The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2010 produced by Dave Studenmund (Acta Sports, 2009), 368 pages
The lack of actual games can make the baseball offseason seem a depressing period, but in some ways it makes for a nice breather after a long season. Away from the unrelenting schedule, there’s more time to sit back and think about the sport, to ponder how the season played out, delve into the sport’s history and be fascinated by new research. What’s more, the folks at the Hardball Times website conjure up an annual that allows you to do all of these things from the starting point of a single book.
Most baseball annuals seem to be largely focused on the fantasy baseball crowd these days. That’s a big market to aim at, of course, but it doesn’t make for books that you are likely to come back to in future years. The Hardball Times deals with this by issuing two books: a season preview for the fantasy crowd and an annual ‘review’ that has a longer-lasting appeal. The annual follows a standard format every year: a review of every division, a commentary section based on the season just gone and other topics of interest, a history section, an analysis section full of research articles and a lengthy statistics section to round everything off.
The Hardball Times website recently removed its stats section and now refers you on to the ever-expanding offerings of Fangraphs.com. However, stats are still a very important part of HBT’s annual. Just under half of the pages are dedicated to the Statistics section that looks back on the 2009 season (and there’s an important point to note: although it’s the 2010 annual, the stats relate to 2009). The section starts with some cutting-edge fielding stats courtesy of John Dewan, whose Fielding Bible I and II books (the latter is on my ‘to review’ list) have done much to advance the analysis of fielding. There is then a selection of charts and tables that look at team performances in both leagues before we get to the bulk of the numbers: batting, pitching and fielding stats for every team.
The stats are put into context for every team section via an interesting chart that shows how their fortunes changed over the course of the season in a variety of ways (runs scored/allowed etc) and a ‘Stats Facts’ box picks out some of the key bits of information contained in the tables that follow. All of the standard stats are included, which is always nice to have in a handy paperback reference, but the section’s main appeal is the unique content of so-called ‘batted ball stats’ that reveal a whole new perspective on a batter or pitcher’s profile.
Like anything, they need some explanation for you to make real sense of them. Some of these batted ball stats can now be found on the Fangraphs site (for example, Joe Mauer and Tim Lincecum), but the best place to appreciate them is in Dave Studeman’s (HBT’s Manager) weekly Batted Ball reports. They were launched for the 2009 season as part of an excellent package that included the HBT annual, although unfortunately this deal was only available to people in North America. People who buy the annual are able to download all of the reports from the season (as well as other spreadsheets) and they are a very enjoyable complement to the book.
The stats are great to flick through, but it is the articles that make the annual really stand out. Written by a combination of HBT staff and guest contributions from some of the best baseball analysts around, they cover a range of subjects in a variety of styles, while always maintaining a high standard of quality.
The articles focusing on recent events concentrate on the less-obvious targets, such as the 2009 World Baseball Classic, the problems faced in signing Latin American prospects and the business side to the sport. In the History section, among other articles, former White Sox and Orioles manager Paul Richards is the subject of the annual’s regular ‘Manager in a box’ feature, Craig Brown provides an excellent summary of the inception of free agency and Chris Jaffe looks back at the 1972 World Series between the A’s and Reds, probing the possibility that it was the best series of all time while considering how we might define what ‘best’ means in this context.
These articles would appeal to any baseball fan; however HBT has made its name by going deeper into topics and offering something to the baseball fan that wants to read about, and possibly be inspired to contribute to, the advanced statistical analysis of the game. So there are various in-depth articles explaining and exploring new concepts such as Bill James’ ‘Strong Seasons leading Index’ (essentially a system designed to uncover which players are likely to match or improve their performance next season), Sky Andrecheck’s ‘Championship Leverage Index’ (a way to quantify the relative meaning/importance of each game in a season) and Jeff Sackmann’s new approach to producing ‘Major League Equivalents’ (“estimates of how a non-Major League player [in the Minors, Japan etc] would have performed in the Major Leagues in a given period of time”).
Along with all the other analysis articles (such as two about the use of PITCHf/x data – the info that can be found in MLB.com’s Gameday application), they are clearly not aimed at a baseball newcomer. It is challenging stuff at times, but challenging in a good way (stretching you, making you think etc) rather than a bad way (difficult to read and understand, although there are some technical passages that I freely admit to skipping over, such as Dave Allen’s explanation of how he creates his PITCHf/x graphs). They hold your attention because the writers are not crunching numbers for the sake of it. They are using statistical analysis and data to look at questions that will interest baseball fans of all categories.
The decline of pitchers going deeper into games and the changing usage patterns of relief aces are topics that many baseball fans will argue about, so Tom Tango and Sean Smith’s articles on these subjects should appeal to all. Or what about the playing conditions at the two new stadiums in New York? They were a big talking point during the 2009 season, so why wouldn’t you want to move beyond generic observations (Citi Field killed the Mets’ offense, New Yankee Stadium is a bandbox etc) and read what conclusions Greg Rybarczyk can draw from his Hit Tracker data (and very interesting conclusions they are too)? It’s analysis of the best kind: focused on interesting topics, well-explained, thought-provoking without dogmatically stating that the findings are unquestionable facts.
While they should appeal to all, there’s no doubt that the analysis articles and the large stats section will be appreciated most by baseball fans who already take a keen interest in this side of the game. This is not a ‘what happened in 2009’ type annual for baseball newcomers, but the Hardball Times Annual is an excellent concept for stat-minded fans and this 2010 edition matches the quality of previous efforts.
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