The Fielding Bible

February 28, 2006

A review

I received a copy of John Dewan’s Fielding Bible last week.  I’d been anticipating this book for quite a while.  I first heard about it many months ago and subsequently helped edit the player comments.  Which is my way of telling you I may not be completely unbiased here.

Nevertheless, I found the “Bible” to be a worthy addition to the ongoing development of fielding statistics, and that actually surprised me a bit.  Fielding stats based on play-by-play data have received a lot of attention over the past several years, led by MGL’s Ultimate Zone Rating and David Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range.  Other very knowledgable folks, like Chris Dial, Mike Emeigh and David Gassko (among many others) have also added depth and insight to the discussion.

As far as I know, John Dewan and Bill James (who virtually co-authored the book) have not been part of these discussions, and it shows.  The book doesn’t really add a lot of new thinking to topics already covered by people like MGL.  However, play-by-play fielding stats are still in their infancy, so an independent approach that verifies the work of others is welcome.  Plus, I think the “Bible” includes enough new ideas to engage even the most educated fielding maven.

Most importantly, the book presents its stats and findings in a an easy-to-understand manner that helps the reader understand what’s behind many of these stats.  And that’s something that, frankly, few statistical writers have done so far.

There are many sections of the book to enjoy:

- Bill James’s comparison between Adam Everett and Derek Jeter.  In this opening essay, James concludes that Jeter is just not a good fielding shortstop at all, and Everett is a great one.  Most importantly, he reviews his thought process, approaching the issue from a number of angles.  He doesn’t endorse any single fielding stat as the best possible solution to the question.  This is James’s writing and thinking at its best, helping the reader understand the original question and how best to answer it.

- One-Year and Three-Year Registers of fielding stats.  There are a variety of fielding stats, though the central one is Dewan’s plus/minus system (see below).

- My favorite section, a graphical display of where hits tended to land against every major league team, with two pages for each team.  This is a brand-new way of looking at the data and I enjoyed it tremendously.

- A player ranking and comments section.  Again, John Dewan doesn’t rely upon any single fielding stat for his rankings or comments.  He incorporates many stats into his assessment, and even relies on scouts when the stats disagree.

Special sections on:

- The best and worst at turning double plays
- The best and worst at fielding bunts
- Relative Range Factor, a new stat by Bill James that is basically an update of the range methodology he used in Win Shares.
- Revised Zone Ratings

This last secton is interesting because it reveals that Dewan (who invented Zone Rating while at STATS) and James have disagreed about something in Zone Rating for the last 20 years or so.  Dewan was the one who decided to include balls fielded out of a player’s zone in his Zone Rating numerator and denominator; James thought this was a bad idea.  This same topic has been discussed repeatedly at Baseball Think Factory.

The good news is that John changed his method for the “Bible” and now lists Zone Rating that only includes balls in the zone and has a separate listing of balls fielded out of zone.  In other words, you can look at the two side-by-side and make your own determination as to what they mean.

The key stat is the “plus/minus” system, which is basically a simple version of UZR.  For shortstops, for instance, they calculated how often a groundball hit in a certain vector at a certain speed was fielded successfully, on average, by all shortstops.  They then compare each individual shortstop to those averages, based on the specific balls hit to that shortstop.  The plus/minus system is the number of balls above or below the average shortstop.

They don’t adjust the batted ball for handedness of the batter or ballpark and they don’t convert the plus/minus system into runs.  For outfielders, however, they do translate the plus/minus system into bases (this is called the “enhanced” plus/minus system).  In the player comments, however, they do show how the player performed at home and on the road, as well as how they did with left or right handed pitchers on the mound.

In the end, this is the strength of the Fielding Bible.  They’ve done a great job of presenting a lot of information and, instead of hiding it behind simple rankings or numbers, they’ve laid out a lot of individual detail.  If you want to disagree with their rankings, they give you the data to do it.  And that’s a healthy thing to do.

Bottom line:  VERY highly recommended.  Especially for the player comments.  smile



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