- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

This is the time of year when Fantasy Baseball enthusiasts get to work. It’s the time of year when grown men with jobs, families and college degrees spend their waking hours poring over depth charts, scanning spring training box scores and analyzing groundball/flyball ratios.

Of course, if they really know what they’re doing, they’re carrying a copy of the latest edition of “Baseball Prospectus,” the hefty annual volume that proclaims itself to be “The Essential Guide to the 2007 Baseball Season.”

There are a number of annual baseball books that make this claim. Some of them are pretty useful, some of them aren’t. But “Baseball Prospectus” may be the most unique, because of its cornucopia of statistical data that can’t be found anywhere else.

This is not a book for people who think OBP stands for Old, Big and Pretty. It’s a book for hardcore fans who enjoy extracting and analyzing every piece of information from a baseball box score. More than 1,600 players are statistically dissected here. Yes, traditional stats like home runs, innings pitched and stolen bases still make an appearance, but they stand alongside relative newbie stats like VORP, WXRL and EqA. And nothing gets bigger billing than PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ system for projecting future player performance.

This is the 12th edition of the book, and not much has changed over the years in terms of format. But it has gotten bigger, weighing in at 600 pages and 2.45 pounds.

“It’s a monster,” said Christina Kahrl, who edited the book along with Steven Goldman.

As in past editions, each player who has any chance of appearing on a major league roster this season is listed with the statistics from their last three seasons, followed by comments from one of the book’s authors. There also are essays and projections for each team. There are 19 contributors to this book, and it’s clear that none of them had a lazy offseason.

While statistical data is a lot to digest all at once, the team essays and player comments make for some great reading and a few laughs. The introduction on the Nationals is particularly insightful, given the less-than-exciting news out of Viera, Fla., this spring.

“Getting two prospects for every veteran unlikely to be a part of the first great Nats team sounds great in the abstract, but, unfortunately, there weren’t that many desirable veterans to deal,” the authors write of last season. “Otherwise, this might have been a rebuilding project achieved as quickly as what’s already happened twice in Florida. Instead, the Nats will be forced to try to get by, in the lineup, on the bench, but particularly on the pitching staff.”

The refreshing thing about “Baseball Prospectus” authors, who also write for an excellent Web site, is that they usually will not allow their analysis to kill the joy of the game. They are sensitive to the notion that the use of statistics in the absence of more traditional analysis can alienate some baseball fans.

“We’ve made an effort in the last couple of years to really balance things,” Kahrl said. “The idea of having one form of analysis being the only right way just isn’t true.”

That said, many of the comments on individual players in this recent volume came off a little too dry, and lacked the wit and sarcasm of past books. Moreover, there are times when it seems the authors are too quick to point out even the most minute flaws in a player’s skills. Take the book’s comments on National League MVP Ryan Howard, for instance:

“Historically, players like Howard … tended to have high but brief peak periods. The Phillies should have a three-year window in which they can expect this kind of production from Howard, but should not plan beyond that.”

Quick criticism aside, the book also contains five essays of varying lengths. The essay by Will Weiss taking a look at the push for environmentally friendly stadium construction, while timely, was too heavy on references to carbon emissions and too light on how the “green” building concept will affect the average fan. Al Gore might like this piece, but most baseball fans might choose to skip it.

An ambitious reader will want to read an essay by Keith Woolner in which he breaks some new ground analyzing the significance of pitch counts. (Warning: This one was a tough slog. Lots of charts, graphs and mathematical formulas. Have some Gatorade and a Powerbar handy.)

More digestible essays include a piece by Maury Brown, who provides a solid overview of many of the business issues facing the game today, including the new collective bargaining agreement. Jay Jaffe and Will Carroll contribute a good analysis on what effect last season’s ban on amphetamines had on player performance. (Answer: There wasn’t one.)

Personally, I found “Baseball by the Numbers,” a book published last year by the “Baseball Prospectus” staff, to feature a more informative collection of essays. But those found in this volume offer a nice complement to the dense statistical data.

Overall, “Baseball Prospectus” succeeds again in giving us one of the more valuable resources to prepare for the upcoming season. It’s not Metro or beach reading, but if taken in pieces, it will enhance your understanding of the summertime game.

“Baseball Prospectus” authors will be discussing the book and signing copies March 10 at Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse at 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.

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