Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster Book Review

One afternoon when I was about twelve years old, I sat down in my bedroom and cut out five hundred small slips of paper. With the assistance of the USA Today Sports section, I began writing out the names of each prominent position player and pitcher on every major league baseball team, one name per slip of paper, along with their team name and position. It was a monumental undertaking, but one that I completed several hours later with a great sense of satisfaction. After a hastily consumed dinner, I returned to my room and methodically sorted the slips of paper by position and affixed them to a large bulletin board in my bedroom in careful rows and columns. I stood back and admired my handiwork. It was a thing of beauty. I had created my first Draft Board.

Homemade Fantasy Baseball

A few days later, I invited three friends over after school and pitched them an idea about a game where we would draft major league players and then keep track of who had the best team as the season progressed, based on the players’ real-life statistics. I don’t remember all the details of what I had in mind, but it was clearly influenced by my limited knowledge of rotisserie league baseball. One of my friends had a dad who was involved in a local rotisserie league and I gleaned just enough information from my friend about how it worked to inspire me to start my own league—or, at least to create a Draft Board.

We rolled dice to determine the draft order. After that, my three friends sat on the edge of my bed for the next few hours, facing the Draft Board and calling out players one at a time. I stood near the Draft Board, removing one slip of paper after another as each of us made a selection. It was all great fun, even though my grand vision of keeping statistics for our teams for the entire season didn’t materialize. In fact, I don’t think we did much of anything after the draft. It’s possible that for all my grand ambition, I hadn’t even devised a good method for compiling stats. It is also possible that I’m suppressing my post-draft memories because my entire team underperformed and I finished in last place in my own game.

What I do remember is that I loved the draft. I enjoyed not just the process of drafting players, but the preparation for the actual event. Some kids would be unenthusiastic about writing names of baseball players on slips of paper while silently evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. But I found this draft preparation fully engrossing as a twelve-year old. I still do thirty years later.

The Joy of Preparation

Preparing for the upcoming fantasy baseball season is a yearly ritual for me, undertaken with utter seriousness. It begins in November each year, just as the previous major league season has ended. I start pondering the coming season: projected statistics, positional ranking, potential sleepers to acquire in the late rounds of a draft. By December, I’m pondering which fantasy baseball materials I need to include on my Christmas list. Maybe a subscription to a fantasy baseball website I haven’t used before? Maybe a fantasy baseball book written by one of the experts in the industry? Maybe a new supercomputer to run my projection algorithms? Of course, such items never really make it to my Christmas list—they are too important to leave to chance. I usually end up buying them myself prior to Christmas (although I haven’t yet invested in the supercomputer).

The fantasy baseball preparation continues in January and February. I talk to myself in the shower, formulating draft strategies. I patiently explain to my daughter how difficult it is to plan for saves and stolen bases. She nods as she listens, a serious look on her face, as she eats her Chocolate Stars cereal for breakfast. I sit in bed many nights reading what my wife refers to as “a large book with rows and columns of numbers.” This is unfair, of course: the book also contains mathematical formulas, player commentary, and research articles about things like control rate and expected WHIP. The book is none other than Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster, and it is a must read each year for the serious fantasy baseball fan.

The Baseball Forecaster

I first came across the Baseball Forecaster and the associated BaseballHQ website in 2006. I really didn’t know who Ron Shandler was and only later learned that he had been publishing his Forecaster in one form or another for 20 years (his first edition was in 1986). Even before my first encounter with Shandler’s work, he had become a pillar of the fantasy baseball industry. I quickly understood why. His Baseball Forecaster was a revelation to me. The book’s approach to fantasy baseball analysis not only helped me build winning fantasy baseball teams, but made me a better, more informed baseball fan.

The fundamental insight I gleaned from the book was this: identifying component skills is the key to analyzing baseball players. Noticing that a player has a .390 on-base percentage only tells me so much. What I really need to know is why that player has a great OBP. In other words, what are the underlying skills that contribute to his statistical output? BaseballHQ taught me to look at metrics like batting eye, contact rate, walk rate, etc. By looking at these component skills, I could better understand how players might perform.

The Contents of the Book

The Baseball Forecaster always includes an “Encyclopedia of Fanalytics” near the front of the book. This section functions as a glossary of key statistics used in analysis as well as a compilation of research results that offer better insight into batter and pitcher performance and gaming strategy. Even as a fantasy baseball veteran, I appreciate this section each year. It is always useful to go back to the basics at regular intervals.

The book also contains a section filled with longer research abstracts. Do plate discipline metrics for batters provide a useful indication of underlying skill improvement? How might one calculate a formula for expected WHIP for pitchers? Do free agents who sign late in the offseason perform more poorly than those who sign early? If your eyes are glazing over, don’t despair: even if you skip some of the research abstracts, there is plenty of other material in the Baseball Forecaster you will find valuable. Think of the abstracts as useful indicators of the thoroughness and seriousness with which the BaseballHQ analysts are trying to understand the game.

The longest section of the book is the section with the “rows and columns of numbers” noted by my wife. Here, every major league player with significant playing time the previous season and every player who projects to receive significant playing time for the coming season receives a box with a plethora of key statistics and advanced metrics along with a short player commentary. While the commentaries are always fun and insightful, the real value lies in all the other information. The purpose of the Baseball Forecaster is not to tell you which players to draft for your fantasy team. Instead, the book wants to arm you with the relevant data and equip you to parse through the data, analyze the results, and make your own decisions about how to populate your fantasy roster. I always read this section with pencil in hand as I survey the numbers listed for each player, make annotations in the margins, and begin to formulate my strategy for player acquisition for the coming season.

The Forecaster Remains a Valuable Tool

Of all the fantasy baseball material I have read in the past, the Baseball Forecaster has remained my favorite. The approach to analysis, while perhaps no longer revolutionary, remains rock solid. The wealth of information contained in the book along with the generous dose of humor spread amongst the pages makes the Forecaster both an invaluable resource and an enjoyable read. Moreover, while one can gain the same information with a subscription to the BaseballHQ website, there is something nice about holding the physical book and scribbling notes inside.

If you are a fantasy baseball enthusiast who has not yet tried the Baseball Forecaster, give it a shot this season. If you have a spouse currently struggling with their draft preparation, have mercy on them and slip a brand-new copy of the Forecaster onto their bedside table. In all likelihood, you (and they) won’t regret it.

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