the best baseball text to come out in a long time.
That said, in my opinion many of the changes James made to the original are disappointing. First, he has removed some of the most interesting stories from the original decade summaries. If you have the original, this is not such a loss, but for those who don't already have it, this text is missing some important insightful reporting. Second, in the original, James was explicit in making the point that ranking players is highly dependent on whether the criteria is peak value (that is, how great was a player at his best) or career value (how great was a player over the totality of his career). This distinction was a breakthrough; to the best of my knowledge, no one had explicitly created this delineation before. Unfortunately, that distinction is nowhere to be found in the original. Whereas in the 1985 book, James presented two top-ten lists at each position, one for peak value and one for career value, in this version he has conflated the two somewhat arbitrarily. And he gives no explanation for backing away from his original stance. This is particularly curious since he was adamant about the point fifteen years ago.
A third quibble: James has created a new tool for player evaluation, something called win shares. He apparently has a detailed book coming out on the subject next year. Unfortunately, he gives precious little explanation of the tool in this text, especially its use in evaluating defense. Yet he clearly uses win shares as the overriding methodology for his final rankings. The reader is left feeling that there is something hidden behind the curtain. I would have been happier had he published the win shares book first, even if that meant delaying this one by a year. On the same point, James makes some (in my opinion) questionable tactical decisions in his analysis. While this is not the forum for a complete critique of his methods, I am far from certain that his evaluations of offensive performance have improved in the intervening decade and a half. Defense is another story; he is clearly quite proud of the leap forward he has made in defensive evaluation. But again, the reader is teased because James provides very little explanation of exactly what he is done, and we are left to take a lot on faith.
Please don't misunderstand the above criticisms. This is an outstanding contribution to the study of baseball history. You will learn more from this book than from all the others on the shelf at your local B&N combined. If James has not quite cleared the exceptionally high hurdle I have set for him, based on his own previous performances, he still outleaps virtually every other contributor to the field. Well worth the ...
on November 16, 2001
I almost fell out of my chair when I saw "The New Bill James Historical Abstract" in the bookstore. James is every baseball fan wrapped into one and has always been able to see the cold statistical side of baseball along the human side. He even talks about uniform styles and baseball players' looks, which my wife enjoys. This is the kind of book that it takes months to completly consume, the reader starts at the beginning, but then a short tale leads us to another area to compare, then off we go to another similar player who we remember,then to something else. For baseball lovers this book is a must, but for the casual fan this is also a teriffic book. I became obsessed with his 1985 "Historical Abstract" and his yearly publication when I was in my early twenties, I hope young people today find this book and share some of my experiences.
on January 28, 2004
The original 2001 "New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," which makes up the bulk of this 2003 edition, is a fantastic book, perhaps James' magnum opus. If someone said that no baseball library is complete without this book, he would be wrong. No baseball library is adequate without this book.
However, there is no reason for owners of the 2001 edition to consider buying the new edition. There's really nothing new here. Well, sure, James has added a few pages of new material, but it's not very good and it does not add anything substantive to any of the myriad topics raised in the book's 2001 text. Most of the genuinely new material consists of James' corrections. But the editors of the new edition have not actually made any of these corrections to the text itself. For example, James writes that he erred in saying that the 1914 A's had history's best infield, judged by Win Shares; a mathematical error led him to overlook the 1913 A's, whose infielders earned even more Win Shares. But page 548 still lists the 1914 A's as the Win Sharingest infield of all time.
Most infuriatingly of all, James casually mentions in this edition that all index references to pages after 945 were off by a page in the previous edition. But the new edition does not correct this error; the new index is just as wrong as it was in the old edition. So when you go to look up John Dopson, the index tells you to look on page 956. Only his name does not appear there; it appears on page 957.
Here, then, is something innovative: A reference book that cannot be referred to, and a new edition that mentions but does not correct errors in the previous edition.
All in all, this might be the sorriest excuse for a "new edition" in recent publishing history. Considered in the abstract, "The New Bill James Historical Abstract" deserves five stars. But considered as an updated edition of a classic, the 2003 version deserves no stars at all.
on November 25, 2001
The New Historical Baseball Abstract isn't a perfect book. It has way too many typographical errors. Bill James's wonderfully cogent analysis sometimes gives way to moralistic railing about the state of the world today (his mini-essay on "professionalism" in the Steve Carlton entry veers into a critique of the Great Society), some of which has little to do with the topic at hand.
The biggest flaw is the introduction of Win Shares, his new statistic that rates the overall worth of a player's contribution, counting it as a percentage of the team's overall victory total. It isn't straightforward enough to explain; in fact, it isn't explained in full at all. For that we have to wait for a book called Win Shares, to be published in the spring.
Bill James has no peer as a logical writer, analyst or researcher, so I'm quite confident (...).
The first section, The Game, is largely similar to previous editions of the book, with the welcome addition of a series of essays called The Greatest Team What Ever Was, which discusses different ways of evaluating which teams are the greatest in history. He reaches no final conclusions (though, oddly, he never mentions the 1939 Yankees as one of the best one or two teams ever, which the recent Baseball Dynasties unequivocally does), but it's plenty entertaining.
James's writing remains uniquely satisfying. He can switch between withering sarcasm and groan-worthy punning, between thoughtful analysis and curt dismissal, like no other writer. The comments about Cecil Fielder's and George Scott's weight are alone worth the price of the book.
Finally, James's book makes you want to read more good baseball writing. For some worthy titles to take on, just pay attention to the excerpts he cites. I know I'll be buying Whitey Herzog's You're Missing a Great Game and Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed, right away.
on August 17, 2003
I like this book, but I must caution the prospective buyer that Bill James is an acquired taste, even for fans of advanced baseball statistics.
The most ironic thing about James is that he has been for the past 25 years the vanguard of a group that seeks, among other things, to examine the game of baseball objectively by using numbers instead of impressions, gut feelings, etc. Yet for all of the statistics in the book, much of it is dedicated to VERY opinionated commentaries that
1) are somtimes very amusing,
2) but are often pure demagoguery
3) and read like an extended weblog
4) because they are irratic in length and quality of argument
5) and have too many annoying lists of points like this one.
With all of that being said, the dedicated baseball fan who can take the obnoxious side of James with a grain of salt will find this a rewarding read.
on December 5, 2001
Bill James combines analysis, facts, and opinions, seamlessly into this informative and entertaining volume. It should be on the bookshelf of both the intense and casual baseball fan. It is a pleasure to read, but, with nearly 1000 pages, it takes some time. It can be read straight through, or can be picked up anywhere that seems interesting.
Part 1 provides a historical perspective of the game, decade by decade. It includes the changes in the game, the uniforms, the players, the ball parks, and many thumbnail sketches of different events in each decade-and much more. You want to know about the game in the 1930s, just turn the book to that area, and you will find much of what you are looking for.
The biggest part of the book, well more than half, is Part 2, however. It provides player ratings of the top 100 players at each position, and the top 100 players of all time. These selections are based on a system developed by James, which he calls "win-shares." While not fully explained (we have to wait until spring 2002 for the full explanation in a book to be published), it seems to me to be an excellent rating system. He gets win-shares for each player, than uses a different system to rank the players. The ranking system is heavily balanced toward peak performance (as opposed to entire careers) and is bound to cause controversy among fans. He also throws in (as he admits) his own personal opinion from time-to-time in these rankings. Otherwise, why would George Brett rank higher than Eddie Mathews at third base, when Mathews has higher win-share scores? The big problem I have with the rankings is that James does not usually explain why he chooses to rank some players higher than others, despite their lower win-share scores. Hey, Bill, why does John Olerud rank lower than about 20 players who have lower win-share scores? And why does Eddie Murray rank higher than Willie McCovey?
Still, the book is well worth the price. James writes well, keeping the book interesting throughout. And a little controversy, or disagreement, does not diminish the book in any way.