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View Full Version : 10 minutes with Bill James



westofyou
03-26-2010, 09:29 AM
http://www.azcentral.com/members/Blog/NickPiecoro/76897



How has working for a team changed the way you look at the game? (James is a senior advisor for the Boston Red Sox.)

For one thing, I canít believe how much I didnít know. I knew in theory there was a lot of stuff I didnít know, but working with the team exposes me to different things. Itís profound. I sit next to scouts at games and they just see things I would never have seen I guess because I didnít play the game. An example is a right-handed pitcher will throw his change-up five times as often to a lefty as he will to a righty. I never knew that. I think everybody in baseball knew it except me. Iíve been around baseball for a long time but I donít pick that stuff up. I still donít understand pitching patterns at all, basically. Understanding how they talk and how they think is extremely useful to me, although I donít have the ability to follow through on it the way they do.

Sea Ray
03-26-2010, 09:43 AM
An example is a right-handed pitcher will throw his change-up five times as often to a lefty as he will to a righty. I never knew that. I think everybody in baseball knew it except me. I’ve been around baseball for a longtime but I don’t pick that stuff up. I still don’t understand pitching patterns at all, basically

I can't believe Bill James didn't know that. I'll give him another one: That same RHP will throw many more sliders to a RH batter than he does to a LH batter. It has to do with the principle of ball movement. As a pitcher you generally want to throw balls that tail away from a hitter. A lot of pitchers are throwing circle changes these days and that will tend to have a screwball effect; that is it'll dart down and away from a LH hitter given Bill James example.

This gives me the impression that he's spent too much time immersed in numbers and not enough time watching games

Caveat Emperor
03-26-2010, 01:21 PM
This gives me the impression that he's spent too much time immersed in numbers and not enough time watching games

I think that's a vast oversimplification -- he just watches games differently than a scout would.

Think of it like a traffic accident that a lot of people witness. I'd expect an engineer or a scientist who was an eyewitness to give a very different account of the accident than a teacher or an author. Neither account would be "more correct" -- they'd just be different because people see things differently and are paying attention to different things.

lollipopcurve
03-26-2010, 01:37 PM
Think of it like a traffic accident that a lot of people witness. I'd expect an engineer or a scientist who was an eyewitness to give a very different account of the accident than a teacher or an author. Neither account would be "more correct" -- they'd just be different because people see things differently and are paying attention to different things.

Disagree. A scout sees more, probably much more, over the course of a game. A statistician is focused on quantifiable data, and that generally lacks significance until a large amount has been gathered.

westofyou
03-26-2010, 01:49 PM
Disagree. A scout sees more, probably much more, over the course of a game. A statistician is focused on quantifiable data, and that generally lacks significance until a large amount has been gathered.

But scouts have their own domain silos too. Often they only go to look at a player and then often all they see is that player, not the rest of the game, that tends to make their observations highly subjective. Any information they have is translated to a scouting report that is rich in its own domain language and is often only transferable to those who understand the language, so it lacks the ability to teach people about the player or the game unless they have been privy to that language.

nate
03-26-2010, 02:04 PM
But scouts have their own domain silos too. Often they only go to look at a player and then often all they see is that player, not the rest of the game, that tends to make their observations highly subjective. Any information they have is translated to a scouting report that is rich in its own domain language and is often only transferable to those who understand the language, so it lacks the ability to teach people about the player or the game unless they have been privy to that language.

Hence, front offices use and value both.

wolfboy
03-26-2010, 02:07 PM
I'd like to point out that just because Bill James wasn't all that familiar with pitching patterns doesn't mean that other SABR oriented types weren't. Take, for example, Dave Cameron's "An Open Letter to Rafael Chavez" post from a few years back. For those who aren't familiar with the post and the aftermath, this article sums it up nicely: http://www.seattleweekly.com/2007-08-01/news/uss-mariner-surprise-people-do-actually-read-blogs/ Cameron made these observations about Hernandez's pitching patterns from his home in NC, not at a game.

I think the fact that Bill James had a lot to learn about pitching patterns tells us a little bit about Bill James, not about SABR oriented analysis as a whole.

gonelong
03-26-2010, 03:38 PM
For one thing, I canít believe how much I didnít know. I knew in theory there was a lot of stuff I didnít know, but working with the team exposes me to different things. Itís profound.

I have not doubt he is being very earnest in this statement.

I think a lot of people lose sight of this when they are criticizing players, managers, GMs, owners, etc. I'm not saying that they are above criticism, or that they don't deserve it from time-to-time ... but IMO they get it way more than is warranted.

We just don't know the constraints these guys are working under; the players may be injured, having family problems, etc. - the manager may have players that can't go for one reason or another, but he doesn't want to advertise that to the other team ... the GM may have asked about signing a guy and the owner said no, or the player outright rejected the idea of playing for the team, etc. etc. etc.

These are just a few of the kind of things the team is just not going to want in the paper.

Having been exposed to more management activities than I care to, it becomes immediately obvious that the worker bees have no idea what is involved in the decision making process. (Not that it is their/our fault, that information is just generally not shared) I have heard a number of water-cooler complaints that make sense on the surface, but fall apart as soon as the specifics/constraints are considered at the management level.



I sit next to scouts at games and they just see things I would never have seen I guess because I didnít play the game. An example is a right-handed pitcher will throw his change-up five times as often to a lefty as he will to a righty. I never knew that. I think everybody in baseball knew it except me. Iíve been around baseball for a long time but I donít pick that stuff up. I still donít understand pitching patterns at all, basically.

I suspect the most likely reason is that the pitching data just wasn't available to the average Joe until recently. I suspect he'd have figured it out eventually.


Understanding how they talk and how they think is extremely useful to me, although I donít have the ability to follow through on it the way they do.


It never hurts to be able to speak the language.

GL

RFS62
03-27-2010, 09:41 AM
I recall a similar interview he gave to XM radio a couple of years ago. He was also talking about things he learned sitting with scouts that surprised him. One of his examples was that scouts were very interested in whether or not a pitcher was "hitting his spots". He talked about how that surprised him, that he hadn't ever considered it in his evaluations.

I found that astonishing, but very refreshing in his willingness to point it out.

traderumor
03-27-2010, 11:58 AM
I think the point isn't that "Bill James didn't know this, therefore people who spend their study time in statistical analysis have this same blind spot." The point I get is that, like any discipline, only using a certain tool or tools will lead to a much less rounded view of the discipline being studied than gathering data from various sources and angles.

A fitting analogy would be walking into a car dealership ready to buy a new car, having done all the research on the car's specs. Then you sit in it and drive it and find it isn't comfortable and rides awful. So, you don't why the specs say one thing but your ride tells you another, but I'm guessing you don't buy the car. Or at least you would be wise not to. There was value in knowing the specs, but it did not tell you all you needed to know about that car. The test drive ("kicking the tires" as they say) gave you vital information that helped make a wise decision.

George Anderson
03-27-2010, 01:30 PM
I found that astonishing, but very refreshing in his willingness to point it out.

I agree, James could easily sit back and keep his mouth shut about the things he doesn't know about the game but instead he is willing to speak up and admit he doesn't know it all. I appreciate the mans humility.

kaldaniels
03-27-2010, 02:09 PM
I can't believe Bill James didn't know that. I'll give him another one: That same RHP will throw many more sliders to a RH batter than he does to a LH batter. It has to do with the principle of ball movement. As a pitcher you generally want to throw balls that tail away from a hitter. A lot of pitchers are throwing circle changes these days and that will tend to have a screwball effect; that is it'll dart down and away from a LH hitter given Bill James example.

This gives me the impression that he's spent too much time immersed in numbers and not enough time watching games

I would bet the farm Bill James knew that already.

jojo
03-27-2010, 02:24 PM
I think the point isn't that "Bill James didn't know this, therefore people who spend their study time in statistical analysis have this same blind spot." The point I get is that, like any discipline, only using a certain tool or tools will lead to a much less rounded view of the discipline being studied than gathering data from various sources and angles.

A fitting analogy would be walking into a car dealership ready to buy a new car, having done all the research on the car's specs. Then you sit in it and drive it and find it isn't comfortable and rides awful. So, you don't why the specs say one thing but your ride tells you another, but I'm guessing you don't buy the car. Or at least you would be wise not to. There was value in knowing the specs, but it did not tell you all you needed to know about that car. The test drive ("kicking the tires" as they say) gave you vital information that helped make a wise decision.

To me the point is that different people bring different perspectives to a topic/issue/problem and nobody knows everything there is to know/understand about anything-baseball included.

That's the beauty of redszone by the way.... often times people ask a question that makes someone else think about an issue from a different perspective leading to new insight. Redszone as an entity is brilliant (and thats why the archives need to go further back than 500 posts) because each of us contribute some unique perspective/insight.

TheNext44
03-27-2010, 03:59 PM
To me the point is that different people bring different perspectives to a topic/issue/problem and nobody knows everything there is to know/understand about anything-baseball included.

That's the beauty of redszone by the way.... often times people ask a question that makes someone else think about an issue from a different perspective leading to new insight. Redszone as an entity is brilliant (and thats why the archives need to go further back than 500 posts) because each of us contribute some unique perspective/insight.

Not me. I got nothing insightful to offer, just the ability to tick other posters off. :p:

RFS62
03-27-2010, 05:40 PM
Not me. I got nothing insightful to offer, just the ability to tick other posters off. :p:


That makes you executive material in my world

wolfboy
03-27-2010, 05:52 PM
That makes you executive material in my world

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/24/45501503_59464722fc.jpg

BCubb2003
03-27-2010, 06:12 PM
That makes you executive material in my world

It's your world, we just live in it.

I think there's a macro and micro side to this. SABR data is good for the macro, helping GMs figure out how a player is going to perform over the next five years, say. The micro helps managers determine how a player is going to perform over the next five games, at bats or pitches.

Considering how inefficient baseball is at finding and developing major leaguers, anything SABR can do to improve the measuring of performance is golden. And considering what a mental game it is, any given play might come down to unmeasurable factors.

RFS62
03-27-2010, 07:59 PM
It's your world, we just live in it.

I think there's a macro and micro side to this. SABR data is good for the macro, helping GMs figure out how a player is going to perform over the next five years, say. The micro helps managers determine how a player is going to perform over the next five games, at bats or pitches.

Considering how inefficient baseball is at finding and developing major leaguers, anything SABR can do to improve the measuring of performance is golden. And considering what a mental game it is, any given play might come down to unmeasurable factors.



Well said, Cubbmeister.

Especially that first thing.

;)

MWM
03-27-2010, 08:22 PM
Seems like Bill James spent about 20 years snubbing his nose at the baseball establishment, and he's going to spend the next 20 making amends trying to become one of them. Color me skeptical that he didn't know much of the stuff he claims now to not have known. Some of the things he talks about is fairly common sense that just about any educated baseball fan would understand.

RFS62
03-27-2010, 08:25 PM
Seems like Bill James spent about 20 years snubbing his nose at the baseball establishment, and he's going to spend the next 20 making amends trying to become one of them. Color me skeptical that he didn't know much of the stuff he claims now to not have known. Some of the things he talks about is fairly common sense that just about any educated baseball fan would understand.



You have to be kidding.

MWM
03-27-2010, 08:49 PM
You have to be kidding.

Not really! I mean, are you telling me you didn't know that pitchers throw change-ups way more often to opposite handed batters? I find that hard to believe. That's just common sense. For the RH pitcher, the change-up breaks back in towards RH hitter and away from a lefty, and vice versa for the LH pitcher. It's the exact same reason why lefties throw breaking balls to lefties me often than righties, and the same for RH pitchers vs RH hitters. This isn't earth shattering stuff. Of course they're not going to throw change-ups to hitters of the same side.

All anyone had to do was watch Tom Glavine get right handers out for 15 years with the exact same pitch understand this concept. It's pitching 101. If you're a lefty, you throw change-ups to RH and breaking ball to LH. It's generally better to have a pitch break away from a hitter than back in towards them. It's the same reason why a pitcher can really get burned trying to bust an opposite handed hitter inside with a fastball. It's coming in towards them, so if you miss your spot, or he's able to catch up to it, it's going a long way. No one is going to have trouble catching up to a change-up so having a slower pitch from a RH pitcher coming back in towards the hitter is disaster waiting to happen. If it's a slower pitch, it sure as hell better be headed away from the hitter instead of back over the hitting zone.

It's just an overall observation from watching James post-Moneyball. He seems to want to distance himself from the very movement he created and is now wanting to cozy up with the very people he built his career lambasting. It's not a judgment, just an observation. I may be way wrong.

And just to be absolutely certain, nothing in my comments are meant to devalue the scouts and the value they bring to the table. It's about James and these things he says he never knew. Heck, if James genuinely didn't know this about pitchers, I may have to agree with the idea that he didn't spend enough time paying attention to what was going on in the game.

westofyou
03-27-2010, 08:55 PM
It's just an overall observation from watching James post-Moneyball. He seems to want to distance himself from the very movement he created



Actually it's been 22 years since he drew the line in his last abstract, a line that he felt he had to draw.




I've also got to say, guys, that having done this, I've now done all I can do. I can't help you any more. . .I leave the field to whoever is playing in it. Because four months a year of cyclical depression has gotten too much for me. Because I am no longer certain that the effects of my doing this kind of research are in the best interests of the average baseball fan. Because I wonder if anything I found now could have any real impact on the game. Because I have been repaid for my years of doing this book in anonymity, and no longer have any claim to go on drawing paychecks from it. Because while I have enjoyed doing this book, I have only one lifetime and many dreams. Because I have confidence that I will make a living one way or another. Because I feel that I am on a collision course with my own audience. Because I suspect that my leaving the field may be in the interests of sabermetrics.


Because it is time to go, friends. I'm breakin' the wand, exit stage right. I hereby release any and all of my formulas, theories, and other systems of analysis to any other analyst who wishes to use them and to call them by name (runs created, value approximation method, etc.) either for private or economic use, even by Elias should they so desire. I'll be doing other things, writing other books. I won't be hard to find. I hope that some of you will enjoy those other books. I know that some of you won't, and that's all right, too. It's been good.

Bill James
Sabermetrician, Retired
February 1988

RFS62
03-27-2010, 09:07 PM
Not really! I mean, are you telling me you didn't know that pitchers throw change-ups way more often to opposite handed batters?



Am "I" telling you that? Of course not. He did though.

kaldaniels
03-27-2010, 09:18 PM
My first impression reading James remark was that he was unaware of the 5x part...not so much the fact that the changeup is thrown more to one type of handed-hitter.

MWM
03-27-2010, 09:28 PM
Am "I" telling you that? Of course not. He did though.

That's kinda my point. If I knew that and you knew that, and it's a pretty obvious thing to observe, how can a guy who spent his entire life in love with baseball and writing about it be completely oblivious to it? That's why it's difficult for me to take at face value.

MWM
03-27-2010, 09:30 PM
My first impression reading James remark was that he was unaware of the 5x part...not so much the fact that the changeup is thrown more to one type of handed-hitter.

Well, if that's really the number, then THAT is in fact a stat that comes from data and not observation. [/takes cover]. :evil:

IslandRed
03-27-2010, 10:38 PM
Well, if that's really the number, then THAT is in fact a stat that comes from data and not observation. [/takes cover]. :evil:

Well, if the "data" came from a scout with a pitch chart created by "observation," we can call it whichever one makes us feel better, I guess.

MWM
03-27-2010, 10:42 PM
Well, if the "data" came from a scout with a pitch chart created by "observation," we can call it whichever one makes us feel better, I guess.

Exactly!

RFS62
03-28-2010, 11:18 AM
That's kinda my point. If I knew that and you knew that, and it's a pretty obvious thing to observe, how can a guy who spent his entire life in love with baseball and writing about it be completely oblivious to it? That's why it's difficult for me to take at face value.



As much as many stat oriented fans hate to hear it, I believe it really is the difference between having played the game and having only observed it, no matter how smart or intuitive the observer may be.

Just because it's taken as an insult to say things like "you never played the game", there is some truth to it in many instances, and I think this is exactly the case here.