Bill James popularized sabermetrics. Hell, he coined the term. Several of his measures, like runs created, are still in popular use today, and his work has formed the basis for many sabermetric advances. But James created other measures that combine whimsy with measurement.
One is the power/speed number. It attempts to identify players who excel at both. It’s a simple formula: 2 x (HR x SB) / (SB +HR). That’s not #gorymath; it’s not even #goryalgebra, even if you add that it represents the harmonic mean of home runs and stolen bases.
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In his 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract, the third mass-market Abstract, Bill James introduced what he called “The World Series Prediction System.” Actually, he re-introduced it—the section in the Abstract was entitled “The World Series Prediction System, Revisited.” He’d developed it in 1972 and updated it in a 1982 Inside Sports magazine article that ran shortly before Inside Sports folded.
James’ system, he reported, picked 70 percent of World Series winners. His system was a Franken-stat that combined hitting, pitching, and fielding features, assigning points to various metrics, and selected the team with the most points as the likely winner.
Clayton Kershaw's no-hitter had the second-highest Game Score ever. Is that as significant as it sounds?
In the wake of 26-year-old Clayton Kershaw’s dazzling no-hitter last Wednesday, a 26-year-old statistic got its own moment in the sun. When Bill James introduced Game Score in the 1988 Baseball Abstract, he called it “a kind of garbage stat that I present not because it helps us understand anything in particular but because it is fun to play around with.” Unlike Micro Machines and Dolly Surprise, Game Score remains one of our favorite toys in 2014, so it’s safe to say that James undersold it. Despite (or maybe because of) its lack of sophistication, it’s still one of the most intuitive methods we have to convey how effective a given outing is. Thus, it wasn’t long after Kershaw sealed the deal with his 15th strikeout that the internet noticed that his Game Score of 102 was the second-highest ever for an outing of no more than nine innings, behind only Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout start in 1998, which got a Game Score of 105. (Remove the innings restriction, and Vern Law’s 18-inning effort in 1955 takes the cake.)
Is there meaning in checked swings, and can teams take advantage of it?
When I got home from the SABR Analytics Conference in mid-March, I spent a week or so writingandtalking about some of the most interesting things I’d heard there. But there was one particularly intriguing topic that I wasn’t yet ready to write about.
That topic was brought up by Bill James, who's given us more than his fair share of interesting insights. Here’s all the backstory you need to know: James was on an “Analytics Super Panel” with Brian Kenny and Joe Posnanski, and he was asked by an audience member whether there’s any utility for teams in gathering information on home plate umpires. If I’ve embedded it right, this video should play only a short clip from the relevant portion of the panel (59:40-1:00:29). If I’ve embedded it wrong, you can either skip to that section yourself or read the transcript below.
Sabermetric pioneer Pete Palmer tackles the hit and run and other statistical topics.
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Pete Palmer is the co-author of The Hidden Game of Baseball with John Thorn and co-editor of the Barnes and Noble ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia with Gary Gillette. Pete introduced on-base average as an official statistic for the American League in 1979 and invented on-base plus slugging, now universally used as a good measure of batting strength. A member of SABR since 1973, his baseball data is used by the SABR Encyclopedia, MLB.com, Retrosheet, ESPN, and Baseball-Reference.com. He was selected by SABR to be in the inaugural group of nine given the Henry Chadwick award in 2010. Pete is also the editor of Who’s Who in Baseball, soon to be celebrating its 100th anniversary. His latest book, Basic Ball: New Approaches for Determining the Greatest Baseball, Football, and Basketball Players of All-Time, was released late last year.
A conscientious sabermetrician questions everything, even the work of Bill James.
The really great thing about learning from one’s predecessors is that you can learn just as much from when they are wrong as when they are right, if you take care and are vigilant—which is to say, that you recognize that an error was made to begin with.
At its core, sabermetrics got its start because people were able to read things and then ask questions about what they read, rather than taking everything at face value. Does this make sense? Is this really true? And I think that any sabermetrics worthy of that name is as willing to question itself in this fashion as it is everyone else.
Pitchers continue to get injured while batting, so should baseball continue to require NL pitchers to hit?
I'm not known around the Internet as the world'sbiggestA.J. Burnettfan. During last Wednesday's BP roundtable, I even dusted off an old Simpson's riff: "I'm a well-wisher in that I wish him no specific harm." Now, to set the record straight, any voodoo dolls I may have referenced over the past decade or so for any player exist only in my breathlessly hyperbolic narratives, and I would never actually wish injury on a ballplayer, particularly not such an injury as befell Burnett later that day. The recent trade that sent the enigmatic righty from the Yankees to the Pirates mandates that he practice his hitting and bunting, and unfortunately, a less-than-stellar bit of work on the latter sent a ball into his own face, fracturing his right orbital and necessitating surgery. Fortunately, it does not sound as though he suffered a detached retina, which could have threatened his career.
Does a new set of stats reflect much of a change in who could stand to upgrade in left field?
Last week, I explored the majors’ surprising downturn in offense from left fielders, a result counterintuitive to our understanding of Bill James’ defensive spectrum, which runs DH-1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C. The positions to the left of the spectrum, which require far less defensive skill, are the ones where offensive production is supposed to be the highest, yet left field has been engaged in a decades-long battle for offensive supremacy with right field—which requires a stronger arm for throwing to third base—and this past year slipped behind center field for the first time since 1966. I placed the major reason for the downturn at the feet of teams attempting to copy the 2005 White Sox, who used Scott Podsednik—a center fielder to that point in his career—in left field, and attempted to show how the defensive gain supplied by the speedsters did not outweigh the loss of offense. I even got to talk about the phenomenon on television.
The corner outfield spots are known for production, but one field has been far more dominant in recent years.
My working theory was that it began with Scott Podsednik. In December 2004, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams sent slugging left fielder Carlos Lee to the Brewers for a three-player package that included Podsednik, who was coming off a so-so season as Milwaukee's center fielder. He had stolen 70 bases and bopped 12 homers—a nice return in the fantasy realm—but had hit just .244/.313/.364. His .237 True Average was hardly anything to write home about, and here at BP, both Christina Kahrl and Joe Sheehantossed aroundphrases like "as a hitter plugged into left field, the nicest thing you can say is that he makes a great part-time center fielder." At the time, the Sox were set with an All-Star caliber center fielder in Aaron Rowand, 27 and coming off a breakout .310/.361/.544 campaign, which didn't exactly clarify matters.