Saturday, November 17, 2012
You've got mail -- the Bill James Handbook
By Christina Kahrl
Just like the regular season, the offseason has its rhythms. Free agents file, somebody signs early, guys get non-tendered, and the Hot Stove goes from its faint, rattling simmer to explosively boiling over without all that much warning. But as we watch, wait and learn what’s going to go down this winter, there’s one staple that more than a few of us enjoy every November: The new Bill James Handbook is out, on bookstore shelves or -- better yet -- sitting right here on my desk thanks to my friendly neighborhood postal worker.
As ever, it’s packed with information, starting with comprehensive breakdowns on Baseball Info Solutions’ Plus/Minus defensive metric. One thing that’s kind of cool are the breakdowns on every replay and the outcomes of each review, which is worth checking out on the granular level at the same time that it’s worth knowing we didn’t just see more replay last season, we saw records set for overturned calls and a rate of overturned calls.
I’m always partial to specific segments, pages I know I’ll refer to again and again in the months to come: Managers data, ballpark indices, or the breakdowns on all of the significant pitchers’ repertoires. Career targets remain handy if you want a quick reflection on Ichiro Suzuki’s shot at 3,000 hits (44 percent) or Miguel Cabrera’s shot at setting the career records for home runs, runs scored and hits. One recent addition I love is the decision to show collective team bullpen performance, including breakdowns of save opportunities by type. Admittedly, there are also sections I skip -- hello and goodbye, Win Shares and productive outs, but maybe those are your cup of tea.
But one thing that’s fun to find is the animating spirit that shows through time and again -- as when James breaks from noting Blake Beavan’s problems getting strikeouts to ask if you’ve noticed how imposing Beavan is on the mound. Sure, there’s a bunch of data, but the people who love this book happen to be people who watch a ton of baseball to boot, whatever Mitch Albom might say to the contrary.
And of course there are 2013 projections for hitters and pitchers, because yes, it isn’t too soon to talk about next season -- you know baseball’s year-’round by now, right?
As offseason items go, the Handbook might be easy to take for granted these days, because this marks the 24th edition. To put that into context, there were only a dozen Baseball Abstracts, counting the self-published ones. The Handbook’s annual release is much more of a seasonal ritual than finally finding the Abstract on store shelves in May -- May! -- ever was, let alone the childhood tedium of waiting out the release of the winter issue of Baseball Digest with all the bare-bones “back of the baseball card” data in it.
Given that the contents and similar evaluative stats and projections are freely available online, why get the book? Admittedly, I have more than a bit of nostalgia for the old medium, because the book deserves the compliment as the “the perfect technology”; it’s invariably easier and faster to flip around the contents without the vagaries of surfing speed to worry about.
But a copy of the Handbook is also worth having around because there will be times when it really is just better to turn off the monitor, walk away from the desk, and take some time to enjoy yourself mulling something like Jordany Valdespin’s pinch-hitting exploits while waiting for the next time you’ll get to hear the crack of a bat. Baseball may be year-’round, but baseball games, sadly, are not.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.