February 26, 2006

Review:  “The Fielding Bible
by Steve Lombardi, for NetShrine.com

On April 20, 1978, during a major league baseball game played in San Diego, a then 23-year-old shortstop for the hometown Padres by the name of Osborne Earl "Ozzie" Smith, made a play on a groundball hit by the Atlanta Braves' Jeff Burroughs.  

It was not exactly an ordinary play.  In fact, Smith had to dive to his left for this ball hit up the middle of the diamond - and, as he was doing this, the ball hit something on the field that caused it to bounce away from Ozzie.  Seeing this, Smith reached out with right-hand, while parallel to the ground, and snared the ball behind his head - barehanded.  He then sprang to his feet and fired a strike to first base to retire the runner.  And, by the way, this whole sequence of events transpired in something like three seconds.  

In the near 28-years that have since passed after this play was made in San Diego, this event is often referred to as the most brilliant and unmatched effort witnessed with respect to fielding in baseball modern history.  

But, watch out now Ozzie, there's a new sparkling "effort" in town with respect to baseball fielding:  The Fielding Bible by John Dewan and Baseball Information Solutions (BIS).

In The Fielding Bible, Dewan unveils the "Plus/Minus System" of analyzing baseball position players fielding prowess (or lack thereof).  Using the videotape library (at BIS) of every baseball game played in the last three years, data on every play made in baseball was entered into a computer - recording the direction, distance, speed, and type of batted ball.  The computer then looks at every type of a certain play - for example, where a soft ground ball was hit in a particular vector of a player's position purview - and ascertains how many times said ball on a such a play was turned into an out (in terms of a percentage).  This then serves as a baseline to determine how many times an individual player is "plus" or "minus" on the same play (versus the average out-made percentage) when presented with the opportunity.  (This is the "Plus/Minus System" at a very high level.  The process used is detailed precisely in the book.) 

In addition to the "Plus/Minus System" results for both teams and players covering the 2003, 2004, and 2005 seasons (and the rankings and comparisons that the data yields in the book), The Fielding Bible also contains a team-by-team analysis of where hits landed against teams in 2005.  These reports are extremely informative yet easy on the eyes and readily discernable. 

While all this information alone would make The Fielding Bible a "must-have" for the zealous baseball fan, there's more - including (but not limited to) Dewan's newly designed Zone Ratings, new Relative Range Factors by Bill James, and other keen and breakthrough baseball fielding analysis.  (There's also an essay by Bill James entitled "Jeter vs. Everett" - comparing the defensive skill of Derek Jeter to Adam Everett - that will probably be a work cited from this time until forever in assessing Jeter's defensive worth at shortstop.)

Even if one were to only quickly browse The Fielding Bible, they would learn fielding nuggets such as:

It is information, like this - based on fact, that makes The Fielding Bible so much fun for baseball fans.  I expect Dewan's new product to be both the initiator and closer of great baseball fielding debates - and highly recommend this book.

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