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In the projection room

Stat book gives '08 sneak preview

BILL JAMES Number crunch BILL JAMES Number crunch
Email|Print| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / November 11, 2007

Jacoby Ellsbury is projected to bat .320 and steal 42 bases next season, according to the Bill James Handbook 2008, the kind of numbers that would make Ellsbury a strong candidate to be the American League's Rookie of the Year.

The annual handbook is a collaboration between James, senior baseball operations adviser for the Sox, and Baseball Info Solutions, an industry leader in innovative statistics.

James is listed as the author of the entry on projected batting records, and as he indicates in his opening comments, "It is time to 'fess up again. We didn't nail them all . . . We come pretty close sometimes . . . and sometimes, we're just entirely wrong."

Gospel, they're not. But as grist for hot-stove conversation, the James projections have enough of a track record to warrant an inspection.

Last season, for example, James & Co. were uncannily accurate in projecting Jason Varitek's performance in 2007. Their projected line for the Sox catcher: .259, 17 home runs, 69 RBIs. Varitek's actual numbers: .255, 17, 68.

They also did very well with Kevin Youkilis. Projected: .283, 14, 77. Actual: .288, 16, 83. And they also predicted big things for Sox rookie Dustin Pedroia (.284, 10, 72), numbers that he eclipsed with a .317, 8, 50 line that make him a favorite to be named AL Rookie of the Year next week.

But the Baseball Info folks didn't foresee Mike Lowell's career season; they predicted .273, 18, 77, and he hit .324 with 21 home runs and 120 RBIs. And they were ambushed, just like the Sox, by the off seasons of J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo, and Manny Ramírez. They were off by 47 points on David Ortiz's batting average (.285 to an actual .332) while predicting a dozen more home runs than he actually hit (47 to 35) and 21 more RBIs (138 to 117).

"We project, basically, that every player will continue to do in the future what he has done in the past," James writes. "We're pretty close to right most of the time, because most players in any season will continue to do about what they have done in the past."

James notes that adjustments are made based on age and "some other things," reminds that injuries can't be anticipated, and maintains that it's often a crapshoot to project how much playing time a young player may receive. He remains adamant that minor league performance can be used to project big league performance, which is a big part of why the book foresees a great season for Ellsbury.

What lies ahead for other Sox players? Here are the James predictions:

  • another .300 season for Pedroia (.300, with 40 doubles) and more of the same for Youkilis (.290, .399 OBP, 15, 78);

  • slippage for Lowell, more in line with his career numbers (.282, 17, 81);

  • continued mashing by Ortiz (.298, 41, 130) and Ramírez (.301, 33, 113);

  • another strong season, at age 36, from Varitek (.253, 17, 70);

  • a bounce-back year by Drew (.393 OBP, 20 HRs, 78 RBIs);

  • a modest reduction in forecasts for Coco Crisp (.276, 8, 48, 19 SB) and Lugo (.266, 9, 57, 26 SB).

    The Handbook also projects pitching performance; James points to John Dewan and Pat Quinn of Baseball Info Solutions as the brains behind those numbers.

    The Handbook is forecasting almost mirror seasons for Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka: same won-lost record (14-8), similar numbers in ERA (3.50 and 3.54, respectively), strikeouts (187 and 188), and walks (64 for both). They also forecast good seasons for the 40-plus crowd: Curt Schilling (11-7, 3.54) and Tim Wakefield (11-9, 4.03) and a 10-10 season for lefty Jon Lester. Clay Buchholz they won't project; they need more of a baseline for young pitchers than minor league performance.

    The Sox are all over the 2007 leaderboards provided in the Handbook, including some categories you don't ordinarily see. Ortiz led the AL in slugging percentage against righthanded pitchers at .700; Ramírez was third in slugging against lefties (.617). Pedroia was third in the league in batting average against lefties (.348), with Ramírez sixth at .344; Ortiz was fourth against righties (.343) with Lowell ninth (.325).

    The Sox had three of the top five in batting average at home: Lowell was second (.373), Ortiz tied for third (.365), and Pedroia fifth (.351). Lugo was seventh in the league in stolen base success rate (84.6 percent); Crisp was 10th (82.4). Lugo was third in steals of third with 8, 11 fewer than league leader Brian Roberts of the Orioles. Youkilis was sixth in the league in pitches per plate appearance (4.27).

    Here's an exotic one: Pedroia led the league in something called BPS on OutZ, which translates to batting average plus slugging percentage on pitches outside the strike zone. Pedroia was listed at .664, just ahead of notorious bad-ball hitter Vladi Guerrero of the Angels (.662). Ramirez was second-worst in the league in the same category at .189.

    Pedroia also had the second-lowest strikeout-per-plate-appearance average (.072), a category in which Varitek ranked fifth-highest (.236). And Ramírez was credited with the season's longest home run, 481 feet.

    Beckett's name is everywhere on the pitcher boards: seventh in opponents' batting average (.245), a point ahead of Matsuzaka (.246); base-runners per nine innings (fourth, 10.50), run support per 9 IP (fourth, 6.59), opponents' slugging (10th, .377), opponent OPS (fourth, .663), and opponents' batting average with runners in scoring position (third, .207).

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