A couple of weeks ago, I was in Phoenix for Ron Shandler’s First Pitch Arizona. The trip is a lot of fun for me, not least because having gone for three years, I’ve gotten to know some of the attendees and speakers pretty well, so it’s a bit like seeing old friends.

One old friend that was there to greet me this year was the The Bill James Handbook, in its second year of suppplanting the defunct STATS Major League Handbook as the baseball reference you can’t do without. Steve Moyer of Baseball Info Solutions was in Phoenix with some fresh-off-the-printer copies, and getting mine was one of the highlights of the weekend.

See, opening the Handbook is like opening The Baseball Enyclopedia: an invitation to lose three hours plowing through minutiae. The other day, I needed to check on Larry Bigbie‘s 2004 stats (don’t ask), and ended up musing over how Rafael Betancourt could be so frustrating with a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and admiring Craig Biggio‘s career, which conveniently ended after his last big season, at least as far as page 41 was concerned. Turning to Nate Robertson‘s page (once again, you don’t want to know), I spotted one of those performance records that tells a hell of a story: Jake Robbins pitched in two games for the Indians this year in his 11th professional season. While I can’t tell you much about Robbins, seeing the path he took to the majors through the Yankees’ and Indians’ farm systems makes me wish I’d seen one of those two outings.

The data revolution of the 21st century has made it easy to get platoon splits–the Holy Grail for Strat-O-Matic players–online in almost-real-time throughout the season. Nevertheless, having all of them in one place makes for fun reading. You can never get tired of Barry Bonds facts: he hit .397/.656/.956 against righties last year, which is roughly my career line. In Wiffle Ball. Edgar Renteria, about to become an extraordinarily wealthy man, hit .264/.297/.358 against right-handers last year. Lefties hit .094/.165/.160 off of B.J. Ryan, but .333/.361/.548 against the other lefty specialist in the Orioles’ bullpen, Buddy Groom. Yes, I could do this all day, why do you ask?

One of the neat extras in the book is leaderboards that use the pitch-by-pitch data collected by BIS. Who saw the most pitches in the AL last year? I never would have guessed Brian Roberts (2,916), nor the #3 guy, Casey Blake. Best OPS against change-ups in the AL? Roberts’ teammate and wild-goose-chase starter Larry Bigbie (1198). Bonds had 120 intentional walks; the next eight guys with the highest totals in the NL combined for 117. John Smoltz led the majors with six tough saves. Jose Contreras was third in the AL both in steals allowed (29) and caught stealings when he was on the mound (11). Four out overy five pitches Jaret Wright threw were fastballs, the highest percentage in the majors. Kyle Farnsworth threw 30 pitches at 100 mph or more. The human head weighs eight pounds. Dogs and bees can smell fear.

Unlike the old Handbooks, this tome includes some actual copy, in this case, essays by Bill James on team efficiency and projections, and a research piece that attempts to quantify players’ injury risk. They don’t make or break the book, but they are value-adds that differentiate the book from its predecessor, while whetting the appetite for something like a new Major League Scoreboard. There’s also fun stuff like the Favorite Toy (likelihoods of players reaching certain milestones) and, for the first time, projected career statistics for hundreds of players.

I realize this column reads as an ad for the Handbook, but understand that it’s November 22, and things like platoon splits and Albert Pujols being the only active player with a projectable shot at the all-time hits record and Jayson Werth having the lowest double-play rate in the majors fill the silence. I miss baseball, the day-to-day of it, the batter vs. pitcher battles and the way the game surprises you just a little bit every night.

That’s what the Handbook does: provides a baseball fix.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to figuring out why Jose Reyes (career: 18 walks, 494 at-bats) shouldn’t start 2005 in Triple-A.

  • There are some things I don’t get, and the fascination with Kris Benson is one of them. He’s 30, with a career ERA of 4.28 in 850 innings. The only truly good year in his career came four years and an elbow surgery ago, and while he’s finally a decent pitcher again, it’s not like his ’04 performance screamed “star.” His strikeout rate of 6.02 remains below league average, and his command, 2.20 K/BB, isn’t exceptional.

    Other than being a former #1 pick, it’s not clear to me how Benson is four million bucks a year better than the class of guys who are out there with two-year deals in the $3 million range, guys like Jeff Suppan, John Thomson, Jason Johnson and Cory Lidle. There’s just nothing in his performance record to suggest that he’s more than a mid-rotation guy.

    Mets fans will likely point to his 51/17 K/BB in two months under Rick Peterson, but it was 11 starts, and the improved control came packaged with a doubled home-run rate. Benson would have to improve to a level he hasn’t reached yet to justify this contract. This looks like it will be yet another disappointing free-agent signing by a team that never seems to make the right choices in the market.

  • A signing I like a lot more is the Cubs locking up Glendon Rusch for two years. Rusch started the year in the minor leagues after a tough 2003 season in Milwaukee pushed the Brewers to let him leave. Rusch actually wasn’t much worse that year than he’d been the previous one, but he allowed an insane .387 batting average on balls in play that just destroyed his ’03. No pitcher is going to do that consistently; that figure dropped to .295 in 2004, while at the same time Rusch improved his command.

    Rusch has become devastating to baserunners, the new Terry Mulholland. He’s allowed three stolen bases in 18 attempts over the last three seasons. I think he can be a mid-level left-hander for the next couple of seasons, on par with Al Leiter and maybe approaching the better years of David Wells and Jamie Moyer.

    Benson and Rusch are likely to be worth about the same on the field for the next couple of years. One will make no more than $6.4 million, the other, $15 million. Advantage, Cubs.

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