Breakfast With Bill James (Part Two)
Who: Bill James and Rich Lederer
[Bill returns from the buffet with eggs Benedict and potatoes, Rich with scrambled eggs, sausage, and fruit. The discussion turns toward today's more advanced sabermetric studies.]
RL: Do you feel as if the baserunner on the front end of a double play has much bearing on the outcome?
BJ: I think it probably has an impact. I wish we had specific data about it. Less than two weeks ago, I was studying it with some guys I work with at BIS (Baseball Info Solutions), who do the Handbooks now, working on a form for a baserunning report. One thing that it will say on the stat sheet is how many times a guy is thrown out on the front end of a double play. There is no reason not to know.
RL: Do you think people are calculating that on any level?
BJ: The information is available. If they're calculating it, they're not publishing it.
RL: With respect to baserunning, are you working on any other stats that are of interest to you?
BJ: We are working on it. It's of interest to me at least. The problem is you can create 20 categories of events for baserunners (first to third on a single, baserunner stops at second on a single, baserunner is thrown out at third on a single, baserunner scores from first on a double, etc.). If you are going to report those results, then you need to summarize the categories somehow. So it's hard to report summary categories without leaving out specific information or, on the other hand, it's hard to find room to publish the whole detailed report.
RL: Do you think there is much work left on outfielder's throwing arms in allowing or preventing base runners to advance?
BJ: Yes, there is. As long as we've been doing this and as much attention has been paid to this, it is curious that we don't have this information. Well, someone has it. But where is it? It's curious that this basic information, such as runners going first to third on Vladimir Guerrero vs. ordinary right fielders, is not publicly available. There is no reason for it.
RL: Another thing, Bill, that needs work -- and you brought it up in one of your Abstracts regarding Toby Harrah -- is the idea that advanced defensive metrics only account for the quantity of the balls that may or may not get through, but not the quality of the result. In the Harrah example, the fact that he played the line and prevented more doubles by doing so isn't adequately reflected in his fielding stats.
BJ: John Dewan (BIS) is working on the problem also, and he has shown some results. He has a formula. Just this year, he added that adjustment.
RL: Is it significant for both infielders and outfielders?
BJ: Yes. As far as significance, take the case of Torii Hunter. If you are making five extra plays a year and they are all what would be otherwise home runs, it's real significant. It's very significant also for infielders. I suppose if you have a first baseman who plays way off the line, he may wind up making plays that the second baseman would make anyway whereas the balls he's not getting to wind up going for a double down the first base line.
[The conversation shifts back to a chronological review of the Baseball Abstracts.]
RL: I just realized, Bill, but it just happens that we covered the 1977-1981 Abstracts before taking a break to get a bite to eat. These five books were, of course, self-published. Things began to look up the next year when Ballantine Books won a bidding war to publish the 1982 Baseball Abstract.
BJ: Well, as to the bidding war -- I don't think I've ever told anybody this before -- but I believe Ballantine paid me $10,000 for the first national Abstract. It wasn't exactly the type of bidding war in which one retires. (laughs) The first one did well enough that we did get a contract for four years for a reasonable amount of money.
RL: The 1982 edition was the first Abstract that included "Bill James" in the title of the book.
BJ: Yeah, that wasn't my decision or idea. I would have never done that myself.
RL: Your name didn't even appear on the cover until 1979...
BJ: Is that right?
RL: ...and then only as an author.
BJ: People from publishing said, "You gotta put your name in the title of the book." The publisher made that decision.
RL: Dan Okrent wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about you the previous year. How did Dan discover you?
BJ: I can't speak for him but one of Dan's friends ordered the book when Dan was organizing the Rotisserie league. The guy had this book and then Dan got interested in it. He contacted me from that, I believe.
RL: You had written an article in Esquire before that?
BJ: The first Esquire article was in '79 but that also was Dan. In '78, Dan found the book and wrote me a letter to arrange for me to write the Esquire baseball previews in '79, '80 and '81.
RL: When were you first published in a national magazine?
BJ: I was published in Baseball Digest in 1975, so it depends on how you define "national magazine."
RL: There you go. In the 1982 Baseball Abstract, you introduced the Defensive Spectrum, which I believe was one of your biggest contributions. How did you develop that and does it still hold true to today?
BJ: It still holds true. I use the Defensive Spectrum as an example to try to explain to somebody why the definition of sabermetrics proposed by the dictionary ("computerized study of baseball records") is totally wrong. The Defensive Spectrum doesn't have anything to do with numbers, doesn't have anything to do with computers, statistics or anything. It has to do with organizing concepts so that you can understand them.
The Defensive Spectrum is still tremendously useful to me. The Red Sox...we don't have a shortstop -- we're losing (Orlando) Cabrera -- so there's a debate in the organization. If we had no second baseman and could come up with a lefthanded-hitting second baseman and a righthanded-hitting second baseman that were pretty good, no one would worry too much about it. But shortstop is really hard to find guys who are good. If you wind up filling in someone at that position, you almost, by definition, wind up weak. If we needed to attune at first base, we'd be fine. We'd find a guy who could crush lefties and a lefty who was pretty good, and we'd be fine.
At shortstop, if you have to fill in, you're in trouble most of the time. The Defensive Spectrum is a necessary concept to explain why that is true because there is nobody drifting into the shortstop position because he failed [chuckling to himself] at somewhere else. Nobody! There are guys who are good and there are the guys who are not shortstops because they're not good.
RL: One of the things you have pointed out is the absence of players at the right end of the Spectrum and the abundance of players at the left side. As such, in building a ballclub, Bill, is it important to focus on the right side if you were starting a team from scratch?
BJ: I think a lot of people understand that even if they have never heard of the Defensive Spectrum. I have a nephew who's been a huge Red Sox fan since birth who's very, very sharp about what the Red Sox need to do. Very often he calls and tells me "I think the Red Sox ought to do this, this and this" and, at that moment, that's exactly what we are trying to do. He's that sharp. He's a huge Nomar fan, so a year ago he was asking, "Why are you guys getting all these minor league shortstops?"
We have five shortstops in the minor leagues who are going to be major league players. I'm not kidding you. We have Hanley (Ramirez), who everyone knows about. There's a guy who's going to be at Triple-A next year, Kenny Perez. He's probably not going to be a major league star, but he is going to be a major league player. The guy we drafted last year named Dustin Pedroia. He's very good. Guys in the lower levels, Christian Lara and a guy named (Luis) Soto. And they are all good. The reason why you do that is they are all good, but they are probably not all shortstops. One of them will be a good second baseman, one may be a third baseman or a leftfielder or something, but you start them out at shortstop.
RL: It gives you a lot more flexibility.
RL: If you start out at first base or DH, there's nowhere to go.
RL: One of the other things you wrote about in the 1982 book was that players who have "unusual batting stances" tended to be good hitters. You mentioned Rod Carew, Brian Downing, and I think John Wockenfuss.
BJ: I imagine John Wockenfuss is very flattered to be mentioned with Rod Carew. [smiles] I don't know if they tend to be good, but I still like them. A lot of scouts like a guy who's odd just because if you thought they were doing something wrong, you can fix that. If he's doing something that no one else can do, then that's probably a useful thing.
RL: In the 1983 Baseball Abstract, you said "Hi. My name is Bill James, and I'm an eccentric." I think that was the first time you called yourself "an eccentric."
BJ: Probably the last. [laughter]
RL: You mention that year the debate over four-man and five-man pitching rotations. Do you think we will ever go back to the four-man rotation?
BJ: Between 1973 and 1984, baseball made two important steps back. In the early '70s, the workloads of pitchers were at historic high-water marks. They were higher than they had been since the Dead Ball era. Within ten years after that, we switched from a four-man to a five-man rotation and also began to limit pitchers in how many pitches they throw in a game and began to use more and more relievers earlier in the game.
In spite of these changes, it is difficult or impossible to establish that injury rates for pitchers have dropped. It seems to me that the desire to avoid injuring pitchers is certainly good and we should do whatever we can to avoid injuring pitchers. But it seems to be clear that one of those adjustments was appropriate and one was overkill. It's difficult to explain how you can make two changes designed to reduce injury rates to pitchers without reducing injury rates to pitchers! I think there is better evidence for the pitch limits than there is for the five-man rotation and, therefore, I think it's reasonably likely that at some point in the future we will go back to the four-man rotation.
RL: In the old days, pitchers like Christy Mathewson would throw harder to certain batters than to others. The fact that we have DHs now and second basemen who can hit, does that have an effect on the quality of each pitch?
BJ: Yes. When I wrote about that, I wasn't aware of that transition in history until I was working on the Historical Abstract -- and I wrote about that in '83 or '84. When I wrote about that, I thought it was over. I thought that was a transition that happened in history but what I didn't realize, particularly in the '90s, was this transition was still ongoing. One of the great differences between the '70s and now is that now you have a lot of guys who throw 86 as starters who can throw 90 as relievers for one inning and who do that. So, the starters push themselves harder, are out of the game earlier, and then you see a series of relievers who are throwing harder. So yes, it does affect the quality of the pitch but it's an open question -- a fair question -- whether by making this transition we've lost this, sort of, "pitchtility."
The Orioles in the '70s were extremely successful with a bunch of pitchers who probably threw 82-85 ninety percent of the time. Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, and Steve Stone weren't hard throwers but they could pitch 250 innings by saving their best stuff and pacing themselves. People don't pitch that way anymore, and it's not clear that you couldn't pitch that way anymore. It's fairly likely you could.
A few years ago we had a lead-off man, Brady Anderson, who hit 52 homers. In the '70s the idea of a lead-off man hitting 30 home runs was preposterous. Now it's as common as dirt. So that's a real transition, that you have to worry about the home run on every pitch. A lot of people because of that are reluctant to throw that 82 mile-an-hour screwball or cutter or something because they're afraid they're going to be changing the scoreboard with just one bad pitch.
RL: Excellent. In the player ratings section of the 1983 Abstract, you mention that you were hired by the Hendricks Brothers to help on Joaquin Andujar's salary arbitration. When did you begin to serve in that capacity?
BJ: It started in November, 1979, I think. I worked with the Hendricks Brothers regularly for about ten years and gradually cut it down and eliminated it in the early 1990s. I also worked for a lot of the other agents.
RL: Switching gears here, the Law of Competitive Balance, the Plexiglass Principle, and the Whirlpool Principle are all favorites of mine. How do these theories relate to how you would analyze trends or players today?
BJ: It relates to how you would analyze everything. People are astonished that our elections tend to wind up 50/50 or 51/49 but it's just the Law of Competitive Balance. When a political party is ahead, they get arrogant and start to overreach. When they are behind, they tend to compromise and gain. It's just the Law of Competitive Balance working itself out. It relates to how I analyze everything.
RL: In the Player Ratings section of the 1983 Abstract, you did a number on Enos Cabell.
BJ: I believe I told this story to several reporters, but I don't remember ever seeing it in print so I'll tell you again. One of the agents I worked for was Tom Reich and I went to a party at Tom's house and Enos Cabell was there. I was introduced to him and there was no look of recognition in his eyes and I thought, "Thank God." [laughs] But, later in the evening, I was talking to him and he made a joke about something I'd written, and I realized he knew exactly who I was. He was just unbelievably classy in handling it. So, from that time on, [chuckling] I assure you I have not written another negative word about Enos Cabell in the last 20 years. He was a very nice man and a very classy man. I don't know what I wrote about him, but I know people still ask me about it. [laughs]
RL: In the 1984 Baseball Abstract, you dedicated the book to sportswriters Bob Hentzen, Jim Murray, and Leonard Koppett.
RL: I found it surprising that they were the heroes of your adolescence rather than athletes.
BJ: I think that's fairly common. For a lot of people, the athletes are sort of the secondary heroes of the universe. If you interview general managers, I think that you would find that more of them grew up fantasizing about being general managers than fantasizing about being second basemen. Maybe they want to be second basemen, too, or clean-up hitters but...
RL: ...I'd rather grow up to be Bill James than Jim Rice.
RL: You hired Jim Baker that year. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the different people that worked for you. The fact that your disciples have become notable in their own right reminds me of the success of Bill Walsh and his assistant coaches.
BJ: Jim Baker is a very talented person. I conducted perhaps an over-organized search for an assistant at that time and hired him. He was the most talented person I could find. He is an extremely funny writer. He's hilarious. I think everybody who knows Jim and knows how good his stuff is has been waiting for him to explode as a popular pop icon for 20 years. It hasn't happened yet and maybe it won't, but he's a very talented guy.
RL: Rob Neyer was your second assistant.
BJ: Rob is the easiest person to work with that I've had. I hired him just because I liked him. I knew he was a big baseball fan. It was sort of a trial thing and I didn't really know how long it would last. He is a natural assistant to me because I'm not organized enough to spend any time directing anybody's work. You give Neyer a stack full of baseball books and he's busy. He was naturally doing it by his own intellectual curiosity and interests so I never really had to worry about what he was doing, which was a good thing for me.
RL: How about John Sickels?
BJ: I hired John because I was looking for an assistant. We went to lunch and one of the things I did was draw up a list of young players. I thought I'd ask John to see if he knew anything about them as sort of an intern test. He knew far more about these players than I did! Just off the top of his head, he could rattle off where they were last year and what they were doing. I was quite amazed at that. John always had -- and it doesn't have anything to do with me -- an area of expertise. He always knew more about that stuff than anybody did. Through working with me, he was able to let people know all of the expertise he had in that area.
RL: Though he is not as well known as Jim, Rob, and John, tell me about the relationship between you and your good friend, Mike Kopf.
BJ: Mike is an interesting guy. He's single, older than I am, thin, spends a lot of time at racetracks, a lot of time at bars. Mike also reads voluminously and has this phenomenal acquaintance with classical music. He has this memory that, you go to a baseball game -- he's sitting there drinking pretty heavily -- and you can talk about the game two years later and you realize that he can still reconstruct the fourth inning in his mind and he starts debating with you why the manager bunted in a situation in the fifth inning. [laughing] "What in the hell are you talking about?!" [laughter persists] There's no frame of reference here at all. He remembers and bursts upon certain instances that happened in a game.
RL: Mike seems like quite a character. Thanks for sharing those stories.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for the third and final segment of my exclusive interview with Bill James.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]