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Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Figures don’t lie when James applies them to baseball

“I despise opinions because opinions are barriers to thought,” baseball sabermatician and historian Bill James writes in his second collection of recent articles.

Isn’t that an opinion?

Well, yes, but that’s OK. James always backs up his opinions with facts, numbers, charts and formulas, breaking down the barriers of conventional baseball wisdom. His fresh look at baseball issues continues in “Fools Rush Inn: More Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom” (ACTA Sports; paperback; $16.95, 188 pages).

These articles are drawn from James’ web site, BillJamesOnline.com; James typically writes between 40 and 50 articles each year and answers readers’ questions. “Fools Rush Inn” contains 18 articles, the most compelling of which is “Big Game Pitchers.”

It’s a 49-page article (or 26 percent of the book if you are into percentages), that opens with James trying to determine whether former pitcher Jack Morris was, in fact, a “big game pitcher.” James uses a formula to assign points for big games since 1952 — and big games are not limited to the playoffs or World Series. There are plenty of big games during the regular season that can determine whether a team gets to the playoffs or not.

I won’t spoil James’ conclusion, but in this piece, he makes a compelling argument for left-hander Jim Kaat, who won 283 games during his career and was 27-15 with a 2.84 ERA in 53 big games as defined in James’ formula. What is particularly eye-opening was Kaat’s performance in September 1967, when he went 7-0 with a 1.51 ERA as the Minnesota Twins were in a four-team battle for the American League pennant (eventually won by the Boston Red Sox).

The best regular-season big-game pitcher since 1952, by a one-point margin, is Andy Pettitte, who edged out Jim Palmer and Roger Clemens. And overall? The answer will surprise you. It floored me, actually. And it wasn’t Jack Morris.

Another interesting article is “The Standards of a Hall of Fame Manager.” James looks at managers from a statistical analysis (along with a formula he developed for this particular chapter), and compares possible future Hall of Fame candidates against those already enshrined in Cooperstown. This article was written before the 2013 season, so perhaps some of the figures are different now. But it’s still compelling.

Billy Martin, surprisingly, makes James’ list, although barely. But Davey Johnson is the strongest candidate, and James sees Angels manager Mike Scioscia, Jim Leyland and Dusty Baker as possibilities.

“In plain English, Dusty Baker may well be as much of an idiot as many of you claim that he is,” James writes. “I don’t really care; it’s not my problem.

“Good manager or bad, he has enjoyed a significant amount of success over a long period of time.”

“Going Out on Top” is an interesting exercise, an update of James choosing an All-Star team of players based on how they performed in their final major-league season. So Mariano Rivera, who had 44 saves and a 2.11 during his 2013 swan song, makes the cut. James lists two alternates for each position and offers comments about each player’s final season.

This is the only instance where James kind of goes a little off-base. He lists the reason for Thurman Munson’s retirement as “poor aviation skills,” which is kind of a flippant way to look at Munson’s August 1979 death in the airplane he was piloting.

Perhaps that should have gone in the chapter titled, “Let Me Offend You.”

That was the only complaint I had in “”Fools Rush Inn.” James takes the reader through a variety of subjects, including non-baseball topics like classical music and education standards. But he also looks at whether groundball pitchers are truly effective, teams that excel during “soft” parts of their schedules, and makes a nice comparison study of Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Billy Williams.

Once again, James has compiled a thought-provoking look at baseball from a different angle. Readers can agree or disagree with James’ conclusions, but there is no doubt it’s a fresh look at the game.

Well, that’s my opinion, anyway.

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