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Here's a baseball guidebook with more than predictions
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/20/2008 2:27 PM | Updated: 3/20/2008 2:28 PM

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Not only does "Baseball Prospectus" remain my annual guidebook of choice, but it should get the title by acclimation after predicting the White Sox' 72-90 finish dead-on last spring.

"BP" is back and, in my opinion, better than ever this spring, selling for $22 from Plume Books, a division of Penguin. As usual, its main feature is exhaustive statistical analysis, and while I have to insist that it's a little license for the cover to call Nate Silver's PECOTA Projections of how players will do this year "deadly accurate," I have to admit they were pretty deadly where the Sox were concerned last year.

Silver, Christina Kahrl and Kevin Goldstein were in town last week, doing a book signing at the DePaul Barnes & Noble in Chicago and giving a talk to about 50 stathead baseball fans that went on for almost two hours. They're three of BP's six full-time staffers, augmented by a few dozen other contributors, and it was a brief homecoming in the middle of a book tour for Silver, settled here in Lincoln Park, and Kahrl, newly returned to town.

Last time I spoke with Kahrl, she was working at the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park, and BP was just an upstart publication trying to fill the baseball stats void after Bill James "broke the wand" and swore off his annual "Baseball Abstracts." Now BP is the most popular baseball annual out there, and there's no need for straight gigs.

"This is what we do," Kahrl said, somewhat abashed.

"The joke is I keep waiting to wake up and for my mother to tell me to go to school," Goldstein added. "I work on baseball every day. I'm not complaining."

The hard work shows, both in the book and on BP's in-part-subscription-driven web site. Silver's PECOTA Projections are the main draw for statheads and fantasy fans, but the thing that's always separated BP from the rest is the elegance and the attitude in the writing. Steve Finley, for instance, "must be traveling by bus, because airport metal detectors would have called attention to the fork sticking out of his back," while the Arizona Diamondbacks' Conor Jackson is described as "the Dermot Mulroney of first baseman," a pop-culture reference as spot-on as last year's White Sox prediction.

What you don't get in BP is a bunch of hand-wringing Pollyanna-ish moralizing on steroids and human growth hormone. If performance-enhancing drugs were pervasive in baseball over the last 10 years, that's reflected in the numbers, just as the rabbit ball was reflected in the inflated offensive stats of the late '20s and early '30s, and BP writers are nothing if not faithful to staying true to what the numbers tell them.

"It's in the realm of history," Silver said. "I think there's reason to believe some tide has been turned." He pointed to how not a single player who received a vote for MVP or the Cy Young Award last year was named in the Mitchell Report.

"The record book is a reflection of the game's history, and the game's history is ugly in places," Kahrl added. "The record book is a series of historical compromises in the first place."

Still, BP's writers use stats and the record book to draw conclusions that previously haven't been recognized about the game, and they'll do the same with their next in a series of auxiliary books, this one looking back at the '80s. It's a decade James lorded over, but they'll use advances in statistical analysis from the last 20 years to bring new clarity to the era.

"It's going to be massively great," Goldstein gushed.

"We can go back and say who was the best GM really?" Silver said. "Who gained and lost the most in trades? How much did Dallas Green help or hurt the Cubs?"

"How good was Larry Himes?" Kahrl added. "He had that great four-year run with his first-round picks" -the Sox' Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas and Alex Fernandez - "but how good was it?"

So don't think BP is solely about predicting the future. Much more than that, it's about understanding the game's past and its present.