The Bill James Handbook 2009

Time to get back on the horse and talk about some new baseball books…and what better to end the playoff hiatus than the world famous Bill James Handbook 2009.

So assuming you haven’t been hiding under a rock for the past 30 years or so, and you have even the slightest interest in statistical analysis and/or fantasy baseball, you know who Bill James is. Hopefully you’ve picked prior versions of this book so it isn’t a completely new topic to you.

But If it is your first encounter with Mr. James’ work – don’t do yourself the disservice of just picking TBJH2009 up and flipping through it. The majority of pages contain statistics and you’ll probably just dismiss it as being an encyclopedia of players’ performance. Not that this isn’t entirely true…but the real key is to understand why the book contains all this data.

James has been at work for 30 years trying to figure out the correlation of numbers to winning. He knew that it wasn’t all about the “traditional” statistics – batting average, win-loss record, and ERA to name a few…he sensed that there was something more out there that could be used as a gauge of a player’s ability to contribute to his team’s ability to win ballgames.

It’s James’ thinking about the relation of statistics to winning that is what deliver the punch of the book. Even though it only occupies a dozen or so pages, his analysis and introduction to certain statistical categories give the numbers context and meaning, and turn them into things that should be thought about as opposed to just looked at.

The first thing that really captured my attention – and this is on page 321, mind you  – is his article on bullpens, specifically his assigning of positions to the pitchers who comprise a bullpen. It’s not fair to compare a utility reliever to a closer – yet the current mainstream thinking does just that. Each pitcher in the bullpen comes into the game in different situations, and James argues that we need to look at their performance on an individual basis while in the context of their role. The Bill James Handbook 2009 provides the tools and instructions for doing just that, and the result is a smarter and more educated fan.

In the same vain of understanding what affects success, James and the crew at Baseaball Info Solutions have provided a tremendous amount of data on managers – how many lineups they use, how quick they are to pull their starting pitchers, and one of my favorites – how successful they are when they call for an intentional walk. Managers tend to be either overlooked or somewhat unfairly criticized, and James reminds the reader that he is there “trying to pollute the discussion of managers with actual facts.”

To James, it’s one thing to suppose something, it’s quite another to actually have numbers and facts that can be used to support tendencies.

What James and his collaborators ultimately are trying to do with The Bill James Handbook 2009 – besides sell books, of course – is to challenge your way of thinking and to take the shackles off your brain and allow you to look at statistics and numbers in a whole new light and not only learn what they think, but possibly discover your own correlations.

For instance – James suggests the possibility of MLB teams “employ(ing) platoon players like Las Vegas employs comedy acts.” He takes two players at the same position who have such polar opposite lefty/righty splits that combining them would be a dream come true – and he subsequently renames the tandem to elicit a decent chuckle from the reader.

The book concludes with two sections that ultimately challenge the reader the most – league leaders and 2009 projections. The former encourages you to look at the top 10 leaders in an array of statistical categories and see which tend to have the most influence on winning; while the latter gives you a glimpse into the future through the eyes of James and his team. You can’t argue with the leaders, yet you can debate the projections until everyone is blue in the face – that is a big part of the appeal.

Not to be left out are the Fielding Bible 2008 awards and a realtively new project that Mr. James has shared with his readers – his Young Talent Inventory, where he attempts to rate the best young players in baseball as well as which team has the best young players in their system. Depending on how your team came out, it could either be a bright spot for the future, or signs of conern if you believe in developing talent and bringing up the future from within your organization.

The Bill James Handbook 2009 is another heavy hitter, particularly when it comes to off-season reading both to recap the 2008 season and look ahead to the 2009 campaign. I’m glad to have my copy ready to go, knowing that it’s assuming it’s rightful position on my desk’s reference shelf.

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