Breakfast With Bill James (Part Three)
Who: Bill James and Rich Lederer
What: Interview ("Abstracts From The Abstracts")
Where: Marriott Hotel in Anaheim, CA
When: Sunday, December 12, 2004 (Winter Meetings)
[The discussion transitions from Bill's former assistants to his current boss.]
RL: In "Inside-Out Perspective," a chapter in the 1984 Baseball Abstract, you wrote about the differences between the way a forest looks on the inside and the way it looks from the outside. How do the trees look now that you are on the inside working for the Red Sox and General Manager Theo Epstein?
BJ: Theo works phenomenally hard. He is 31 and has a lot more energy than I do. He works really hard. At the same time, what makes him successful over the course of the year are eight or ten decisions. If those eight or ten decisions are good, he's going to have a good year. If they're not, he's not. But it's not just those eight or ten decisions because, in order to make those eight or ten things happen, you have to try to make 800 things happen and only one percent of them actually happen. I try to stay close enough to the process of trying to make things happen to contribute to seeing the eight things that eventually happen are good decisions. I don't try to work as hard as Theo because I couldn't. I don't try to make the decisions because they're not my decisions to make. I just try to stay involved enough to know what's going on.
RL: After the 1984 Baseball Abstract sold 150,000 copies and peaked at #4 on the New York Times bestseller list, the Elias Sports Bureau produced The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst. How did Elias impact your decision to stop publishing the Abstracts a few years later?
BJ: Not only the Analyst but other books started to appear. It started with Rotisserie guides. It started a competition to get the books out earlier, which caused the timeframe in which the books had to be written to evaporate. In the 1978 Abstract, if you read it carefully, you'll find remarks about things that happened early in the 1978 season because by the time the '78 season had opened, I wasn't even done writing the book. I probably finished it on April 20th of 1978 and was selling it by early May of 1978 because it was just a matter of getting it copied and bound.
The first national publication -- the 1982 Abstract -- was due to the publisher by December 15th and was out in bookstores the first week of April. I tried to push to get the deadline moved back into January so I had a little more time to write the book. The first Elias Analyst came out in March, so we tried to come out in early March, then they tried to come out on the first of March, so we tried to come out in late February. This competition caused the book to be due to the publisher by November 10th or something. The season ends on October 25th! If I were older and more mature, I would have told the publisher "You do what you want but I'm not sending this book until January 15th." But I tried to cooperate with them and they would talk to me how important it was to get the book in earlier. I tried to go along with them but it just caused the timeframe to disappear.
RL: The size of the book had increased every year from 1977 through 1986 and then the number of pages declined in the 1987 and 1988 Abstracts.
BJ: I wasn't aware of that.
RL: Was it due to the new deadlines imposed on you?
BJ: I don't know what caused it. It could be the fact that I had a baby in '86. [smiles]
RL: Fair enough. In the 1985 Baseball Abstract, you developed the Major League Equivalencies, which I think had a big impact on baseball.
BJ: Right, [deadpanning] it could be the end.
RL: You also analyzed the Major League draft and the impact on drafting high school and college players. At one time, there was a bias towards high school players. Now the bias is towards college players. Do you think it is possible that could change again?
BJ: We debate this a lot -- and I can't really tell you what we debate within the Red Sox system -- but we all assume that, if more and more people move toward drafting college players, there will come a point at which the advantage of college players will disappear. Then there is a question of how we will recognize that point and when will it occur and how close are we to that point occurring. We worry about that a lot, but I don't think we know the answer.
RL: The 1986 Baseball Abstract was dedicated to John and Sue Dewan, your "heckuva good wife" Susan McCarthy, Dan Okrent, Pete Palmer, and Craig Wright. I know Craig is a "treasured friend and compatriot." What is he doing these days?
BJ: Craig, at one point, retired from sabermetrics entirely. He was working as a Christian Science counselor -- I think he still does that -- but he's back doing some sabermetrics. I got a very long email from him last week, talking about the Red Sox, congratulating me on the World Series, and I responded to that. I still hear from him several times a year, but since we talk almost entirely about baseball, you asked what he's doing personally and I don't really know.
RL: Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
BJ: George Brett, probably.
RL: If George Brett was the best player you ever saw, who was the best pitcher?
BJ: I'll give you a Kansas City baseball fan's response to that. If you ever saw Bret Saberhagen on a day when he had his stuff, I'm not sure that you could have been better. You would see Saberhagen on those days and think, "This is perfection in a pitcher." He would be throwing 98 with excellent movement on the fastball, big curve, tremendous change, fantastic control, excellent fielder, and a phenomenal understanding how to pitch. I know over the course of his career he wasn't (Roger) Clemens -- I guess Clemens is the greatest pitcher I ever saw -- but Saberhagen on a given day, when he was healthy, it was hard to see what separated him from being perfect.
RL: Short answers on the following players, who mostly spanned the life of the Abstracts. I have to lead off with Bert Blyleven.
BJ: Wonderful curveball and apparently a wonderful character. There are a lot of stories about him that you hear from inside baseball that I never knew about when I was writing.
RL: Mike Schmidt.
BJ: Sabermetric superstar. A .270 hitter but such a great player despite a modest batting average that everyone had to figure out he was a great player anyway.
RL: Joe Morgan.
BJ: Similar. We all wish he was as good a broadcaster as he was a player.
RL: Johnny Bench.
BJ: I don't have any comment on him.
RL: Gary Carter.
BJ: Carter hit about the same things as Bench did, only he did them less spectacularly.
RL: Carlton Fisk.
BJ: I loved watching Carlton Fisk play. There's a movie, "For Love of the Game," in which Kevin Costner plays a no-nonsense baseball player and, to me, Carlton Fisk was that character come to life. Although the character was a pitcher, it still fits him.
RL: Rickey Henderson.
BJ: Rickey is one of a kind. Someone should write a really good book about Rickey. There is an essential connection between ego and greatness and no one better illustrated that than Rickey. When Rickey is 52, he will still believe that he could play in the majors. You can say that his ego is out of scale to his real world, but his ego is what made him so special. Somebody should document mannerisms and Rickey was a walking catalog of annoying mannerisms. He was a show. Every at-bat was a show. It's not like a Reggie Jackson show where it's done for television. It's a live show. It's done for the guys in the ballpark and the guys on the field. The show made him totally unique.
Tim Raines was almost as great of a leadoff man and almost as great of a player. Tim is a good guy, just a nice, reasonable person that everybody likes. Rickey is a show. [laughs] The show was essential to his greatness.
RL: OK, here's one for you. If Bobby Grich or Darrell Evans were ever inducted into the Hall of Fame, do you think that would be a feather in the cap of your work and the sabermetric community?
BJ: Absolutely not. If Bobby Grich or Darrell Evans ever makes the Hall of Fame, that's a tribute to Bobby Grich or Darrell Evans. It has nothing to do with me.
RL: There were about eight managers during this time that were among the most significant in the history of baseball. Could you comment on Whitey Herzog?
BJ: Whitey always reminded me that there is more than one way to make things work. I don't mean he reminded me personally. I've never had a conversation with him in my life. Whitey's way of thinking about problems is very different from mine, but it was self-evidently effective. That always reminded me that there are a lot of things that I'm just looking at this in one way, and there are other ways of looking at it that work very well, too.
RL: Who was your favorite manager during the 1970s and 1980s?
BJ: Earl Weaver and Herzog were very different. Both were wonderful managers to watch work. Herzog was "let's take charge of this game, let's make this game as hard as possible for the other team, let's force the action, put pressure on them, and make them lose." Weaver is like "let's be patient, look for our opportunities, and eventually grind out a win." Their approaches were totally opposite, but they were both extremely effective.
RL: Gene Mauch. How do you feel about the little ball versus the three-run homer?
BJ: I think Mauch was a tremendous manager. I know that his record was .500 or under .500, but I think that he was a terrific manager and if you had put him in charge of a team like the Red Sox last year he would have been as successful as we were. I think he was very, very good. He's just different.
RL: Dick Williams.
BJ: Dick Williams may have been too much like me personally to have been a successful manager in the long run. Dick was not subtle or generous or patient. Dick knew what he thought and he knew what he wanted to do and his notion was that since he was the manager that was the way things ought to be done. [laughs] And so he was very, very effective in the short run. In the long run, you had to do something else.
RL: If you were to produce the 2005 version of the Bill James Baseball Abstract, what would be some of the features that you would want to discuss?
BJ: Baserunning and fielding. I know that I've spent more time worrying about fielding in my career than I ever have about hitting, but that's because we started out so far behind and that is still true. We're still way behind on fielding and baserunning. We ought to do better.
RL: That's great. We've got 99% covered on hitting...
BJ: Right, right.
RL: ...and there are these guys who are still worrying about finding some magic formula...
BJ: I know, I know.
RL: ...it drives me nuts.
BJ: Me, too!
RL: Why not put that same time and energy into fielding and baserunning instead of that last 1% of hitting?
BJ: That's right, that's right.
RL: As you look to the future, is there anything beyond fielding and baserunning that we haven't even begun to develop?
BJ: Transitions between levels. As the world gets smaller and there is more interaction all the time between people playing baseball in Caracas and people playing baseball in Japan -- if you look at the playing biography of Tsuyoshi Shinjo, he went to the Domincan to the Japanese minor leagues when he was 16 [laughs] -- maybe he wasn't 16, who the hell knows? [laughs] There is a difference in the quality and also a difference in the way the game is played and our understanding of that could be a lot better.
RL: Bill, you credited "veteran leadership" in a couple of interviews after the World Series as the reason the Red Sox came back and beat the Yankees. There was a debate whether or not you were saying that tongue-in-cheek.
BJ: Right. I certainly was not saying that tongue-in-cheek. You also have to understand that somebody asked me why the Red Sox won in 2004. I can't say it was because we were geniuses. First of all, it's not true. Even if it was true, you're trying to find an answer that (a) is true and (b) you can give. And by saying veteran leadership was more important than other things -- maybe not really -- but it's a valid answer. I don't think you can come back from a 3-0 hole against the Yankees without guys who really believe in themselves [laughs] and guys who know how to handle a situation like that, so it's a true answer. Maybe it's not the only true answer, but it's the one I chose to give.
RL: I think that's great. There really was this discussion wondering whether you were saying that in jest like you've been known to do sometimes or if you were being serious.
BJ: I was being very serious.
RL: Well, Bill, you've been very kind and generous with your time. I enjoyed our discussion very much.
BJ: I appreciate it. I have a meeting upstairs. We've got irons in the fire and I better get up there. Thanks a lot.
RL: Thank you, Bill.
Bill and the Boston Red Sox were busy indeed. They signed David Wells the day before to a creative two-year contract although the official press release wasn't announced until two days after our meeting. We talked about that deal as we walked out of the restaurant.
In addition, the Rule 5 Draft was the day after our meeting. The Red Sox also signed John Halama, Edgar Renteria, Matt Clement, Wade Miller (in what may have been the best acquisition of the offseason), and Jason Varitek within the next two weeks.
December 2004. A special month for the Red Sox and me.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]