2007-03-15: The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2001)

by Bill James (1949-)

After reading Moneyball, I wanted to know more about James and his views on baseball. This book is in three parts: The Game, Player Ratings and Comments, and Reference.

The Game describes the game of professional baseball as it was played in each decade from the 1870s through the 1990s, plus a section on the Negro Leagues. This was the part I enjoyed most. I knew baseball had changed, but James has detail – lots of detail. He also has opinions and an interesting way of putting them.

Over many years James has refined his statistical basis for rating players. His latest method, reaching a state he was satisfied with just as this book was supposed to go to press, is called Win Shares. Originally it applied only to hitters, but his refinements extended the method to pitching and fielding. His provides ratings for the 100 best players at every position, explains them in some depth, and compares them with those of other baseball writers and organizations.

I read all of Part I, and Player Ratings for those I had heard of. Anyone interested in baseball should find something to like here, even if only an argument.

To whet your appetite, here are some samples of his writing.

[The 1900s, p. 81] The Chicago Cubs in 1906 won 116 games. This remains the record for wins in one season. The cubs also won 223 games in two years (1906-1907), which is the record for wins in a two-season span, and 322 games over three years (1906-1908), which is the record for wins over a three-season span. They won 426 games over a four-season span (1906-1909), which is the record for wins over a four-year span, and they won 530 games over a five-season span (1906-1910), which is the record for wins over a period of five years.

The Cubs won 622 games over a six-year period (1905-1910), which is a record, by far. The only other team to win 600 games in a six-year span was the Cardinals of the 1940s, although many teams have lost 600 games in six years, proving that it is easier to stay in last place than it is to stay in first.

The Cubs won 715 games in seven years (1940-1910); this is also a record. They won 807 games in an eight-year period (1904-1911), which, again, is a record; the Yankees won 799 between 1936 and 1943. They won 898 games between 1904 and 1912, which is a record for wins over a nine-year period, and they won 986 between 1904 and 1913, which is a record for wins over a ten-year period.

He goes on to discuss the contributions of Tinker, Evers, and Chance to this record, an interesting discussion that illuminates how he thinks about baseball (i.e., deeply).

[The 1930s, p. 158] Pete Jablonowski was a graduate of the University of Michigan, 1927. He was a major league pitcher on and off for the next several seasons, but changed his name in 1934 to Pete Appleton. He did better as Pete Appleton, winning 23 games for Toronto in 1935, then having his best major league season with the Senators in 1936. He was able to stay in the majors until 1942, when he left to join the Navy.

In Bill Stern’s version of the Jablonowski/Appleton story, Jablonowski changed his name to change his luck, and sure enough, his luck did change as soon as he changed his name. But you know what? On November 9, 1933, Jablonowski got married. His wife’s maiden name – I am not making this up – was Aldora Leszcynski. He changed his name to Appleton a few months later – and don’t you just know what the real reason was? After all those years of being Aldora Leszcynski, the woman just couldn’t stomach the prospect of going through the rest of her life as Aldora Leszcynski Jablonowski.

The book is full of little stories like that.

[The 1990s, p. 316] History shows nothing more clearly than that one cannot anticipate history. This is true, I think, because many of the things that we all know turn out, when put to the test, to be untrue, or to be true only up to a point.

Having said that, four things about the future of baseball seem so obvious to me that I am willing to put them on record in a hard-cover book, so that the next generation of sportswriters can make fun of me twenty years from now.

The four things are interesting, but I don’t feel like retyping them. On page 320, he says

Baseball’s poetic and lyrical celebrants are fond of pointing out that baseball is the only major team sport without a clock. What these people don’t understand is that, until about 1945, baseball did have a clock. It was called the sun. Baseball games, until the advent of night ball, had to be crisply played because they often didn’t start until late afternoon, and they had to be finished by sundown, and sundown then was an hour sooner than it is now.

He discusses the notion of clutch performance, which he disbelieves in, and gives his opinion forcefully. He points out that there is no statistical basis for believing in it. Then he says

[Player Ratings and Comments, p. 349] But, since this elusive “clutch ability” has no particular statistical dimension, it has become popular within the discussion as a bullshit dump. All discussions have bullshit dumps; we need them. Our logic, whatever it is that we are talking about, can never be completely worked out; all subjects worthy of discussion are too complicated to be fully encased in logic. Thus, in all discussions, the least precise areas become bullshit dumps, elements of the discussion which are used to reconcile our formal logic to our intuitive sense of right or wrong, justice or injustice, accuracy or inaccuracy, reason or madness, moderation or extremity. “Psychology” is a common bullshit dump. I am not saying that psychology is not real or that psychologists do not know what they are talking about. What I am saying is that since human psychology affects almost everything within our sight in undocumented ways which are never fully understood, psychology inevitably becomes a bullshit dump which we can use to justify or explain what is otherwise unjustified or inexplicable.

“Karma” is a popular bullshit dump. In politics, “sensitivity” is a bullshit dump; so is the “influence of the media.” Witchcraft used to be a major bullshit dump, but has lost its audience.

He also has an interesting discussion of six rules he would like to see changed, or at least enforced differently, to improve the spectator’s experience of the game. This is a really good, but very long, baseball book.


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