Monday, May 26, 2008

A Review of “The Bill James Gold Mine 2008”

I am one of the worst book reviewers in the world. This goes beyond just being a suspect writer; it’s all about the timing. I have never reviewed a book in a timely fashion; by the time I review it, it’s yesterday’s news.

This one is no exception, as The Bill James Gold Mine 2008 from ACTA Publications has been out for at least two months now. The good thing is that this book is not a season preview book in the way that, say, Baseball Prospectus is, and both it and the review have some degree of timelessness.

I should note upfront that I am not a subscriber to Bill James Online; many of the comments I have read have discussed the value of the book for those who are subscribers to the site. This is a review of the book itself, with no ancillary product having any weight on it.

This book, like just about everything James has ever written, is a good read. The problem with it is that there is really not that much to read. There are a number of essays interspersed throughout the book; most of these are not deeply analytical in nature, but are fun to read. For instance, there is one on “Cigar Points”, which is a kind of freak show stat that measures how close a player came to reaching significant seasonal or career milestones. Come to think of it, there are several freak show stats in the book. These are presented as such, and not as any sort of earth-shattering revelation.

The downside is that much of the book is taken up with statistical tables. Some of these are quite interesting--there are breakdown of the percentage of the various pitch types thrown by a given pitcher, broken down by the handedness of the batter; tables of batting statistics on groundballs, line drives to right field, and the like; tables showing the percentage of pitches swung at, taken, swung at by pitch location, etc. by batters. Some of the statistics presented are kind of silly as far as I’m concerned, but others might enjoy them. For example, I don’t get much out of a batter’s “RBI Analysis”, showing how many runs they drove in by various means and which teammates they drove in.

The problem is that these are presented on a selective basis; it’s not a reference book, and so James includes the data that he thinks is interesting or wants to use to make a point or discuss an idea. These rifts are usually about a paragraph in length, and sometimes simply a sentence that highlights something interesting in the accompanying table.

I have seen some comments that it is great to have James back writing what amounts to a reprisal of the Abstract. However, it is not that, at all. Perhaps it is more in the vein of the early self-published editions that were low on words and heavy on numbers, but it doesn’t really resemble, say, the 1985 Abstract at all. If you took a later edition, like 1986 or 1987, it would be like taking very small snippets from the player and team comments and adding in the extraneous essays.

One thing that was a bit disappointing to me about the book is that it relied very little on James’ sabermetric tools--you won’t see a lot of Win Shares, or Runs Created, or Component ERA (regardless of my opinions on the specifics of those methods, their objectives are fine). Instead, unbelievably, James introduces in passing a new method of Season Scores, which puts a number on a season through (apparently) some rough guidelines. It resembles nothing so much as Approximate Value. That kind of method can be okay for its own sake, but when James introduced Win Shares, part of his stated motivation was that he needed a single, accessible number for studies, but that no one took AV seriously because of its arbitrariness. Now he is back to using that sort of method.

Another weakness that has been apparent in James’ writing for some time, not unique to this book, is a lack of currency on the work being done by others in the field. Thus, James’ “Herbie” ERA estimator is very similar to FIP, but he does not notice it. This manifests itself in another strange way--James being unaware of his own previous work. The first iteration of Herbie is based solely on homers and walks (and hit batters). James says: “This is SUCH a simple concept that somebody must have done this before, but…it’s new to me.” In fact, someone did have an ERA based solely on homers and walks, and it was Bill James, with Indicated ERA in the 1987 Abstract.

Two qualifiers to that: the first is that indicated ERA (HR*W*100/IP^2) was not as accurate as Herbie, and James has produced such a massive volume of published work that it is hardly a failing to forget something. I’m sure that I have some scribblings in old notebooks somewhere that I have replicated unknowingly in the future, and of course I probably haven’t spent as much time on this stuff in my life as James did in 1978 alone. And I certainly don’t have anyone to check up on me, since my stuff is not good enough to be in the public domain.

Finally, the last few pages of the book were a little disappointing. They are excerpts from several articles on the website. I would have much preferred to see one more full article than snippets from several, and in this section the book does come across as secondary to and an advertising vehicle for the website. I have no problem with pushing the website, but I would have much rather seen that done by making an open appeal than by a tease.

Another problem with my book reviews is that I tend to focus on the negatives. Is this the Abstract reborn? No. Is it the most scintillating baseball book you’ve ever read? No again. Is there too high of a ratio of numbers to words? Yes. How many better books will be published this year for people who are interested in sabermetrics? One? Two? Certainly not five. If you are interested in sabermetrics, you should probably read this book or at least check out the website. Seriously, it’s still BILL JAMES.


  1. We're finally figuring out that it's not still BILL JAMES. It's the name, the brand, and the occasional lazy work, plus some ghost writers. I can only hope that he made the Red Sox pay for them.


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