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2020 Bill James Handbook Review via The Joe Sheehan Newsletter

The Joe Sheehan Newsletter

Vol. 11, No. 114

November 12, 2019

The day after the World Series ended was Halloween, and I had to be in Brooklyn early to see TWCFG’s class performance. It was the capper to an incredibly hectic few days, and I was sleepwalking when I arrived home that afternoon. Sitting by my door was a Priority Mail envelope that I knew, based on the shape and size, could only be one thing: the latest Bill James Handbook. I was amused by the timing, this harbinger of winter arriving hours after the final pitch of the World Series.

I picked up the envelope, tore it open, glanced at the book briefly…and then slept for four days.

I love the Handbook, and its arrival is one of the offseason signposts that arrive at my door, to be followed by the Baseball Forecaster in December, the Rotowire Fantasy Baseball mag in February, the new Prospectus annual after that. For the first few days after the Series, though, I was looking to get away from the game a bit. So it wasn’t until this past weekend, ten days after Daniel Hudson threw his glove into oblivion, that I sat down with it. 

As ever, it energized me. I needed to not think about baseball for a week, and having done so, I’m excited about it again, and the Handbook is a fun way to ease back in. I flip it open at random…huh, I didn’t realize Josh Smith has been around for four years. Shake it again…Jeff Mathis has had one of the strangest careers ever. One more flip…wow, that guy had the longest homer in the National League this year?

I can remember when the Handbook was almost entirely the data, the career register and the various splits in the back. To this day, one of the first things I do with the book is go to the pitcher platoon splits and look for the backwards lefty relievers I so dearly love in Strat, even though I barely play the game any more. (Not a bumper crop of backwards lefties this year, sad to say.) Over the years, though, the front and back of the book has grown. Bill James has two essays, in addition to his usual projections write-ups. One summarizes the Hall of Fame polls he posted all summer on Twitter; the second attempts to address the gameplay challenges MLB faces. Both are entertaining reads. (Related. It will be interesting to see how much Bill writes now that he’s left the Red Sox.)

The Fielding Bible Awards get their own section. As I mentioned, I was a voter for the first time, and I was eager to see how my ballots compared to both the results and the ballots of the other voters. I was only wildly out of sync once, with Lorenzo Cain seventh. (He won.) I can’t tell if that is a good or bad thing, although I suppose if we were all voting based on Defensive Runs Saved, you wouldn’t need voters. Cain had a whopping five home-run robberies (a full accounting of them is in the book), which have tremendous real-runs value.

Speaking of DRS, there’s some great stuff on changes to the system that account for positioning and get us closer to measuring defensive performance in the context of opportunity.

The book will send you down rabbit holes. According to the defensive summary, there was one left fielder involved in a GIDP this season. I’ve Googled and Baseball Reference Play Indexed and I can’t find it. 

There’s just…stuff…on every page. David Robertson had thrown between 60 and 69 innings a season for nine years before injuries held him to 6 2/3 last year. Maybe you want to look at the incredible numbers of Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, but it’s just so easy to get distracted by the stats of Chris Flexen and Walker Lockett and Corey Oswalt. Oliver Drake pitched for five teams in 2018. He pitched for one, and very well, in 2019. 

As I get older, I notice just how many players are in the book whom I have never heard of. Maybe I shouldn’t say that in the middle of a renewal push, but my god, 831 guys pitched in the majors last year, including 80 or so position players. That’s 50% more than in the first season in which we had 30 teams, back in 1998. Michael King? Yacksel Rios? Taylor Guilbeau? I can’t keep up. I don’t know what limiters we have to put on transactions, roster sizes, or gameplay to reverse this trend, but I don’t think the three-batter rule will be sufficient. (I would have expected the 28-man roster limit in September to have a larger effect, but if I’ve done the search right, just 19 pitchers made their MLB debuts after August 31 last year.)

The back of the book is, as always, a treasure. Park effects, baserunning data, manager charts, leaderboards, projections. I’m writing this on Tuesday afternoon, and I find myself wanting to get this Newsletter done so I can dig into the book for more Newsletter ideas. The leaderboards alone, running from your basic baseball card stats to esoteric ones, will keep you occupied for a day. (Longest Average Home Run, AL, is a hoot.) In all of MLB, there were just 14 120-pitch starts last year. Why, Nolan Ryan alone had 14 120-pitch starts in June of 1976.

For me, the Handbook’s greatest value is that it turns me from the guy who, on October 31, was ready to forget about baseball for a while to the guy checking to see how many days we have until pitchers and catchers report. (91, the Padres, on February 10.) The Handbook is the B-12 shot I need every year, a reintroduction to the 22 teams and their stars and stories left behind in early October. If you like the Newsletter, you will absolutely like the Handbook.

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