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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Book Review: The Fielding Bible 

In the beginning, there was Fielding. Reading Moneyball I was struck by the thought that the book really became revolutionary in Chapter 4: "Field of Ignorance", Michael Lewis' chapter on Bill James, and in particular Lewis' discussion of the first Baseball Abstract in 1977. James' attack on fielding percentage as a metric of defense was the Martin Luther moment of sabremetrics. (For those unfamiliar with history, Martin Luther's decision to nail his 95 Thesis challenging the doctrines of the Catholic Church in Whittenberg, Germany in 1517 is arguably the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and the start of the Enlightenment.) Fielding percentage, James thundered in the Abstract, was "a record of opinions", not a viable measure of a player's actions. The fact that a scorer evaluated a player's actions and came to a conclusion that they had or had not misplayed a ball struck James as ludicrous. How can an opinion be taken as a fact? Anyone who has been to a baseball game and seen a questionable play scored as a hit knows this is right on the money. (Check out pages 66-72 of Moneyball for James thoughts on Fielding Percentage.)

James blistering tirade was the first of James bold statements on the game. James voice built the sabremetrics movement during the 1980s and gave it direction from then on. Today there are many voices in the mix, but James is the man who began it all. As many of you can tell, I am struck by the idea that the divide between the old guard and the sabremetrics crowd is a quasi-religious split akin to the Protestant-Catholic split that developed in the Sixteenth Century in Europe. Protestants split with the Church in reaction to their belief that the Church had become corrupt and that the laws of the Church were fundamentally at odds with their faith. The Church reacted by clinging even more vigorously to their traditions. We've been doing it this way for 1,500 years, Church elders thought, who are these nuts to say we are wrong? Similarly, I see the split in baseball as a holy war" the old guard clings to their beliefs because they've accepted dogma like "creating runs" by stealing and bunting for years. It is tradition. Don't quote me a bunch of numbers, the old guard will growl, I know in my heart what I believe is true. The sabremetrics people roll their eyes and continue to write their own gospel, fully confident that the old guard doesn't know what it is talking about and that it is too stubborn to change or listen to reason. Jack McKeon's column in the '04 SI Baseball Preview derriding stats with annecdotal evidence of "gut" instinct being superior to numbers is a terrific example of the old guard's gospel. The column's accompanying photo of McKeon smoking a stogie further reinforces the image the sabremetricians have of the old guard as the intellecually close-minded, unwilling to challenge their beliefs and justify them.

It was with all of that in mind that I began to read The Fielding Bible (what an appropriate name!) and I was struck by the thought that this was a revolutionary book. It is not surprising that hitting and pitching were first subject to rigorous analysis, because both have finite outcomes to their actions: a hitter gets on base or doesn't, a pitcher gets and out or doesn't (pitching took more time to analyze, but thanks to Voros McCracken's DIPS system it has been analyzed extensively). A fielder doesn't necessary get an out. He could make a good play and still allow a hit: his play could be to prevent a single from becoming a double or a triple.

What The Fielding Bible does is look at problems in a new way (Relative Range Factor), shatter conventional wisdom (e.g., Derek Jeter-as-Gold-Glover), and give new metrics to consider (John Dewan's Plus / Minus system).

The opening chapter, worth the cost of the book alone, is a convincing article from Bill James analyzing Derek Jeter vis-à-vis Adam Everett, the Astros shortstop. With a conclusion that will enrage Yankees fans everywhere, James makes a convincing arguement that, based on the evidence presented, Jeter is a terrible defensive shortstop. This confirms a result suspected by nearly every baseball writer I have read on the 'net, from Dave Pinto (inventor of Probablistic Model of Range, PMR) to Mike Humphries (inventor of Defense Regression Analysis, DRA). The article is classic James: even-handed, fair and aimed to shatter carefully held beliefs.

The Fielding Bible goes on to present detailed data for each player at each position for 2005 and for 2003-2005. I like how Dewan has tried to expand the data to give specific information and a more general picture of a fielder. If you are suspicious of a player's performance from '05, you can look at a regression analysis to get a more complete picture. Dewan also gives data on team defense that is invaluable, complete with graphic charts showing where the ball landed at a team's home park on defense.

Dewan's Plus / Minus system is the backbone of the book. Simply put, it is an analysis of how many plays a player made above (+) or below (-) that of an average player at his position, based on detailed analysis of videotape from every MLB game conducted by Baseball Info Solutions. It is tough to decide if the information is 100% accurate because is it done by computers and (somewhat) opinion. However, I find it persuasive and it solves problems like park factors fairly well.

The next chapter is James reworking his classic Range Factor stat. Range Factor, which measures how often a player is involved in a play, was James partial solution to the problem of what stat should replace fielding percentage as the prime fielding stat. As critics pointed out afterwards, RF isn't perfect either: how often an infielder is involved in a play greatly depends on if his team is staffed with flyball pitchers or goundball pitchers. James solves the problem with "Relative Range Factor", which attempts to make RF pitching neutral. Generally, I'm impressed, though I would have liked it if James had ranked RRF in his book instead of simply including it with each player in the player registry.
Criticisms: a glaring problem with The Fielding Bible is the exclusion of catchers and catching defense. As I noted with Part II of my Season Preview, the catcher is a weird position to evaluate. Unlike the fielders, the catcher is closely tied to the pitcher. How the catcher manages the pitcher is a big part of his game and it is nearly impossible to evaluate. Catchers ERA (CERA) is a stat the Bill James Handbook keeps track of, but I'd love to know how Mike Lieberthal feels about his '04 performance being evaluated in terms of how often Eric Milton surrendered the three-run bomb. How often a catcher is run against and how often a catcher throws out baserunners is tough to evaluate because catchers with good arms discourage baserunners and thus, teams won't run unless it is a favorable scenario (e.g., a good catcher will surrender 80% success but teams only ran 10 times, whereas a weaker catcher will surrender a 76% rate, but teams ran on him 136 times in a season. Is there any question who is better?) Then we have to get into how often a team runs ... things get messy.

I'll admit that I see catching as being a tough nut to crack. Catcher evaluation is the holy grail of sabremetrics. I wish James and Dewan had taken a stab at catcher evaluation. Maybe next book.

Another small quibble I have is with their double play numbers. Since the shortstop and second-basemen turn most double plays, they include lots of data on that in this book, however I noticed that they didn’t include any double play data when discussing third-basemen. Sure, the 5-4-3 double play is rarer than the 6-4-3 or the 4-6-3, but it is still a valuable metric in evaluating a third baseman.

Bottom-line, I am impressed. I think The Fielding Bible puts together a through, cogent analysis of nearly every aspect of fielding in the game. This book is as revolutionary as the original baseball abstract and I wonder if MLB executives are making use of it this season. I certainly hope so.

Buy this book!

About Last Night ... panicked over the Phillies 1-6 record? Disturbed that the Phillies are four games out of first seven games into the season? My advice is to repeat after me:

Calm down, it's a long season.
Calm down, it's a long season.
Calm down, it's a long season.
Calm down, it's a long season.

Calm now? Okay, just remember that the Phillies are slow starters. Their April record for the last two years is 20-25, and they started 1-6 back in 2004 and went on to win 86 games. I'm not too jazzed by what I'm seeing, but this is a long season. 7 down, 155 to go.

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