on March 19, 2009
Reviewing the book for what it is and not what some people would prefer it to be (i.e., a revival of the Abstract): it's hand's-down a 5-star book.
Like last year's model, this year the book contains data from the Bill James Online site and nuggets of analysis provided by Bill and astute readers. The book also has an end-chapter of dialogue lifted from the Ask Bill section of the website:
- On why Bonds wasn't on a major league team: "He has one-dimensional skills and a poor reputation as a teammate."
- On why Bonds wasn't on a major league team even though he had the best OPS+ the previous year: "Somebody asked me why he wasn't in the majors and I gave an honest answer. It's not my fault the man can't run, field, throw, or get along with people."
- On giving baseball players a hard time for foot-in-mouth disease: "I am reluctant to place onto baseball players a burden that we do not place on ourselves. And yes, baseball players sometimes say stupid [stuff] because they don't realize the world didn't start the day they were born, but then, so do I, I suspect. I think everybody does."
The meat of the book, though, for most readers, will be the essays. What's special about the essays, and what makes the book a must-have, is that they are truly essays that you wouldn't find anywhere else -- not just because they have Bill's voice and clarity, but because they have Bill's unique perspective. Simply put, things often occur to him that don't occur to other analysts, and he has a talent for taking a slightly idiosyncratic perspective and crafting it until it applies to a broader sabermetric and historical appreciation (and application). For instance:
- His essay on stolen bases isn't just about when and if to steal, but how the stolen bases benefits each team, in light the team's make-up: do the teams that should steal most often actually do so?
- His "What If" essay is a fantasy about constructing an entirely new major league, with direct fan participation, GM elections, roster keeper rules, etc., following the observation that "almost everything that exists is an accident of history." It's a thought experiment that blends Bill's analytical talents and unique authorial voice. It has no bearing whatsoever on fantasy baseball, which is why you would never read something like this elsewhere, but it's an unforgettable essay.
- There is an essay called "Whoppers," that uses Tim Johnson's firing -- as a consequence of lying about military service -- as an opportunity to discuss human fallibility, rehabilitation, self-righteousness, and how rare genuine compassion is. In regards to Johnson and guys like Bonds, Rose, McGwire, Clemens: "I'm not saying it's right [...] I am saying it is self-righteous to pretend that I don't have the same human failings that these guys do, and further, if you are insisting that you don't have them, I don't believe you."
The reaction to last year's Gold Mine seemed to focus on whether the book was what people had expected it to be. For better or worse, the book is not the Abstract. It is, however, essential reading, and a book that could change the way you look at baseball, and life. That's worth 5 stars.
(For those who want more essays, there are plenty on the website.)
Nothing can duplicate the thrill of a baseball fan stumbling on the "Bill James Baseball Abstract" back in the early 1980s. Who knew that Steve Garvey wasn't really such a good hitter? That Larry Bowa's defense wasn't all that good? That Billy Martin had probably slagged some young arms with all those complete games? Reading the "Abstract" in those days made you feel that you knew things that most other fans - and sportswriters and broadcasters - didn't. Plus James wrote in a refreshingly irreverent style. Of course, these days with a very crowded field of sabermetricians covering every aspect of the game, it's way too much to ask James to come up with the same kind of fresh insights he made his reputation on almost 30 years ago. And with the dozens - hundreds? - of web sites out there filled with snarky commentary, his style is no longer fresh. So, although this book is a decent read, it has no chance of being as enjoyable or eye-opening as the old "Abstracts."
The book consists of entries on every major league team with about 15 essays interspersed among them. The essays appear to be reprinted from his web site (to which I don't subscribe). The team entries are not systematic appraisals of the past year or forecasts of the coming year, but consist of statistics - some standard, some not - and "nuggets" that provide facts about players on the team. The nuggets were apparently gathered by James's staff and edited by him. The nuggets are quite a mixed bag. It's not even clear if many of them are meant to be taken seriously. For instance, what are we to make of the fact that the A's Brad Ziegler "induced 20 ground-ball double plays in only 59.2 innings, for a rate of 3.0 per nine innings, a full 50% more than any other pitcher who threw at least 50 innings." Wasn't it James who first taught us not to rely on inferences from small sample sizes? The essays are also of uneven quality. Some are interesting, but I'm not sure what to make of his attempt to sort all hitters into 96 "families" on the basis of the ratio of their doubles to triples to homers. It was never clear what the point was.
There are also a regrettable number of typos. I spent a while trying to figure what was going on in the tables on p. 21 that purport to show the career records of John Smoltz and Tom Glavine against teams with various winning percentages. Since the tables give Smoltz only 50 career wins and Glavine only 81 career wins, I was baffled until I realized that the tables actually referred not to their career records, but to their records over the last seven years. There are other similar gaffes. Given that the book will have minimal value to fantasy players, I don't think it needed to be rushed into print. Taking another week or two to proofread to catch typos would have had a significant payoff.
If you are looking for one baseball book to read this spring, I would recommend the "Baseball Prospectus." But if you have the time and money, and are a Bill James fan, you will get some enjoyment out of this book, even though it is a pale shadow of the old "Abstracts."
on December 29, 2014
The Bill James Gold Mine returned here back for its second year of publication. Feelings of ambivalence returned as well.
In 2008, James and John Dewan started a Web site called billjamesonline.com. It was designed for avid baseball fans, filled with essays and information, polls and statistics. There was also a price tag attached. Last year's book was something of an ad for the Web site, which was still developing.
A year later, the authors tried again. If you read last year's edition, you'd recognize this year's effort.
The format is quite similar. Each team gets a chapter, containing some basic information about the starters and team, and then filled out with little facts called "nuggets" for the purpose of sticking to the gold mine theme. In the New York Mets' case, the authors (and there are several of them, although all but James are uncredited) points how out Jose Reyes led all major league batters in leading off innings, how Johan Santana pitched very well against very good teams, and how Luis Castillo was baseball's most patient hitter. This comes with some charts.
The format is interrupted by essays by James on a variety of subjects. The topics usually aren't exactly topical but they are frequently very interesting. James comes up with a way to grade catchers, measure pitch load, see if Gold Glovers are better hitters than their contemporaries, etc. My favorite this year was sparked by a letter from a reader on the subject of Tim Johnson, the Blue Jays manager who was fired for lying to his team about his life experiences and essentially blackballed from baseball. James gets into related issues about forgiveness, human nature and compassion, and will certainly make you do some thinking.
This year's book is a little bigger than the 2008 model, and it's a bit more crowded with information. The graphics department has done a better job of filling up the white space, so the book feels more complete.
Still, there's a great deal of data here that many will just skip over. I found myself reading the notes themselves, such as one about how Justin Morneau drove in more runners other than himself than anyone in the game. But I skipped the table that showed that Morneau had 46 RBIs on homers, 5 on triples, 30 on doubles, etc. When you essentially fly past most of those tables in a book like this, you can get through it in nothing flat.
As a reader of James' work for almost 30 years, it is still very interesting to see his mind work, If there's a petition to get him in the Hall of Fame, I'll be the first to sign it. For example, he came up with a method here that looks at unusually good or bad seasons and grades them by something called "U Scores" -- U for unusual. On top of the career list is Barry Bonds, followed by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Hmmm. Anything jump out about that list to you so far? To be fair, they are followed by Babe Ruth, Roy Thomas and Yank Robinson.
Here, then, is the problem: Is it worth $23.95 to read about 10 essays from James, knowing the rest of the book won't be of much interest to most potential readers? The answer for me was "yes," but I have almost every book the man ever wrote. And even I have to say that my enthusiasm level for this dropped off a bit. Meanwhile, others should be warned to at least skim through a copy at the bookstore before plunking down a credit card.
on April 5, 2009
The Bill James Gold Mine 2009 is a massive compendium of statistical information about 2009's baseball teams, enhanced with comments, clarifications, and musings by expert baseball analyst Bill James. The data collected includes pitch type analysis, baserunning analysis, pitcher's record of opposing batters, performance by starting pitcher, productivity by batting order position, and fielding bible plus/minus data. James' additional essays and inquiries include "A What-If Fantasy", "Whoppers", "Triple Crowns", "96 Families of Hitters" and much more. A "must-have" for any truly dedicated baseball fan, and the perfect resource for fantasy baseball leagues!
on March 27, 2009
I've always found Bill's musings more provocative in terms of how I think about baseball than the innovative approach to crunching numbers that he revolutionized. I used to be a fan of Bill's annual publications (after the Abstract) in the early 90's primarily as it was so loose it felt like you were having a fireside chat (or "hot stove" conversation). The 2nd version of the Gold Mine is like that, with more organization and fascinating little tidbits (and yes, fresh takes on stats).
I enjoy reading the array of Bill James books that come out. "Gold Mine" is one of those annual works that brings a smile to my face. I do wish that there were more statistics per team, but the quirky little essays that are scattered throughout the book provide value added material for the reader.
The first quirky essay is "The 96 families of hitters," in which James creates families of hitters, based on similar statistics (the ratio of doubles to triples to homers). He analyzes all major league hitters with an OPS (a function of on base percentage and slugging percentage) of .800 or more. Let's take a look at Family 415A: Members include Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Alex Rodriguez. Or Family 415C: Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Dale Murphy, Luke Easter,, Joe Adcock, and Bobby Bonds. And on it goes. It's most enjoyable to run through the families.
There are brief (too brief, in my view) snippets of statistics for each major league team. Let's take the Chicago Cubs. Some basic statistics. The highest OPS for 2008 was captured by center fielder Jim Edmonds (I never would have guessed that!) with .937. One more statistic to give a sense of what's included in this book: Alfonso Soriano's pitch analysis--pitches seen, pitches taken, and pitches swung at. If swung at, was the swing a miss (27% of the time), 36% were fouled off, and 36% were put into play. What about the Southsiders, the White Sox? Highest OPS was Carlos Quentin at .965. And there is a fascinating breakdown of balls hit on the fly or on the ground or line drives to left, center, and right fields. Cool factoid: of 46 fly balls to left field, half went over the fence for a home run.
Other interesting sidebars--what pitchers threw the most gems over the past few years (defined as a sterling start); what the value of a stolen base is to each major league team; top Triple Crown seasons of all time.
In short, another solid hit from the Bill James Empire. Baseball enthusiasts who love statistics and are confirmed supporters of sabermetrics will have fun with this volume.
on October 11, 2010
Bill James has another winner with the 2009 edition Gold Mine. Once again, we readers gather some very interesting if uneven statistics of each major league team. Perhaps more interesting are the various articles on baseball statistics from the baseball's top stats-guru. Here you will find statistics and analysis on families of hitters based on their extra base hits, pitching gems, the higher percentages of grounders being pulled than fly balls, catcher pride points, pitching loads, and the clutch hitter of the year - Manny Ramirez was the 2008 winner. In his choice of the best one-year triple crown style hitter, he chose the largely-forgotten Nap Lajoie from 1901. I was not surprised that many gold glove winners are underserving and capture that award with their fame and their bat - Mike Schmidt, Cal Ripken, and an older Ryne Sandberg come to mind - but didn't realize that the trend has clearly not increased in later years. Some of the analysis published in this book is highly important, while other findings seem more trivial. But none should lose the interest of most readers. It was also fun to read a several emails and responses from Bill James Online, and nice to know we can email him with intelligent questions.
Like many, I really miss those Bill James Abstracts that spurred him to baseball fame in the 1980's. Still, while The Gold Mine does provide us hardcore fans with much useful information.
on January 15, 2015
Just what I wanted.
on April 15, 2009
This book perpetuates the myth that fielding statistics are perfectly objective, which they are not. Proceed with caution, as this book only gives a vague idea of how good certain players are.
on August 9, 2009
This guy wrote that Don Drysdale didn't belong in the Hall-of-Fame. Don Drysdale not only set the record for homeruns by a pitcher for a season, seven, but did it twice. He helped the Dodgers win the World Series, twice. These Dodger teams had little offense. He beat the Yankees when they had Mantle batting cleanup. [...], a more sophisticated mathematical model, rates Drysdale the top National League pitcher for 3 seasons. He was a beloved baseball announcer at the major-league level. He won the Cy Young award in 1962, when he won 25 games. He pitched over 300 innings a year four times. He, and Sandy Koufax, held out for [...] a year, back when that was out-of-the-question, and got it. He hit more batters with pitches than any other pitcher. He cursed and cussed out umpires louder than anyone else that ever played the game. Nobody dared charge the mound when the Big "D" hit them. Bob Gibson stood on Drysdale's shoulders, using his pitch inside approach, the "I own the inside of the plate" approach, and had a fantastic season.
Bill James may have some interesting statistical analysis, but his interpretation of those facts is definitely suspect. James must have felt slighted by Drysdale at some point because rational analysis of the facts doesn't support his petty and boorish assertion Drysdale doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame.