The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011 produced by Dave Studenmund (Acta Sports, 2010) 320 pages
The Hardball Times Baseball Annual is one of the titles on my ‘baseball books to buy’ list every year.
It typically offers an unrivalled combination of copious stats alongside a varied mix of insightful and thought-provoking articles. The 2011 edition, published at the end of 2010 and referring back to last year’s MLB season, is no exception to the trend.
The Annual has two main regular features. The first, and the opening salvo in the book, is a look back at the regular season just gone by analysing each division in turn.
Details of the playoffs and World Series are not included in the book, but this is by design and allows the Hardball Times team to get their offering out onto the shelves and in the online stores as soon as possible. The book contains a weblink and password that allows readers to access the October articles, alongside downloadable versions of the stats that make up the final 120 odd pages of the book.
The stats are the second regular feature. They are a welcome combination of all the traditional favourites alongside some less well-known varieties (Base Runs, Pitching Runs Created, Gross Production Added) and the Batted Ball stats that have become a recent trademark of the Hardball Times. There is also a good selection of different fielding stats, a topic that inspires a selection of articles in the first half of the book.
Fielding stats have long been a sticking point in the world of sabremetrics, principally because no method of evaluating defence has really taken hold as the standard bearer that all (or at least most of us) can rely on.
That may change in due course thanks to FIELDf/x. The more stat-minded among you will be familiar with PITCHf/x, the data that is captured as part of MLB.com’s Gameday service. This uses cameras to track the trajectory, speed and location of every pitch, producing data that has allowed a growing horde of industrious people to evaluate pitchers, hitters and umpires in unique ways.
FIELDf/x follows the same principles as PITCHf/x (and HITf/x) and tools such as cricket’s Hawk Eye: using cameras and physics to chart every aspect of a play that can allow you to evaluate the difficulty of the fielding chance (where the fielder was positioned as the ball was hit, where the ball went to, how quickly it got there, what route the fielder took etc). ESPN’s Rob Neyer has contributed an article to this section entitled “Everything is About to Change” and that, combined with a joint article by Kate McSurley and Greg Rybarczyk, makes clear just how big (and exciting) an advance this system could prove to be.
The rest of the articles, and there are plenty to choose from, range from the strongly stat-based to the irreverent.
The 2010 season is analysed from such different perspectives, most notably in Steve Trader’s considered questioning of the “year of the pitcher” tag that has been applied to it. Treder puts the 2010 pitching and run prevention into historical context, revealing that there has been a decline in run-scoring in recent years and positing that a continuation may lead to MLB acting to restore a natural balance, as has happened a number of times before when one side of the pitching-batting duel has started to dominate.
Many other features of the 2010 season fall under the Hardball Times microscope, from the business perspective to a round-up of wezenball’s Larry Granillo’s infectious journey of tracking home run trots.
The rest of the articles are timeless in nature and they help to make the Annual much more than just a record of one year. The diversity on offer is exemplified by Craig Wright’s two contributions. The first is a fascinating, in-depth article outlining his thoughts on “How to Handle a Pitcher”, specifically addressing the maddening but growing addiction to rigid pitch counts, and then offering a charming piece remembering the “voice of the Tigers”, radio announcer Ernie Harwell, who passed away in April 2010.
John Walsh’s “That was a strike?” article uses the aforementioned PITCHf/x data to study the general habits of MLB umpires, revealing that “umpires are really amazingly good”, and Anna McDonald’s wistful “A Perfect Summer Dream” is a perfect counterpoint to the danger of becoming a little too obsessed with stats and analysis, noting:
“Even though we turn on MLB Gameday while we email, Tweet and work on the laptop, even though professional baseball has its flaws and struggles with right and wrong, we will always need baseball, because what we really want is one more game of catch in the backyard”.
The 2011 Hardball Times Annual is geared towards the more stat-minded fan, but the variety offered by the articles means that any baseball fan will get a lot of enjoyment from it. And if you are a stat-minded fan, which many baseball fans are, then you couldn’t ask for a better compilation.
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