Best Time to Be a Baseball Fan: Winter?

The steady stream of baseball annuals are coming out now, as they do every winter. The options are many.

Baseball Prospectus 2008 - Otherwise known as The Bible. If someone completely unfamiliar with Major League Baseball decided they wanted to start following the game, I'd have them do little else than read this cover-to-cover. It is an amazing blend of humor and analysis with one paragraph blurbs on almost every player in the Major Leagues (and those likely to reach the Majors in 2008). But it's not just for the casual fan. Every year the team at Baseball Prospectus publishes hardcore statistical studies and their PECOTA projections. PECOTA is a giant, computerized projection system that uses sophisticated metrics to compare a player to every other player in baseball history, and then projects a career path for that player based on how similar players in history developed. Fantasy baseball players love it because their projections for batters consistently beat the field every year (projecting pitchers, due large in part to the high risk of injury among other factors, is so difficult that it isn't uncommon for less sophisticated projection systems to beat PECOTA). Here's a sample of one of their player blurbs from the 2005 edition:

Christian Guzman, SS
Washington Nationals

One old insight into human nature is that if you know when a man was 20, you understand him. There might be something to that with [Washington Nationals' General Manager] Jim Bowden, because in signing Guzman, he might not have aged a day beyond 1980. Back then, guys like Ivan DeJesus or Gary Templeton were stars, and people said nice things about Dale Berra. Progress, A-Rod, Nomar, Jeter, Tejada, throw it all in a hopper, and we're in age when those sorts of sensibilities are as out of place as calling Rammstein's mosh pit a sock hop. Now that he's in D.C. and supposed to be a star, Guzman is about to become as identifiable and regretted as Pauly Shore.

For the record since joining the Nationals, Guzman, when not injured, has made fans wish he was. The best part about Baseball Prospectus 2008 is that if you pre-order, you get several hundred pages of the best baseball analysis around for just $15.

Baseball Forecaster 2008 - The precursor to the Baseball Prospectus annual. Fantasy Baseball has long suffered under a stigma of being just a game and detracting from the real statistical analysis done by the early members of the Society for American Baseball Research and other academic types (usually math professors with a penchant for hardball). Ron Shandler has been publishing his Forecaster since 1988 under the field of Fanalytics, attempting to bridge the gap between "serious" analysis as it relates to projection and the millions of fantasy players. (As to why fantasy baseball is seen as lowbrow by snootier baseball fans is beyond me, the current version evolved out of homerun pools and was invented by Dan Okrent with a professor of his while in grad school at Michigan. That's hardly plebian in origin.) As many slings and arrows as Shandler suffered, it is a little sad that his annual is no longer the best, but the kids at Baseball Prospectus have earned the top spot. The Forecaster is fantasy baseball specific, comes with its own projections and is worth picking up in addition to Baseball Prospectus 2008 if you are going to be playing in a fantasy league next season. It is available for $20 on pre-order right now (although I've got an advanced copy).

The Bill James Handbook 2008 - Usually the first annual to come out every winter because it has very little analysis, just past statistics and future projections. Like Prospectus and Forecaster, the Handbook contains projected statistics for most of the players that will see action in the 2008 Major League season. If you're unfamiliar, Bill James was the baseball evangelical that brought statistical analysis to baseball itself and the fans. James no longer works on the Handbook which bares his name (it is now published by the company he started, Baseball Info Solutions). There are some interesting statistics in the Handbook that you won't find easily elsewhere. The Handbook is best used while watching baseball at home by fans that like to second guess managers. You'll get platoon splits and individual batter-versus-pitcher stats for every player in the handbook, all in a conveniently sized reference manual of sorts. You can get it for $15 at Amazon and pretend you're Earl Weaver with his index cards next season.

The Bill James Goldmine 2008 - New this season, it looks like Baseball Info Solutions will be publishing essays and statistical analysis in an annual. My guess is if you added the Handbook and the Goldmine together you'd get the Baseball Prospectus annual, but be out another $15. I might pick this up if I see good reviews or get a favorable opinion from a credible source.

The Hardball Times Annual 2008
The Hardball Times Season Preview 2008 -The Hardball Times is an online baseball think tank similar to Baseball Prospectus, but is the lesser known of the two. A few Hardball Timers have gone on to write at Baseball Prospectus if that gives you an idea of the pecking order. They've separated their annuals into a look back at 2007 (the Annual) and a look forward to 2008 (the Season Preview). Not as epic as the Baseball Prospectus annual, the Times' Annual is still enjoyable. There is more attention paid to how the previous season shook out, with excellent divisional recaps that come with handy graphical representations of all the pennant races. The Annual is out and is a great read if you are looking to relive some or all of the 2007 season. The Season Preview doesn't come out until March which is very late for a baseball annual. If you polish off your other annuals by then, you may want to give it a look. I bought their first edition (the 2007 Season Preview) when they were self-publishing through Lulu, and thought it was alright, though I'll read anything baseball related and am not the most discerning opinion you could find. The Annual costs $14 and the Preview $13.

Graphical Player 2008 - John Burnson rolls with the Forecaster crew and churns out the Graphical Player each winter. He breaks down your favorite players' games with spray charts and hotzones that can help the obsessed fan become even more familiar with their favorite players. At $21 and heavy on the nerd-dom, this is only for junkies.

Baseball America 2008 Prospect Handbook - The original and definitive guide on who is who in the minor leagues. Read about the stars of tomorrow, today. This is a very useful book for fantasy players, as mid-season callups and prospects have far more of an impact in baseball than any other sport. The Prospect Handbook can also make you sound a lot smarter when discussing your favorite team's future. At $20, you save $10 by pre-ordering at Amazon.

The Baseball Prospects Book 2008 - Self-published by John Sickels who is a fellow Twins fan and the author of Minor League Ball (a great free website covering baseball prospects). Comparable to the Prospect Handbook.

The Newberg Report 2008 - Self-published by Jamie Newberg, author of the Rangers' blog The Newberg Report which covers the Texas farm system from top to bottom. Think a Rangers-only version of the Hardball Times Annual. If only fans of every team could have a team-specific annual of this caliber.

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