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Book review: The Bill James Handbook Walk-off Edition

It’s had a run of more than three decades.

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Usually, in November of each year when I acquire a copy of the Bill James Handbook from the publisher, I’ll review it along with posting the projections for Cubs hitters for the following season.

But this review will be different, because the 2024 Bill James Handbook doesn’t have any projections, or really, stats of any kind.

That’s because it’s going to be the last such Handbook, thus the title “Walk-off Edition.”

This book contains some stats, notably some defensive numbers as it contains the 2023 Defensive Bible Awards, one of which was won by a Cub, Dansby Swanson. In fact, Swanson was the only such award-winner named unanimously by the Defensive Bible voting panel. So that’s something for the Cubs, anyway. (Nico Hoerner finished third among second basemen.)

Bill James is the inventor of what we now know as modern baseball analytics, also sometimes called “sabermetrics,” the beginning of the coined word coming from the acronym for the Society forr American Baseball Research (I’m a member, and not every member is a researcher, and if you love baseball and reading about it, you should join). But James, in a long interview in the book, states: “I am not writing about statistics. Ever. I am writing about baseball.”

And that’s what everyone should remember about James, his long-ago Baseball Abstracts (I still have every single one dating back to the first nationally-published version in 1982) and his analysis of many different baseball questions. The reason James became so well-known is that he’s a great writer, and intuitively knew how to explain the questions he was trying to answer. Generally, he called them “studies,” and that’s what they were and what any good baseball researcher should try to do: Ask a question, study it using specific methods, and find an answer. James reminds researchers;

The only insight I could offer to an aspiring researcher is that to find the answer to any larger question you have to work through all of the smaller questions you can find hiding inside of it.

James did that well, though he acknowledges that his attempt to create an all-encompassing baseball statistic (“Win Shares”) had some major mistakes. He doesn’t have many good things to say about WAR, though, as an all-encompassing stat, and while WAR does have its issues, I think James is a bit too critical.

But the book is, as always, a good read, from an essay chronicling the history of the Handbook and the companies that helped produce the work, first STATS, then Baseball Info Solutions, to an examination of whether Ryan Braun or Matt Kemp should have won the 2011 NL MVP — written by former Cub Bobby Scales, who is now Baseball Info Solutions’ VP of Baseball after working several years in the front offices of the Angels and Pirates.

I’ll miss the annual Bill James Handbook, though as is pointed out, most of the numbers they put in print form are available online via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs, among other sites. Bill’s website Bill James Online was also retired last September, though the archive remains live.

You can pick up a copy of The Bill James Handbook: Walkoff edition at this link.