I got off to a strange start with The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. The problem was, I couldn’t find it nor could anyone tell me if it was out or when in would be coming out. I tried Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and even those mall bookstores that only cary books about babysitter clubs and the Olsen twins. But thankfully, it finally appeared on the shelf at Barnes & Noble even as a surprise to the staff. Anyway, on to the other stuff.
The book is good, and worth buying just for the information on pitchers. I read in an ESPN chat Rob saying something to the annoying questioners “Look, it’s all in the book, stop asking if X or Y is in there. I promise.” You might think that this was a pompous exaggeration, but I find Neyer to be the opposite of pompous, so I was intrigued. You know what, he’s right. It is all in there. I have yet to think of a pitcher who has not been included. They do exist, but Neyer and James are not providing an encyclopedia of pitchers so that you can look up an old high school buddy who pitched one career inning. If the person was a serious MLB pitcher, you will find him, and that is a very nice feature.
But I did not buy the book for the encyclopedia, I bought it for the articles. The book starts off with 11 chapters on types of pitches. It includes a bit of history, science, and critical detective work on the most common pitch-types of baseball history. One thing I like about this section is a description of exactly what each pitch type is because I learned something new: it is not at all clear that we know. Pitchers, coaches, and writers seem to name different pitches the same thing and the same pitches different things. It’s quite understandable, but it never occurred to me. Neyer, who writes the chapters on the non-fastballs, does a particularly fine job of stressing this point.
The second part of the book includes 10 chapters on specific pitchers, plus the pitcher census. To be honest I have only skimmed the individual pitcher chapters, so I won’t comment on them. The census is the real meat of the book with over 300 pages of specific pitcher information. So what is in there? Well, it differs from pitcher to pitcher. At the minimum, for each pitcher there is a list of pitches in order of use. For some there are different pitch selections for different years, and sometimes there are scouting reports or other tidbits. In short, it is nice. I would really like to have seen a bit more light commentary. For example, what is the most interesting thing about Antonio Alfonseca? He has 12 fingers and 12 toes, yet the most we learn about him is his basic stats and he throws a hard sinker. No jokes? I have found at least one humorous entry about a bald kid-pitcher who gives up an unordinary number of line drives up the middle. But let me make it clear that I am NOT complaining; there is too much good stuff here to complain. The section also contains two good lists of submarine and knuckleball pitchers. Due to the wealth of information in the section, copies of this book ought to be hard-bound and chained to the bars of all sports pubs.
The third section of the book is all Bill James, with studies relating to pitchers. He takes on the Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP) model of Jazayerli and Woolner, and even allows them a chapter to respond, which is very classy. I’m not really all that familiar with this debate so forgive me if I get this wrong. I don’t like either of the approaches. I’ll leave it at that, since I don’t have any business commenting on something of which I am largely ignorant. Maybe one day I will investigate my suspicions that raw pitch counts are not comparable or very important. We get a Cy Young prediction formula and a suggested pitching code categorization method, which are largely just fun. The two chapters I really liked were the chapters “Lucky Bastards” and “Unique Records.” The former looks at pitcher Win-Loss records as compared to ERAs. This is very fun and useful. The latter is very fun, but not useful – James admits as much. In this chapter he highlights the most unique and unique Win-Loss records of baseball history. Fun but useless…I like it even more!
So now that I have described the book and told you I liked it I will list a few other things. One thing I really liked was the decision to separate the chapters by authors. This was a good decision, and probably a no-brainer. James and Neyer are both very good writers, but they have very different writing styles. Trying to make a Bill Neyer or a Rob James out of this book would have been a disaster. James is Bill and Neyer is Rob, and this makes the book very readable. Plus, you know each has commented on the other’s work so you feel a bit more confident in the quality of the work. I do have one HUGE criticism: where is DIPS!? There is no mention of the development of defense independent pitching statistics anywhere that I have found in the book. I admit there maybe something buried in the census, but I have not found it yet. Even if this is the case I expected a grand discussion of the topic. The big problem with evaluating pitching is the separating the individual input of pitchers from the joint product of preventing runs. Thanks to Voros McCracken and others working with and off his work we now have a tool to minimize this problem. Why not use it? As some readers may have seen I made somewhat of an attempt to do this myself (first try, second try), but I wish Neyer and James would have taken the opportunity to do it themselves. I have tried to ask Neyer this in ESPN web chats, but I keep joining in too late. If you have the inclination to submit a question to him during his weekly chat, please ask him. I want to know, as both authors know of DIPS and seem to think highly of it.
In summary, it’s a good book that is worth buying.