By now the diehard baseball fan welcomes the annual appearance of Bill James' "Baseball Abstract" with the same delight that Columbus' mariners reserved for landfall. The 1985 edition is now available; it will provoke arguments, raise a few hackles, answer a boat-load of questions and, in the final analysis, make America's game that much more fun this season.
James is the fellow who introduced a new word--sabermetrics--and a whole passel of new statistics at the start of this decade. He plainly doesn't trust sports writers and baseball people who hide behind the game's oldest cliches. He is brash and opinionated. He also is a man to whom someone in baseball's front offices ought to pay attention.
That's not to say that everything in "Abstract" demands unqualified acceptance but to report that once again James has come up with something highly provocative. He can't hide his excitement at the statistical work that translates a player's minor-league numbers into major-league equivalencies. While admitting that it is still an imperfect tool, James suggests that his work is ground-breaking and offers enough evidence of its value to make baseball folks take notice.
James reminds us that most major league folks put no stock in minorleague performance. He cites the age-old nostrums--that minor league batters don't face major league pitchers, don't face major league pressure--and then debunks them. His statistics suggest that what a player does in the minors can be used to forecast what he will do in the majors. James then asks why fringe major leaguers are preferred to proven minor league talent. When he cites Dick Williams' work as a manager who often goes with proven minor leaguers, he seems on firm ground.
The work with minor league statistics is one of two highlights in the new edition, the other being a lengthy, thoughtful article on the subject of beanballs. James was provoked to research the whole subject of hit batters by the on-field incidents that spiced the 1984 season.
As usual, too, there are the tidbits that are just plain interesting:
--The look at what a fast start really means in terms of winning a pennant; this in response to Detroit's 35-5 blast-off in 1984.
--A review of Jose Cruz's career, adjusted for the fact that he plays in the Houston Astrodome, notoriously poor for hitters.
--Some searching questions about Jim Rice, which will doubtless arouse the ire of some Boston Red Sox faithful.
The weakness of the new edition comes in the team sections where, too often, the introductory articles stray off the subject and leave us little more than the raw numbers to digest.
Of course, some baseball fans will find the whole thing esoteric. If you just want traditional opinions reinforced or can't be bothered with anything other than baseball's basic stats, "Abstract" is not for you. But if you are one of those people convinced that there is an awful lot more to the game than meets the eye, then James' book is exactly your meat and potatoes.
For me, "Baseball Abstract" is a way to make certain that you think before you speak. I keep it next to the bibles produced by the Sporting News and my copy of "The Scouting Report" and figure that somewhere in there lies the truth.
The truth in baseball, of course, is often thought to be residing in the numbers that define a player's career. It is those numbers that James addresses so effectively, reviewing each with a jaundiced eye. In so doing he makes us think of a player's value in different terms and suggests that rating a team's chances of winning or losing can only be done after considering the new ideas of the sabermetrician.