Breakfast With Bill James
Last summer, I decided to review all twelve of Bill James' Baseball Abstracts, not knowing just how long such a task would take or how enjoyable such a task would become. The project forced me to re-read every book from cover to cover and, in doing so, I came away with a greater appreciation for James than ever before -- and, trust me, I have been a big fan dating back a quarter of a century.
Although Bill has written nearly 40 books overall, the Baseball Abstracts are undoubtedly his best-known body of work and among the most significant collections in the game's history. James has arguably been the most influential person with respect to how we think about baseball since Branch Rickey.
James self-published the first five books. The early editions were typed on single-sided pages, photocopied, and stapled using a plain card stock cover and back page. The 1977-1981 Abstracts, in fact, were rather crude with several noticeable strikeovers, white outs, and handwritten corrections throughout the pages. If nothing else, they serve as a reminder to Bill's humble beginnings as a baseball writer.
The Baseball Abstracts grew in size and stature over the years. From a one-inch classified ad placed in the back of The Sporting News in 1977 to a publishing contract with Ballantine Books five years later to earning a regular spot on the New York Times bestsellers list every year, the Baseball Abstracts became an annual staple eagerly awaited each spring by the multitude of James' loyal readers.
An English major, James has a unique writing style that combines numbers and prose in a manner that make his essays clear, informative, and fun to read. To call Bill a statistician is a misnomer. He is a writer who took on the challenge of debunking baseball's conventional wisdom through the use of statistical evidence. At times, Bill may have felt as if he was the lone voice in the wilderness but there were a number of prominent early readers who were paying close attention, including current Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, who hired James as the ballclub's Senior Baseball Operations Advisor in 2002.
In what I view as the culmination of my "Abstracts From The Abstracts" series, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of interviewing Bill on Sunday, December 12, 2004 during the Winter Meetings in a restaurant at the Anaheim Marriott Hotel.
The following is the first in a three-part series of the conversation that took place at our two-hour breakfast on the third and final day of the meetings.
RL: I was curious how you originally came up with the idea of writing the Baseball Abstracts?
BJ: I didn't understand how difficult it was to do this. It actually started spring of '75 or '76 when I bought a stack of preseason baseball annuals. I was working my way through them and realized that there were guys writing these who didn't know more about it than I did. I thought, "I could do better than this," with no understanding of the difficulty of finishing the book and getting it published.
RL: How did you come up with the Baseball Abstract name?
BJ: All of the good names were taken. Digest, Guide, Register and Preview...so that was all that was left.
RL: Good choice. It has been reported that you sold about 75 copies of the 1977 Baseball Abstract.
BJ: I know that's been reported forever. That sounds reasonable but it's been so long ago, why would I remember?
RL: Is it true that you made less than $100 in profits selling those books?
BJ: I'd be surprised if I made any money at all.
RL: What kept you going from one year to the next?
BJ: Well, I did the second one because I didn't do a good job on the first one. The first one I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I didn't get a lot of it done. So I thought if I started this earlier and worked harder on it, I could do more things.
While the Abstracts didn't sell big numbers, the other good things that happened in my career happened as a side benefit to the Abstracts.
RL: In the 1978 Baseball Abstract, you wrote if readers didn't like your work, their money would be "cheerlessly refunded." Did anybody ever take you up on that?
BJ: Uhh, it seems to me that somebody did.
RL: [shakes his head]
BJ: I'm almost sure that one person did.
RL: Shame on him. I bet that person wishes he had that book back. I was curious how you developed the "dot, dot, dot" style of writing used in the early Abstracts?
BJ: I don't think I developed that. I think I borrowed it. There were certain Sporting News columnists of that era who wrote the same way.
RL: I think your writing is as fun to read today as it was 27 or 28 years ago. One thing you pointed out in 1978 is the notion that "the final test of any statistic is whether or not it correlates with winning."
BJ: I might state it a little bit differently. The value of a statistic is whether it's tied to winning. There may be valuable statistics that don't correlate to winning because the correlation is hidden. A lot of people, who don't understand what we do, think that it's just measuring individual glory. What we're trying to do was change the way we looked at statistics, so instead of measuring individual glory they measured contributions to winning. That's always what I've been trying to do.
RL: You also mentioned that "any statistic the meaning of which can be expressed in understandable terms in a common English sentence is always to be preferred, other things being equal, to one which cannot."
RL: I think that holds more true today than ever given the number of complex formulas that have been created.
BJ: That is true. There are actually a lot of stuff that loses me and I don't know whether it loses me because I'm just not following the math or it loses me because someone failed to say what it is they are actually measuring. But if we don't know what it is you are actually measuring, then I'm kind of lost.
RL: In the 1979 Baseball Abstract, the text was copied on both sides of the paper for the first time.
BJ: [in a facetious voice] We progressed that year.
RL: You indicated that it was remarkable you had "so little company" back then.
BJ: Is that right? I didn't realize that.
RL: Do you remember who the others were back then?
BJ: There may have been a couple of people doing similar stuff that I didn't know. The only people I knew that were doing anything vaguely familiar were Pete Palmer and Dick Cramer. Otherwise I didn't really know anybody who was doing anything similar.
RL: You said there were "two essential offensive statistics: on-base percentage and advancement percentage"...
BJ: Right...which closely ties into slugging percentage. But that's right.
RL: Similar to Branch Rickey's way of looking at slugging, right?
BJ: That's correct.
RL: You developed Runs Created for the first time. Do you think Runs Created has made any significant advances since then or is that original definition close enough?
BJ: The more sophisticated versions are better and are probably worth the trouble figuring them out, but the basic formula still pretty much works.
RL: Do you think today's version of Runs Created, which includes hitting with runners in scoring position, is a more retrospective way of measuring contributions rather than a prospective way of determining value?
BJ: Stats are backward looking by nature. That is one of the limitations of them. One might be able to step from the stats to an assessment of the skills in a more pure form. It's debatable whether there is an ability or a skill involved in hitting with runners in scoring position so at that point, you might cut that off. As long as you are simply dealing with what the stats mean, they are always backward looking. The danger is that because stats are backward looking, if you're not careful, you could be the last person to see something.
There may be a pitcher who adds a pitch and the scout may see immediately that, wow, that pitch looks good and it's going to make him into a totally different pitcher. But, if you are just looking at the stats, you won't see that until two years later when the value of it has gone...so there are some situations in which you need to be aware of that.
RL: You brought "park illusions" to the forefront that year. I knew there were differences from ballpark to ballpark but never realized the magnitude of those differences until I read your work.
BJ: Well, Pete Palmer was certainly ahead of me at that time. It is surprising how far back some knowledge of that goes. Rob Neyer and I started noticing when pitchers became aware of what can now be called "the Colorado effect." As soon as the Babe Ruth era began, it was very apparent pitchers in Salt Lake City and other high altitude towns were very aware of that right away, so park effects have been around for a long, long time.
RL: In the 1979 Abstract, you noted that Rod Carew once swung at two pitches when he was being intentionally walked, trying to get the pitcher to throw him something he could reach. Do you think that is a strategy Barry Bonds could employ today?
BJ: I don't know. I would argue about it this way. If it is genuinely advantageous for the defense to intentionally walk Barry Bonds, then logically it has to be defensible for Bonds to swing at one or two pitches to try to negate that advantage and try to tempt them into throwing him a pitch. On the other hand, if hitters never react by swinging at pitches to try to stop the opposing team from intentionally walking them, the implication is that the offense always agrees to accept it even though the defense thinks the walk is helpful, which seems somewhat illogical.
RL: Do you think if Bonds swung at a pitch or two that pitchers would then decide to pitch to Barry by virtue of being ahead of him in the count?
BJ: No, in the case of Bonds, probably not. I suspect if number eight hitters in the National League, for example, swung at a pitch or two, the pitcher would decide to try and get him out. In the case of Bonds, it's black and white. His walk totals have become surreal because of a blanket decision not to pitch to him with men on base. I'm fairly confident that the blanket decision would automatically cover the situation where he was hitting 0-2 just as much as if he were hitting 0-0.
RL: Moving to the 1980 Baseball Abstract, you defined sabermetrics for the first time.
BJ: Is that right?
RL: Yes, you said sabermetrics is "the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records."
BJ: And not a very good definition. My wife bought a dictionary recently and I pulled it out to check to see if sabermetrics was in there, which it is, but the definition is even worse. They defined it as "the computerized use of baseball statistics" or something. It's an awful definition because computers don't have anything to do with it.
RL: Well, as long as they didn't attribute that definition to you, then maybe it's OK. [wink]
On that subject, in the 1981 Baseball Abstract, you said "good sabermetrics respects the validity of all types of evidence, including that which is beyond the scope of statistical validation."
BJ: I'll be darned. I'm glad to know I wrote that back then. In the wake of Moneyball, some people have tried to set up a tension in the working baseball community between people who see the game through statistics and scouts. There is no natural tension there. There's only tension there if you think that you understand everything. If you understand that you're not really seeing the whole game through the numbers or you're not seeing the whole thing described through your eyes, there is no real basis for tension and there's no reason for scouts not to be able to talk and agree on things.
RL: Conversely, you indicated that "bad sabermetrics attempts to end the discussion by saying that I have studied the issue and this is the answer."
BJ: That's one I'm still committed to.
RL: Do you still see bad sabermetrics out there?
BJ: Yeah. One of my failings is that I can't keep up with the discussion very well. My justification for it is that I grew up in a world in which nobody was doing this type of baseball research and the only person who was working on the issues was me. I was 40 years old before there became to be an established community of people working on the issues. I never established a habit of following the rest of the discussion. I often wished I did.
RL: Now that you're with the Red Sox, do you find that you have less time than before staying abreast of the developments within the sabermetric community?
BJ: I don't have the time and sometimes I think I'm wasting time studying something that probably someone else has already studied or someone else knows more about it than I do. Nonetheless, I don't know where the research is and I'm not in the habit of looking through it.
RL: In light of the Red Sox World Series victory this year, I thought it was interesting that you wrote in the 1981 Abstract "the lion's share of championships have been won by teams which play in pitcher's parks." Do you think that still holds true today?
BJ: I think it is true. I think there are special challenges to winning a championship playing in a hitter's park. If you look at the last few years, I'm not sure. I mean, Arizona is obviously a hitter's park and they won a championship. But you got Anaheim, Florida, and several with the Yankees. I think it's still possibly true.
[We take a break to visit the buffet line.]
Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part Two of my exclusive interview with Bill James.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]