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The Bill James Handbook 2019

The Bill James Handbook 2019

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The Bill James Handbook 2019

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3 ore
Nov 2, 2018


Bill James and Baseball Info Solutions team of analysts continue to pack in new content, including a fresh look at the continues rise and effectiveness of The Shift and a new breakdown of home runs and long flyouts. And, as always, the book forecasts fresh hitter and pitcher projections for those looking to get an early jump on the next season.
Nov 2, 2018

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Bill James made his mark in the 1970s and 1980s with his Baseball Abstracts. He has been tearing down preconceived notions about America’s national pastime ever since. He is currently the Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox, as well as the author of The Man from the Train. James lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, Susan McCarthy, and three children.

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The Bill James Handbook 2019 - Bill James


The Natural Trendlines

Bill James

OK, that stupid Launch Angle thing didn’t work; what do we do now?

Two years ago, a great many hitters in baseball were convinced that they could get better by hitting the ball in the air more often. There were four elements of this, essentially:

1) Creating a swing path, an uppercut, which tends to cause the bat to collide with the lower half of the pitched ball more often than the upper half, thus launching the ball into the air,

2) Swinging more often at pitches up in the strike zone than down,

3) Changing the strike point or target in the hitter’s mind from the center of the baseball to below the center, and

4) Crowding the plate so that you can pull more balls.

It is certainly true that balls hit in the air are preferable, from the hitter’s standpoint, to balls hit on the ground. Balls hit in the air often become extra base hits, including home runs, and very rarely become double plays. Balls hit on the ground become double plays.

There is not a big difference in the batting average on ground balls vs. fly balls. The big difference in batting average is in line drives. If a ball is hit on the ground, it decelerates rapidly due to its contact with the ground. If a ball is hit in the air it does not decelerate as rapidly. Makes a big difference.

The idea, a couple of years ago, was to get hitters to do more of the good stuff—hitting fly balls—and less of the bad stuff. Of course I am jumping the gun in declaring this attempt to have been a failure, but it is my opinion that this was just a fad, really. It didn’t work, and it didn’t really have a chance to work.


Well, first of all, the notion that there are ground ball hitters, fly ball hitters and line drive hitters is not exactly true. It is sort-of true. All hitters hit ground balls, fly balls and line drives, and all pitchers give up ground balls, fly balls and line drives. There is just a little difference in the mix for each pitcher and each hitter. Statisticians sometimes exaggerate these differences in the way that they state them, but you can’t really become a fly ball hitter, because there isn’t really any such thing; you can just become more of a fly ball hitter than you were before. You can change the mix a little bit.

You can change the mix—but there are costs to doing so. Hitting a baseball squarely is really, really hard, as it turns out; I don’t know whether you knew this. The reason that everybody sometimes hits groundballs, fly balls and line drives is that, even if you aim at the dead center of the ball, everybody is going to hit the top half of the baseball sometimes, the bottom half sometimes, and the middle sometimes. Also, everybody is going to swing and miss quite a bit, and hit foul balls quite a bit; in fact, almost every hitter is going to have more swings-and-misses and foul balls, combined, than balls hit in fair territory. The only regulars who did not have more swings-and-misses and foul balls than balls put in play in 2018 were Andrelton Simmons, Michael Brantley and Joe Mauer. None of whom, you will notice, uses an uppercut swing or cares anything about the launch angle.

If you are trying to hit the center of the baseball, that’s really hard, so you will miss quite often. If you move your target so that you are trying to hit OFF-center, even a little bit, you will miss more often. Also, if you focus on getting pitches up in the strike zone, you will find yourself chasing high fastballs. High fastballs are notoriously difficult to connect with. The problem with trying to launch the baseball, in short, is that it tends to lead to strikeouts.

There were 5,585 home runs in regular season play in 2018, which was the lowest number in three years, although still higher than the years before 2016. If we compare 2018 to the ten-year averages 2009 to 2018, we see that in 2018 there were 11% more home runs—but also 11% more strikeouts, leading to a 7-point drop in batting average. The OPS in 2018 was .728, the same as the 10-year average, although runs scored were up 2%, primarily because ground ball double plays were down by 6%. The number of ground ball double plays in the majors in 2018 was the lowest it has been since the expansion to 30 major league teams in 1998. Per game played, it was the lowest it has been since 1968. Double plays are down, and the difference is not trivial. In 2007 there were 82 double plays per 100 major league games. In 2018 there were 71. It’s a real difference.

There are three strong trends which are now in motion in baseball: Launching, Shifting, and Bullpenning. The Launch Angle thing, I think, has pretty much played itself out; it changed the game a little but it didn’t actually do any good, so the effects of that should wash out after a few years. I don’t mean that NOBODY benefitted from getting a better launch angle; some hitters did. What I am saying is that on balance there is no real effect; as many hitters were hurt by trying to do that as were helped. It was a fad, more than a trend, granting that the definitions of fad and trend overlap.

Shifting, on the other hand, continues to progress. A year ago it appeared that the use of defensive shifts in the major leagues may have maxed out, but the trendline moved again in 2018. In 2014, four years ago … well, five years ago, because this is the 2019 Handbook … in 2014 there were 13,299 balls put into play in the major leagues against a defensive shift. In 2017 there were 26,705. In 2018 there were 34,673, which is up another 30%. The trend—which began ten years ago or more—is still moving. Still, about 70% of league balls in play in 2018 were NOT against a shift of any kind, so there is still a long way for that count to go up, since it appears to still be going up.

Bullpenning is about where shifting was in 2005 or 2006, maybe. It’s in its infancy. There were 107 games in 2018 that we counted as bullpenned games, but 59 of those were by the Tampa Bay Rays, meaning that the other teams tried it an average of less than 2 times each. Eleven teams never used the strategy at all.

What is bullpenning, exactly? It’s not that easy to define, but then, ten years ago we had trouble saying exactly when a team was using a shift. Eventually our thinking about it clarified; we defined different kinds of shifts and tracked each one. Bullpenning is either:

a) The use of a pitcher to start the game pitching usually less than two innings, then turning the game over to a longer-usage pitcher, or

b) The usage of a series of short-term pitchers to work the way through the game, with no one pitcher doing the main part of the work.

The term is used to apply to both of those things, although they are not quite the same. It is presumed by many people, and I do not argue, that this is a trend in motion, that there will be more than 107 instances of this in 2019, and more in 2020 than in 2019.

But in all honesty, we don’t know yet whether this is a fad or a trend; I don’t know, at least. People in my field are very prone to jump from There is an advantage to doing this to We should do more of this. The problem is that there may be an advantage to doing something—but also a disadvantage. It may be, sometimes, that you don’t see the disadvantage clearly until it gobsmacks you in the mackerel.

I see a lot of things here which COULD be problems. It could be that if you switch pitchers too often, they have difficulty getting into a rhythm, and they walk too many people. It could be that if you switch pitchers too often, you find one who doesn’t have anything working that day. It could be that you find you have an unexpected number of games in which you get into extra innings and you’ve gone through your stash. It could be that when you bullpen too many, you lose focus. It could turn out to be too difficult to prepare all the pitchers for all of the situations they might face.

A key issue here—and this drives trendlines in all sports—is compression of the talent pool. When Walter Johnson was pitching, 100 years ago, he would pitch 350 innings a year with a 1.50 ERA, and it would have seemed crazy to replace him with a committee of volunteers. He was far, far better than the other pitchers on his team, so the optimal strategy was to get as many innings as you could out of Walter and as few as you could out of the other guys. It didn’t make sense to split the innings, because one guy was vastly better than the other guys.

This was true in all sports. When I first followed college basketball, teams would start five players and play them until they fouled out, more or less. You didn’t have eight-man, nine-man and ten-man rotations because teams didn’t have nine good players.

Back in the 1930s, football teams had players who played on offense and defense, the same players. They stopped doing that in the 1940s and 1950s, but when I first remember pro football, teams had one main running back and two or three primary receivers. Now they use at least three main ball carriers, and as many receivers as they can find.

As the difference between the best players and the lesser players becomes less, teams split playing time more evenly. This is a natural process. It is a very, very, very long-term trend. It has been going on since 40 years before Walter Johnson. Forty years before Walter Johnson, teams just had one starting pitcher.

In a sense, we HAVE to move toward bullpenning, because bullpenning is the next logical step in splitting the work more evenly. But not everything that looks like it ought to work is actually going to work. We’ll see.

The Rays made it work, but there is also this. The Rays have had, for more than ten years, an extraordinary ability to revive the careers of fading relievers and failed starters converting to relief. Through 2008 Joaquin Benoit had been kicking around ineffectively for years, posting ERAs over 5.00 in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2008, and missing the entire 2009 season with an injury. In 2010 he joined the Rays—and pitched 63 games with a 1.34 ERA, 75/11 strikeout/walk ratio.

Benoit cashed in his free agency, but the Rays replaced him with Kyle Farnsworth, who had been kicking around the majors for more than a decade, no more effective than Benoit. He was 5-1 with a 2.18 ERA, 25 saves. He relapsed in 2012, but they replaced him with Fernando Rodney, 34 years old at that time and in a career crisis after five straight seasons with ERAs over 4.00. He pitched 76 games with an 0.60 ERA, his WHIP dropping from 1.688 to 0.777.

They could always find somebody. They can always find three or four pretty good relievers every year. My point is that a strategy that works for one team, doesn’t always work for the next team. The difference between a trend and a fad is that it’s a trend if EVERYBODY does it.

The root cause of trends in baseball is that baseball at its core is a sport. Of course it is both a sport and a business, and of course the business is an enormously important factor in everything that happens. But people who say that baseball is essentially a business, rather than essentially a sport, are missing something tremendously important. Of course the people who are in the game think of baseball as a business; it is, after all, their business. The same is true of green beans, potato chips, fertilizer, paper, ink, vitamins and postage stamps. To those people who are in the green bean purveying business, it is essentially a business, not essentially a food. They don’t grow all those damned green beans because they taste good and have vitamins. They grow them to make money. It’s a business. Everything is a business to the people who are in the business.

But are green beans essentially a business, or are green beans essentially a food? They are essentially a food, of course. Is writing paper essentially a business, or essentially an office and school supply? So too with baseball: it is only a business to those who are in the business. But it is essentially a sport.

In baseball, what the players choose to do defines the product. This is unlike almost any other product. Automobile designers design automobiles in such a way that the public will like them. The people who work building automobiles cannot decide that they are tired of building four-door automobiles, it would be more interesting from their standpoint if they could build five-door and three-door automobiles, with some big doors and some cute little doors. It doesn’t work that way; they have to do what the public wants.

But in baseball, changes in the product occur constantly that nobody ever thought were interesting or exciting, or did anything at all to increase the entertainment value of the product. They just happen. Some manager decides to use a relief pitcher to pitch the first inning of a game, four or five times a week. It doesn’t matter at all whether the public likes this or hates it. The manager doesn’t care. It’s not his job. So he tries it, it kind of works, other people imitate it, and it changes the product that is sold to the public—with no concern whatsoever for whether the public likes it or not.

This process has been going on for a hundred and fifty years, more or less. The game of baseball as played on the field changes tremendously every ten years or less, with no concern whatsoever for whether the public approves of these changes or does not. This happens because it is essentially a sport, and not essentially a business. If it was essentially a business, the businessmen would tell the managers and the players how they had to play the game. They don’t; we don’t. We roll with the punches. We make the best of whatever product we are presented with by the players and managers.

Baseball has trends that persist for decades, and which change the game substantially, over time, by a process of erosion. The process of using more and more relievers, relying less and less on the starting pitchers, has been going on literally for 140 years. In 1878 96% of games were complete games. By 1898 this number was down to 87%; by 1918, to 63%. By 1938 it was down to 45%; by 1958, to 30%. By 1978 it was down to 25%; by 1998, it was 6%. In 2018 it was 1%.

When this trend reaches 0%, it’s not like that is the end of the process of innings shifting away from starting pitchers and into the bullpen. It’s merely the end of our ability to measure the shift with that particular statistic.

What happened last year is that the dispersion of innings among different pitchers, resulting from the compression of talent, reached the level at which it spilled into the starter’s role. This was, in a sense, a trivial thing, and an inevitable thing. It was trivial in the sense that all that was really happening is that relief pitchers were being used at the start of the game, rather than at the end of the game. It was inevitable in the sense that, if you keep putting water into a bathtub, it will inevitably overflow at some point. Bullpenning is merely an inevitable overflow of relievers into the role of starters; that’s all it is.

But trends DO end, you know; even trends which have been going on for 140 years, they reach an end somewhere.

Another trend which has been going on for 100 years, more than 100 years, is the endless increase in strikeouts. In 1898 there were 2.31 strikeouts per game in the major leagues. In 1918—a hundred years ago—there were 2.89. By 1938 there were 3.41. By 1958 it was 4.95. In 1978 it was 4.77, but that was just a downward tic; in 1977 it had been 5.16. By 1998 it was 6.56. Last year it was 8.48.

Why do strikeouts go up and up and up? People confuse long-term and short-term effects. People say that strikeouts are up because we have all of these hard-throwing relievers now. Well, yes, but that’s a short-term cause. It’s like weather versus climate. If it is 70 degrees today and 90 degrees tomorrow, that’s weather. A front has moved in. If it is 10 degrees in January and 90 degrees in July, that’s an entirely different thing. That’s not weather; that’s climate.

The endless increase in strikeouts is not weather; it’s climate. I explain it this way; you can decide whether to accept my explanation or look for another one. Pitchers who strike people out are better than pitchers who don’t strike people out, and always have been. The top pitchers, from Walter Johnson to Dazzy Vance to Lefty Grove to Bob Feller to Sandy Koufax to Nolan Ryan to Roger Clemens to Randy Johnson to Pedro Martinez to Roy Halladay to Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, have almost always been strikeout pitchers.

But the converse has never been true. One might think that if high-strikeout pitchers are good, high-strikeout batters would be bad, but this has never been true. Babe Ruth led the league in strikeouts, and Jimmie Foxx did, and Mickey Mantle did, and Reggie Jackson, and Mike Schmidt, and Dale Murphy, and Sammy Sosa, and Jim Thome, and Aaron Judge. The reason this is true is that, for hitters, strikeouts and home runs are fellow-travelers. There is an old saying that in War, the truth is so precious that it must always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies. There is a parallel in baseball. In baseball, home runs are so precious that they must always be accompanied by a bodyguard of strikeouts.

Anyway, because good pitchers tend to get strikeouts and pitchers who get strikeouts are usually good pitchers, teams are always looking to add strikeout pitchers. But because batters who strike out are also usually good hitters, teams do not try to avoid strikeouts. Teams are not looking to avoid hitters like Mickey Mantle and Mike Schmidt and Dale Murphy and Aaron Judge; they are looking to find them.

Since teams are constantly looking for strikeout pitchers, but not trying to avoid strikeout hitters, there is upward pressure on the strikeout category coming from pitcher selection, but no downward pressure coming from batter selection. It creates asymmetrical pressure on the strikeout category, upward pressure with no downward pressure, and this causes strikeouts, over time, to go up, and up, and up. Always up.


At some point, this has to end, right? At some point, strikeouts have to become SO high that batter effectiveness and strikeouts have to part company, or at least this is what I believe.

In 1978 the ten teams which struck out the most often (as hitters) had a collective won-lost record of 849-769, 80 games over .500. The ten teams which struck out LEAST often had a collective record of 762-852, 90 games under .500. The high-strikeout teams were better teams—indicating that strikeouts were not a negative for their teams, but merely the fellow travelers of home runs.

By 2008 the gap perhaps was narrowing; the advantage of the strikeout teams was diminishing. In 2008 the ten teams which struck out the most were collectively 27 games over .500 (822-795), but the ten teams that struck out the least were 7 games over (814-807). The gap may (or may not) have become less than it was.

But in 2018 there was a different picture. In 2018 the ten teams that struck out the most often had a collective record of 765-857, or 92 games under .500. The ten teams which struck out LEAST often had a collective record of 861-758, or 103 games over .500. The pattern is actually stronger if you stick to five teams. The five teams which struck out most—the White Sox, San Diego, Philadelphia, Texas and San Francisco—all had losing records, while the five teams which struck out least—Cleveland, Houston, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Boston—all had winning records, and three of the five won their divisions.

What I am saying is that in modern baseball, it may no longer be true that strikeouts are not a meaningful drain on a team’s offensive energy. It may be that we have reached the point, or at least are near the point, when teams WILL begin to avoid hitters who strike out.

I am not one of those bearded guys in a New Yorker cartoon holding a sign saying The end of the Trend is Near!!…. well, maybe I am, I don’t know. I am saying that the end of the trend MAY BE near. It seems to me that it has to end sometime.

I need to address the question, posed by so many, of whether the way baseball is played now is decreasing attendance. We have had a few years of not very good attendance, and those in my field get blamed for it sometimes. Supposedly we are telling the teams to play this way, with strikeout hitters and strikeout pitchers and constantly changing relievers, and supposedly the public doesn’t like this type of game, so we’re driving down attendance. That’s what they tell me.

You want to know what I think, we don’t have a damned thing to do with it. I mean, it’s a fair question. We have a responsibility NOT to do things that damage the game.

But let me point out two things. First, these trends that are re-shaping baseball, the high strikeouts and the constantly increasing use of relievers … these things don’t have anything at all to do with us. These are both trends which were in motion for many, many years before sabermetrics was invented. They have continued through the last 40 years, but the same trends were there for decades before.

Second, baseball players and managers have re-shaped the game, generation after generation, without paying any attention to whether the public liked these changes or not. That’s the nature of it; that’s what makes it SPORT, rather than BUSINESS. If it was a business and not a sport, then you could design the game the way you wanted it to be and make the players and managers play it that way. But if you did that, it wouldn’t be a sport, it would just be a business, and, I think, it would die quickly after that.

The changes occurring in baseball are a result of the same forces that have always been there, the forces that have been in motion since the 19th century. It’s just the way it is, the way it has always been. Managers use more and more relievers every year, because there is an advantage to the reliever, what I call the sprinter’s advantage. Every pitcher is probably more effective pitching in one-inning stints than pitching in nine-inning stints, for exactly the same reason that every track athlete can run faster in a 100-yard dash than he can in a marathon. That’s just the nature of the game; managers exploit this sprinter’s advantage a little bit more every year, and have done so for 140 years. It doesn’t have anything to do with me or people in my field.

If you actually study attendance patterns in baseball history, there is a very obvious pattern to it. The pattern is: Baseball attendance goes up dramatically when there is something NEW and EXCITING in the game. The rest of the time it goes down slowly. It slowly deflates when nothing new and exciting is happening.

Major league baseball attendance was flat and actually declining slowly from 1908 until 1919. In 1920 Babe Ruth exploded on the baseball scene as a power hitter, shattering all previous power-hitting records, and gave baseball a tremendous shot in the arm. New and exciting; attendance shot up.

After a few years of growth, baseball attendance was flat from the early 1920s until the end of World War II, 1945, when attendance exploded due to (1) night baseball, and (2) integration. New and exciting; major league attendance went from an all-time record 10.8 million to 20.9 million in three years. There was more growth in three years than in the previous 60.

Then attendance was flat for years—except when teams moved. Boston Braves attendance was relatively flat for 40 years; they moved to Milwaukee and their attendance increased from 281,000 to 1,826,000 in one year. St. Louis Browns attendance was flat for 50 years; they moved to Baltimore and their attendance went from 297,000 to a million plus in one year. The New York Giants were drawing 650,000 fans a year; they moved to San Francisco and doubled it immediately.

This was a dangerous thing for baseball, because teams were moving away from their fans in order to create excitement. After a fast start in a new city, attendance started to fade away again, in almost every case. I’m not suggesting it was a good thing that teams moved. It was a good thing that they stopped moving, in the early 1970s.

New ballparks give teams an enormous attendance boost; this is obvious when he you look at the records. The DH rule was unpopular—but baseball attendance boomed in 1973, the first year of the rule, with most of the gains in the American League. (1973 attendance was higher than any previous season.) Baseball attendance boomed in the late 1990s, when all those new parks were built and McGwire and Sosa were breaking home run records. Since then it has been essentially flat, now declining a little bit.

Baseball attendance is declining because there are not enough things in the game which are perceived as new and exciting. I believe that this is a 100% explanation; I do not believe that there is any other element to it.

But that still leaves the question: is this an interesting style of baseball, that we have now, or is this maybe not the best product that we could be offering?

Just my opinion; I think we’re selling kind of an ugly product right now. I think the constant pitching changes obstruct the average fan’s enjoyment of the game, and I do believe that they should be regulated and limited. I also believe that it would be better if thoughtful actions were taken to reduce strikeouts, and put a permanent end to the upward march of strikeouts. Just my opinion.

We have always allowed the players and managers to define the shape of the product on the field, the game itself; we have always done that, and I believe that we need to continue to do that. That is what makes it a sport, rather than a manufactured product. I believe that, but I don’t believe it absolutely and without limit.

People say that we should not change the game, and I believe that, too, but I don’t believe it absolutely and without limit. In 1918 63% of games were complete games; in

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