Baseball Prospectus 2011

My copy of the 2011 edition of Baseball Prospectus came today. Buying the BPro annual has become something of a spring tradition to me in recent years even as the books grow less and less informative. I was considering not buying it at all this year, but it was half-price on Amazon when I went to preorder Radiant Historia, and, well… it’s tradition.

See, everyone who gets much into baseball statistics has a similar path to their interest. They usually start out by simply drinking up the basic statistics used by newspapers and announcers… batting average, RBIs, pitcher wins, and so forth. Eventually, though, they read something (in my case Bill James by way of Moneyball) that exposes them to ways of thinking about the game that are deeper and more accurate than those hoary cliches. (To make a comparison, it’s kind of like the feeling a person might get after playing Super Metroid normally… then discovering the speedrunning community.) At that point, they start looking for someone who writes along these lines, and for many years if you wanted that then Baseball Prospectus was the only game in town.

My first BPro annual (2004, I think) I read cover-to-cover, multiple times, well into the season. It was simply amazing to me at the time — I’d never seen anyone think about the implications of what happened on a baseball field in this way other than Bill James, who isn’t as stat-focused as BPro. They spoke with authority, though, and lacking experience, I found myself taking their word as gospel.

In subsequent years, though, I feel that time as kind of left them behind. They used to be the only people willing to talk about baseball sabermetrically, but now everyone does it. The people who poo-poo statistics are as roundly mocked as they deserve, these days. And BPro doesn’t really offer any kind of unique insights anymore. These days they’re mostly selling their projection system, PECOTA, but PECOTA is far too conservative. As far as I can tell, it’s just “heavily regress everything to the mean”. I can’t remember the last time it correctly predicted a breakout or felt a genuine improvement was real. BPro’s been advertising PECOTA as “deadly accurate” for as long as I can remember, but… compared to what? Other projection systems? They all seem about the same to me. Bill James’s projections are too optimistic, especially with regards to young players, but you could make the argument that PECOTA is too negative. Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS doesn’t fail too frequently.

The snarky commentary can be funny sometimes, but as I grow older I find snark less and less entertaining. Sarcasm only works if there’s substance behind it. They’ve long make a show of being outside the baseball mainstream and willing to call things like they are, but like many nerd communities, they love the idea that their message is reaching the halls of power. A GM might talk in cliches to pacify the plebs, but they’re really checking BPro’s front page every morning. As a result, they’re far too forgiving to front offices that mouth the sabermetric formulas — Seattle last year is a prime example, and Cleveland and Boston have also received blowjobs courtesy of BPro on occasion, despite doing little to nothing to deserve it. (Remember when the Red Sox’s brilliant medical staff gave them a competitive advantage? Didn’t work out so well last year, huh.)

So I dunno. Baseball’s a difficult (bordering on impossible) thing to predict, and the annuals are still a good resource for stats and player movement, so perhaps I’m just giving them a hard time, but… the truth is that their books just don’t grab me like they used too. Maybe that was inevitable.

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