Thursday, June 29, 2006

Useless Trivia of the Day

I don't have enough readers to turn this into a trivia game, although if you by chance happen to read this and want to take a stab at it, feel free to leave a comment.

Nolan Ryan pitched for four teams in his career: the Mets, the Angels, the Astros, and the Rangers. What do these four teams have in common?

Obviously I am thinking of something specific--there may be other common threads betweem the teams that you can think of. I will say that it has nothing to do with on-field performance, i.e. "None of them have ever won the World Series" or some such (yes, yes, I know the Mets and now the Angels have won the World Series).

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Meandering Thoughts

The American League has beaten up the National League in interleague play this year, and of course has a string of recent success in the All-Star game, and has won seven of the last ten World Series, etc. But when you look at World Series history, it’s largely a story of the AL getting the better of the NL. AL teams lead the World Series 59-42. Some might object that the AL gets an unfair advantage from the Yankees and their 26 titles. That may be true to some extent, but if the strongest franchise in the history of the game is in your league, that’s a good feather in the cap to have. Besides, if you remove all series won by the Yankees, the AL only has 33, but to be fair you should remove all series won by the Cardinals, the most successful NL team in World Series play. If you do that, it’s even at 33. Furthermore, if you take out all series played by the Yankees, you take out 13 losses in addition to the 26 wins, so the AL record is 33-29.

What’s more remarkable to me is the way that the AL has put together streaks of consecutive WS wins while the NL has not. Only three times in the history of the game have NL teams won three straight world titles, and all three streaks lasted the minimum standard of three years: 1907-1909(Cubs, Cubs, Pirates); 1963-1965(Dodgers, Cardinals, Dodgers); 1980-1982(Phillies, Dodgers, Cardinals). The AL on the other hand has eight such streaks, three of them being three years: 1972-1974(A’s), 1991-1993(Twins, Blue Jays, Blue Jays), 1998-2000(Yankees). But the AL also has four four-year streaks: 1910-1913(A’s, A’s, Red Sox, A’s); 1915-1918(Red Sox, Red Sox, White Sox, Red Sox); 1927-1930(Yankees, Yankees, A’s, A’s). There is also a five-year streak, 1935-1939(Tigers, Yankees x 4), and a seven-year streak, 1947-1953(Yankees, Indians, Yankees x 5).

I guess I just never noticed this before. Given the penchant people have for silly facts, I’m surprised this isn’t more well known. Similarly, in horse racing, a historic streak ended this year when for the first time since 2000 no horse won two legs of the Triple Crown (Point Given in 2001, War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004, and Afleet Alex in 2005 constituted the run). That was the longest such occurrence since 1939-1944 (Johnstown, Bimelech, Whirlaway, Shut Out, Count Fleet, Pensive). At least these useless facts are more relevant then the one I heard the other day about Ryan Howard. I can’t recall exactly what it was, but I think the gist of it was: “Ryan Howard set a record for the fewest games needed to reach 25 homers in a player’s second season in the majors”.

This is absurd on so many levels--first, 25 homers seems to be a cherry-picked milestone; the important homer milestones are usually considered to be 30, 40, 50, etc. Secondly, “a player’s second season in the majors” signifies much different things for different players. Howard is 27 this year, so his second season in the majors is not exactly on the same footing as that of Alex Rodriguez or Joe DiMaggio. This is one of the sillier “records” I can remember hearing about.

In a similar vein of poor record keeping, I have recently been re-reading one of my favorite baseball books from when I was a kid, Great Baseball Feats, Facts, and Firsts by David Nemec. Nemec is a great writer, a fellow Buckeye, and I consider his Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Major League Baseball to be one of the best baseball books ever published. So I’m not at all trying to put down on Nemec here. The aforementioned book lists various miscellaneous records and leaders in categories, and includes a list of firsts, like “so and so was the first to wear a batting helmet”, and other such things. It would probably contain something of interest to most baseball fans. However, as a kid, I loved that book, because I loved silly trivia facts and could recite the 500 home run club, and other such things (I no longer can do this, although I do know every World Series winner). Then I got into evaluating what the numbers mean instead of memorizing what the numbers are, and here I am.

That digression is to get to the point that in the book, Nemec breaks the game into five or six eras, and compiles records by each era, which is not at all a bad approach. But in each era section, he lists the World Series results for each team, and the list is ordered by the percentage of series won. I have seen this sorting method used in other books, and yet I am still befuddled by it. If one was to make a post-strike era list of WS winners by this criteria, the Marlins would top the list at 2-0, followed by the Diamondbacks, Angels, Red Sox, and White Sox at 1-0. Then, at sixth place, one would finally get to the Yankees and their lowly 4-2 mark, and then the 1-2 Braves.

Is that not the most insane way to make a list you’ve ever heard? Sure, if the list is “WS W%”, that’s what you have to do. But the list is not stated as being that; since no explanation is given, I am left to assume that it is a list of teams ordered by WS success. It seems obvious to me that the proper way to do this would be to rank teams first in order of WS titles, and then, to break ties, go back and put the team with MORE WS losses on top. The Braves going 1-2 in the World Series is clearly an indicator of a more accomplished team over that period then the 1-0 Diamondbacks.

Oh well, rant over. A final complaint is that in the Indians/Cardinals game last night, Mike Hegan referred to Albert Pujols numerous times as Luis Pujols. I can understand getting a solid player, say Ronnie Belliard, mixed up with a marginal player, like Rafael Belliard. And I can certainly understand saying Cal Ripken when you meant Billy Ripken. It’s natural to associate the name Ripken with Cal without too much thought. But if somebody calls Alex Rodriguez “Aurelio”, or calls Albert Pujols “Luis”, that’s befuddling.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A Review of "The Mind of Bill James"

The Mind of Bill James by Scott Gray, subtitled "How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball", is a book that cannot decide exactly what it wants to be. Is it a biography of Bill James? Or a summary of his work? Or an attempt to describe what a day in the life of Bill James is like? Or a chronicle of how his work has affected the baseball world? It tries(or at least ends up as) to be all of those things, and therefore does not do a great job of any of them.

As a biography, it probably does about as good of a job as you would want, because while I don’t mean any offense to Mr. James, his life probably would not make for a stirring biography anymore of that of an anonymous scientist at some university--it is their work that is the most interesting thing about them, not biographical minutiae. Personally, I would say the same thing about Thomas Jefferson or other such figures, but somebody apparently likes them. Even so, I don’t think that Bill James would be on the top of the wish lists of biography fans.

As a summary of his work, it is woefully incomplete, as it would probably take a book of this size solely devoted to just that goal in order to be adequate. Gray does include an appendix which summarizes some of his work, but focuses on concepts(e.g. Defensive Spectrum, Law of Competitive Balance, Johsnon Effect) rather then specific applications/formulas(e.g. Runs Created, Win Shares, Component ERA). Of course, to someone who has read most of James’ work, like myself, this is not something that is necessary, and to me the appendix dragged on more then much of the book.

As far as describing how James’ insights have been adopted in baseball, the book discusses his role with the Red Sox, and refers to Moneyball a few times, but again, is not at all close to comprehensive on this front.

One aspect of the book you may or may not find interesting is that Gray reprints some emails and conversations between him and James about non-baseball topics, such as politics and criminality. On one hand, it is interesting to see how James approaches these other topics. On the other hand, I can think Bill James is the greatest baseball mind ever born but think his position on NAFTA is silly. Now the fact that I disagree with his position on NAFTA makes me think no less of his baseball work. But I’m sure there is somebody out there who will be affected in that way, which is why I don’t talk about politics and other such things here (in addition to the fact that I am mildly surprised that anybody cares what I have to say about baseball, and would be truly stunned if anybody cared what I thought about anything else).

I don’t mean to criticize the book too strongly, because I did find it an enjoyable read, with no glaring factual errors or misrepresentations. I have two standards of recommendation for a book--one is that it is great and you will want to read it again and again and you will refer back to it frequently. The second is that you should probably read it as you might find it enjoyable and somewhat informative, but it is not a part of an essential sabermetric library. Under the first standard, this book falls short, but under the second, The Mind of Bill James is a read I would recommend.