It's that time of year again -- Baseball Annual season is upon us and, as luck would have it, just in time for Christmas.
Traditionally, Baseball Annuals have been filled with a plethora of statistics; a smattering of commentary about players and teams; a sprinkling of Division, Pennant and World Series round-ups; and, if we were fortunate, a couple of thought provoking essays about the state of game.
Since 2004 there has been a new kid on the block that has turned, in my opinion, the world of Baseball Annual writing on its head: The Hardball Times Baseball Annual, or THT Annual for short. And a couple of weeks ago those kind folks across the blogosphere pressed print on the 2007 incarnation. Lucky us.
For those of you who have yet to buy a THT Annual let me describe the format. It opens with a fairly standard review of the season just gone, taking us through each division, then the post season, while also reminding us of what happened at the inaugural WBC back in March. Unless you spent 2006 in the proverbial baseball closet this section won't tell you anything new but will jog your brain here and there as to some of the more memorable moments in 2006.
After the season review we then get treated to a series of articles under the heading "2006 commentary". This is really a misnomer as what is presented is a collection of illuminating essays on all aspects of the game but with a lens half hovering over the 2006 season. Following this section there are a slew of other essays under the headings "History", which looks at fascinating questions such as what impact does Tommy John surgery have on a pitcher's performance, and "Analysis", where some of the more sabermetrically leaning articles are hidden. As if that wasn't enough we then get treated to an expanded stats section looking at everything from the traditional baseball batting line to new and exciting batted ball data for each player.
The thing that is refreshing about the THT Annual is that most articles are original, each takes the reader on a mini-baseball adventure and all are accessible to your average baseball fan. Here are some highlights:
- David Gassko examines whether Tommy John surgery has any impact on the efficacy of pitchers. To do this David compiled a database of all 182 pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery and tracked their pre- and post-surgery ERAs.
- Greg Rybarczyk, of hit-tracker fame, kindly takes us on a tour of what his hit-tracker tells us about the length and location of home runs launched in 2006. He reveals some fascinating insights such as how A-Rod struggles to hit opposite field home runs in a park that would tend to favour them, while Ryan Howard has been able to spray the long-ball in all directions. What excites me the most about hit-tracker is the potential to adapt it to follow non-HR balls. If done properly this could revolutionize fielding statistics
- The two Davids (Studenmund and Gassko) take us on a tour of the value and repeatability of various batted ball events. This builds on a piece in last year's annual but with more data and a slightly better analytical slant (eg, the use of a binomial correlation to determine repeatability of batted ball events). Moreover, all the player data is available in the stats appendix. Tom Tango called the batted ball presentation one of the greatest in sabermetrics ever. And do you know what? He's right.
- David Studenmund uses WPA to illustrate how various batting and pitching components contributed to a team's 2006 success (or failure). For instance, I bet you didn't know (unless you are a fan) that the Rangers had one of the better bullpens in the AL. So why weren't they in the running for the division? David shows us that although the bullpen was good in the aggregate, in high leverage situations, when it really mattered, it fell apart.
- Steve Treder reviews 2006 performance in light of the new PED controls that were put in place by MLB. Not surprisingly he can't detect a smidgen of a drop-off in many power stats - in fact most rise.
- Vince Gennaro gives us a short look at what to expect in his upcoming book by examining the issue of competitive balance. Vince puts some flesh behind the thesis that small-market teams, such as the Royals, will never have the resources to compete with the big boys. I'm not sure whether this piece was written before the season finished but interestingly three of the small-market teams (by his definition) made the playoffs this year: Detroit, Minnesota and Oakland. Perhaps there is hope for the Royals after all.
I could go on. What should be clear is that the range, quality and quantity of baseball analysis in THT 2007 is unparalleled. I don't actually know how David Studenmund and his team have managed to pull together such a comprehensive work so soon after the end of the season. The THT Annual is the first on the market and also the best.
So, are there any criticisms? Of course. What book couldn't possibly be any better, expect perhaps the God-breathed words of the Bible, and that depends on your theist perspective.
On the whole there are few. Although the annual tries to look forward to the 2007 season by looking at which prospects to watch out for and at which players are most likely to break-out, I'd quite like to have seen a few more forward looking pieces. Perhaps a bit more on projections (THT 2006 had PrOPS -- not that that methodology was perfect by any means), or maybe some idle speculation about who will win what (although I fully acknowledge that the early release of the Annual means that it would be difficult to reflect this with any meaning).
Another minor quibble is that some of the graphics (particularly the line graphs of division standings over time) can be a little tricky to read. However, the most obvious solution -- printing in color -- is probably too costly to be practical. Also in the stats section I'd like to have seen wOBA included as well as Dewan's plus/minus fielding stats (though this is available in Bill James' handbook). As I said this is quibbling, and most of it is probably unwarranted.
One can also nit-pick at some of the articles if one so wishes. For instance, in the PED piece I think Steve fails to acknowledge one of the major factors behind the offensive surge, namely the expansion in the early 90s -- you can see this just by eyeballing his data. However, the standard of analysis is generally first class and there are very few (if any) glaring errors. Moreover, one of things that separates the THT crew from others, such as the Baseball Prospectus clan, is their availability on the Internet blogosphere to answer questions and debate analytical disputes. (You can find some debate here and here.)
The only final point is that (at least in the edition that I have) the editing isn't quite perfect. Given the speed with which the Annual has been pulled together it isn't a great surprise. And in no way does it interfere with what is a thoroughly enjoyable read, unlike with some of the recent Baseball Prospectus Annuals.
In summary I challenge you to find this quantity and quality of baseball writing in any other book, annual or website this off-season. It can't be done. I used to be a serial purchaser of every off-season annual in order to whet my baseball appetite. This year will be the first where I'll just settle for one: The Hardball Times Annual 2007. It is simply awesome.
The Hardball Times encourages you to buy your annual from here. This is slightly more expensive than from Amazon but it gives THT a higher percentage of the cover price. I can only urge you to spend a little more to support this great resource. There is no doubt that it is worth the money.