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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New reviews coming soon

A quick note to those who stop by the site regularly – stay tuned for some new reviews in the coming days. After the regular season, I try and take a few weeks off to catch up with some other reading, notably something other than baseball books.

If you’re interested, I just finished Dick Meyer’s Why We Hate Us which was insanely enjoyable and will be a book I’m going to actually go out and buy; and am currently walking on The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, which I’m too early in to form an opinion…the first two chapters left me unsure of whether I should continue, the third was a bit more favorable.

I also breezed through Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. Not what I thought it was going to be; although this is one of those books that needs a re-read and more thought on my part. It could be gold or it could be a turd in a bag…I’ll have to get back to you.

In the meantime, I hope you’re enjoying the postseason, even if your teams aren’t in it. Mine isn’t – hell, they haven’t been in anything other than a deep pile of doo-doo since May.

Stay tuned.

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The End of Baseball – by Peter Schilling, Jr.

The choices we don’t make in life sometimes plague us more than those that we do; how would my life be different (read: better) if I had taken that job, made that phone call, married that other person? Where would I be? What would I be doing?

Well take that way of thinking, and apply it to Bill Veeck, Jr. and the 1944 Philadelphia A’s. The 1943 edition of the club was coming off a 49-105 finish and had just been sold by Connie Mack. Infighting amongst his children kept them from ownership, and a creative deal with the junior Veeck gave him the reins to the White Elephants.

The ever inventive Veeck, who also owned the Negro League Philadelphia Stars, decides to cut every one of the A’s just before Opening Day and replace them with the Stars, who had become a collection of Negro League All-Stars with Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson, just to name a few. It would be the forced integration of Major League Baseball, two years before Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But that plan never came to fruition, and while baseball’s integration was delayed and some of the greatest names in Negro League history never got to put on a big league uniform, it did give Peter Schilling, Jr. the opportunity to write his first novel, The End of Baseball.

Schilling hits a home run with his debut novel – while not only doing a solid job transporting the reader back to the mid 1940s, he takes on the enviable task of developing multiple characters that have tremendous amonuts of complexity: starting with Veeck, the maverick owner and promoter charged with turning a profit on the A’s else he have to return them to the Mack family, and his business partner, Sam Dailey, the more intellectual, business-minded investor who gets tugged around to scout for players before inheriting much more responsibility than he bargained for once the Commissioner suspends Veeck.

The cast of players and managers is no small task to turn into dynamic characters – Josn Gibson is in the tail end of his glory days but feels compelled to live up to his Ruthian comparisons while battling the demons of addiction; to former great Oscar Charleston battingling manager Mickey Cochrane for respect, to a young Roy Campanella trying to learn from the veteran Gibson while watching him crumble.

Throw in a vindictive Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and his mouthpiece, Sporting News writer J.G. Taylor Spink, and you have a roster full of people to develop and get the reader familiar with, which Schilling does succesfully.

By using real people in a fictional work, Schilling takes on the challenge of bringing somewhat new characteristics to light. How would Landis respond to a team of Negro Leaguers playing in the Majors? How would a team of Negro Leaguers, all in their rookie season in the bigs, take to the abuse that Schilling has the fans and press rain down on them?

Schilling gets to answer that question as he sees fit, and while it might not vibe with every reader, it definitely makes for an interesting read.

While not a fan of fiction, I did find myself liking The End of Baseball more and more as it went along. If anything, I liked it to the point where I will probably misquote something that happened in the book as actual fact at some point, and I will have Mr. Schilling to blame. That’s the downside of using real people to craft a fictional story.

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Author Matt Dahlgren talks about RUMOR IN TOWN

I recently had the chance to speak with author Matt Dahlgren about his book, Rumor In Town, which attempts to clear the name of his grandfather, former big leaguer Babe Dahlgren of a vicious rumor that he was a marijuana user during his career.

Listen to the interview here; thanks to KOMO Radio for hosting the audio.

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Rumor In Town – by Matt Dahlgren

Baseball is full of stories – many we know, but many more which go untold. One of those untold stories is that of Babe Dahlgren – the man who replaced Lou Gehrig at first base for the Yankees when he took himself out of the lineup – and who also had a career tarnished and held back by a vicious rumor.

Rumor In Town, written by Matt Dahlgren, is a chance for the grandson to finally tell his grandfather’s untold story.

The rumor, from which the title gets is name, painted Dahlgren as a user of marijuana, an offense at that time that would have you banished from baseball. While Dahlgren never found out who started it, and never got any help from the commissioner’s office, he had his suspicions and ended up with one of baseball’s most famous managers as the one whose malice resulted in both lost salary and opportunity for Dahlgren – considered to be one of the best defensive first baseman ever. And all because Dahlgren took off-season hitting lessons from someone that manager didn’t like.

This book captivated me as it brought to life the story of a player who I only knew by name. Matt Dahlgren does a tremendous job telling his grandfather’s story, and had me turning the pages to read more. His writing isn’t overly biased – while he’s writing from the position of trying to finally clear his grandfather’s name, it doesn’t come across as such. Compiling records from numerous sources, his approach results in a much more balanced book, and one that is enjoyable to read His use of original documents, such as letters from his grandfather to former teammates, the Players Pension Fund, and other correspondence, combined with pictures from his playing career tie everything in together nicely, and show just how much this false allegation bothered Babe Dahlgren, all the way from when he found out about it until his dying day.

Stories deserve to be told – and Dahlgren does a commendable job telling his grandfather’s – one that Babe Dahlgren had hoped to tell himself. Rumor In Town is a surprisingly good read by taking a player who ended his career some sixty years ago and bringing his life into the present day.

Rumor In Town gets a wholehearted recommendation as a great book to read – history is a major part of baseball, and given the movement with instant replay to get calls right on the field, a replay of Babe Dahlgren’s life is more than worthwhile with the goal of getting his story right.

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Walkoffs, Last Licks, and Final Outs – by Bill Chuck and Jim Kaplan

Even though there are still a few weeks to go in the season, the end is coming, and so I’ve gravitated to a few titles that deal with putting a season under wraps.

The first is Walkoffs, Last Licks and Final Outs, by Bill Chuck and Jim Kaplan, a title from the good folks at ACTA Sports that looks at how some of the biggest games and names called it a wrap.

The book, which has chapters looking at pennant races, World Series, perfect games, streaks, stadiums, final goodbyes, Hall of Fame farewells and “The Last Chapter,” does a fairly nice job of summarizing how some big games ended and some big names walked away from the game.

As it recaps some of these stories, the book can lean a bit to the dry side – simply recapping the basic notes that made the games memorable. With stories dating back to the early 1900s, there is a decent amount to sift through, since almost every year is represented.

It took a while to find something a bit deeper that reached my philosophical side — it was page 86, which highlights game 6 of the 1975 World Series between the Reds and Red Sox, where Carlton Fisk hit a 12th inning homerun to win the game, and created a lasting replay of him bouncing up the first base line waving his arms in an attempt to keep the ball fair. It worked, and the game became known to some as the game that saved baseball, as it brought the entertainment value back to the game that had been angering fans with rising free agent salaries.

The authors deflect some of the attention from that game, saying baseball “always survives the sins of those who play it, the men in blue who umpire it, those of us who cover it, those of you who watch it, and especially those who run it.”

It was a shining moment in the book that got me through the balance of it; the lack of analysis or explaining the importance of some of the games left me wanting to understand more about them. Sometimes I want to see major historical importance in every event, even though it’s not always there.

The book came across a bit dry to me just too much – there are a lot of games that just don’t have the significance I look to provide deeper thought and analysis about the game.

One major benefit of the book – it provides a tremendous amount of trivia and “do you remember?” moments. As someone who is always in need of more trivia and talking points, this did provide a nice addition to my inventory and will keep a place on the shelf close to my work area. I don’t doubt for a minute that I’ll be able to reference this book regularly with good results.

Walkoffs, Last Licks, and Final Outs would be a fun read for history buffs and those wanting to be reminded of the ways that games, players, and even stadiums ended throughout baseball. I wouldn’t say it’s a must read, but I don’t think you’d be disappointed if you did.

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But Didn’t We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870 — by Peter Morris

Peter Morris is back after writing the two volumes of A Game of Inches, which were some of my favorite books in 2007, and he takes us back to the early days of baseball – before it was even called by that name, and chronicles how the game got its footing throughout the country and made its progression from recreational sport played by children, to ultimately a competitive game that was reshaped by the Civil War and made its foray into a professional game.

Divided amongst 13 chapters, Morris starts by admitting that the reader has to maintain a certain skepticism throughout the book. Few texts deal with the subject, and as he got into the topic, found that there was a significant gap in the chronicling of this time period. Some works are too detailed; others take an approach that glosses over too many important details and leaves readers with the impression the Abner Doubleday gave the game to the Cincinnati Red Stockings and we all lived happily ever after.

The first two-thirds of the book deal mainly with history – looking at the nature of the game and those who played it, from the difficulty of finding someone who could produce a baseball to the organizations that gave rise to the first baseball teams. For someone who isn’t a history buff, this is a bit more of a topic than I cared to get into, and unfortunately I found that I glanced over more pages than I probably should have.

However, come to chapter 12, which provides a reflection of the time that has passed, which includes the conclusion of the Civil War, and more to chapter 13, which analyzes life in the new professional era of baseball, and the words and pages suddenly came alive for me.

Change was rampant in baseball, most notably the idea of the enclosed stadiums and people paying to watch a game. This radical departure from recreation to profession set baseball on a new course, and the resulting backlash of a reinvention of the amateur and recreational games rings true to this day.

Morris makes clear the struggle of baseball as an inclusive versus exclusive game, and to this day that idea still prevails. Are you a fan of baseball in general, or do you lean to a certain level or style of baseball? Do you only follow Major League games, or are you a Minor League or collegiate fan?

The glue of this book to me came in the final two chapters, and it’s because of those that I make a wholehearted recommendation to read it. Morris brings the development of baseball full circle, and shows how the struggles and discussions that were had over 100 years ago mirror those we have today.

Morris has an amazing ability to take a topic that can seem so distant and almost irrelevant to the modern era of baseball and have the words be almost entirely applicable to the current day. The text takes a dramatic turn from a primarily historic narrative in the first two-thirds of the book to an analysis of the factors that changed the game irreversibly and launched the sport on the track that has gotten us to where we are today.

To say that Morris reminds the reader that history repeats itself is an understatement; much like a baseball game, the direction of the sport has been a battle between two teams: one of seeming progression and another who seeks to keep the game as it has been.

But Didn’t We Have Fun? is a book that sat in my “to read” pile much too long, and I am glad that I plucked it from it when I did. With the current discussion of instant replay, the timing of the book was fitting, and I would encourage you to pick it up sooner than later. To see baseball in its modern era and read a book such as this, provides an easy way to gain an appreciation of where the game has come, while making it clear that history does indeed repeat itself.

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