Join Date: Oct 2000
Q & A with Bill James, baseball analyst
This week, staff writer Paul Oberjuerge spoke with Bill James, baseball analyst, sabermetrician and famed author of "The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" (1985) and "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" (2001). James, now senior baseball operations advisor with the Boston Red Sox, will be inducted into the Pasadena-based Shrine of the Eternals next Sunday. Paul O's column on James appears in Sunday's edition. The following excerpts are an online exclusive from his interview with James.
QUESTION: Where did your first thoughts about discovering what really matters in baseball originate? How was it you began asking questions about what we all "knew" to be true?
ANSWER: I don't know for sure, but I know that I began thinking about these issues by the time I was in my mid-teens. There was a time in 1965 when I read in "The Sporting News" that Wes Parker of the Dodgers was such a great fielder that he probably saved the team a hit a game over another first baseman, but his bat was so weak the Dodgers didn't know whether they would be able to keep him in the lineup. I figured out if Wes Parker was an average fielder but got one more hit per game, his batting average would be .504. Figure it out.
Therefore, the Dodgers apparently were trying to figure out whether it was smart to keep a .504 hitter in the lineup. I would have been 15 then, so I was trying to figure those things out by age 15.
Q: My impression is you were considered something of a crank by baseball traditionalists (GMs, journalists) for quite some time. Do you recall when you felt that changed?
A: It was just a gradual thing. There wasn't any time when it changed.
Q: Is there any aspect of your research of which you are most proud? A particular thought or statistical device? Runs Created, Win Shares, the defensive spectrum, the value of on-base percentage, etc.?
A: Win Shares are a sort of end point, a culmination of the research that goes before them, so they were important in that way. Runs Created and Pythagorean Wins are practical contributions that everybody sort of uses. I suppose it's like asking which of my children I like best.
Q: Are baseball executive, baseball writers, fans even, approaching the game more intelligently now than they did 30 years ago? Is the level of discussion higher?
A: People are people; human nature doesn't change very much over time. Baseball being competitive, it moves forward all the time, not only in the last generation but in every generation. So ... certainly the discussion is more sophisticated now than it was a generation ago, but not that much of that is related to me. More of it is related to baseball being a bigger business that has more specialized executives.
Forty years ago, you had general managers who negotiated radio and TV contracts and ran the gift shop, as well as trying to keep the baseball team together. Naturally enough, they weren't very good at certain elements of the job. Modern front offices are very different, in that we have people with specialized knowledge and special skills.
Q: Is there a Last Bastion of Stunning Ignorance out there? Something you believe is obvious? That bugs you?
A: Well, there are many of my ideas which have been spinning their wheels for 25 years, perhaps because I haven't advocated them well or perhaps because they're just not true. Who knows. Perhaps 20, 30 percent of the ideas that I advocated years ago have been widely accepted, but probably 70 or 80 percent of them haven't. So I couldn't pick out one thing that's held out.
Q: I was re-reading your thoughts about the decade of the 1990s in "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," and I was struck by how you did not mention performance-enhancing drugs. At all. If you do another revision at the end of this decade, will you talk about the Steroids Era?
A: Perhaps, but a) I don't think people were talking much about PEDs at the time that I was writing that book; b) Even if they were, I really don't know much of anything about them, and I'm reluctant to write about things that I don't know much about; c) The fact that everybody else may regard that era as the steroid era doesn't necessarily make it true in my eyes. So, I don't know how I'll feel about it when the dust settles. I'm trying to figure it out.
Q: Should players known to use (or strongly suspected to have used) performance-enhancing drugs be treated differently in history? Was the Baseball Writers Association of America electorate correct in not voting Mark McGwire to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot? Are you cheering for Barry Bonds?
A: I'm not cheering for Bonds, but then, I didn't much like (Henry) Aaron, either. I look at it this way. There's a rule in basketball against traveling but the NBA has pretty much stopped enforcing it. Well, they still call traveling but they will allow you to take about five steps without dribbling as you are running toward the basket. There was no "decision" not to enforce this rule; they just kind of lost track of it. They started not calling one step and progressed to not calling two steps, not calling three steps, and eventually they just kind of lost track of the rule. Should the players who took advantage of this failure to enforce the rule be banned from the NBA Hall of Fame? After all, aren't they cheating? They're not obeying the rules. Julius Erving, out. The Hall of Fame doesn't need cheaters like you. Kobe, Michael, get out. If you don't play by the rules the way Elgin Baylor did, you're not deserving.
Or it is, rather, the responsibility of the LEAGUE to enforce the rule? It seems to me that it might be the responsibility of the league to enforce the rule rather than the responsibility of the media to punish those who didn't obey the rule that wasn't being enforced. I won't name any players, but there are a whole bunch of superstars who are now or are going to be involved in the PED accusations. We CAN'T start picking and choosing who we honor on that basis. It's hypocritical, and it's impractical. And it diminishes the game.
Bonds has hit more home runs than anybody else, or will have in a few weeks. That's kind of the end of the story as far as I'm concerned.
Q: Do you sense a shift back toward "small ball"? Home runs are down; is that good?
A: I think there is a shift back in that direction, yes.
Q: In the "New Historical Abstract," you seemed quite pessimistic about the future of "small market" franchises. Any change in thinking?
A: I don't think that's true, to begin with. I've never been pessimistic about the future of small-market franchises, I don't think. But in any case, there has been some quite significant progress on that issue within the past five years. The income disparities never entirely will go away, but they are starting to contract.
Q: Which players, despite your efforts to clarify these things, continue to be overrated? Underrated? Do a few of each come to mind?
A: I don't know. I never use the terms "overrated" and "underrated" because I'm never sure where players are rated to begin with. Over the weekend, somebody was talking about Curtis Granderson (of the Tigers) being tremendously underrated, which is true, but he's only been in the league two years. In that sense, the young players are always underrated and the veterans always overrated. Pat Burrell has a .390 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage every year but has played his whole career to a chorus of boos, so in that sense he is underrated.
But ... it's an awkward concept. I think it is hard enough to say who is good and who is not so good without getting into who is better than everybody else says they are or not as good as everybody else says they are.
Q: What do you think of the Shrine of the Eternals? Is it fun to belong to the same club as (outspoken 1960-70s slugger) Dick Allen and (catcher-turned-U.S. spy) Moe Berg?
A: I'm very flattered.
Q: Final thoughts on the steroid issue?
A: The steroid debate is, in a sense, very much like the immigration debate, in that at their essence is this problem: 1) Rules weren't enforced in the past; 2) What do we do now?
Perhaps we could solve all of our problems by offering a general amnesty to steroid users but banning undocumented immigrants from the Hall of Fame. Baseball at least has figured out this much: That we can't solve the problem unless we start enforcing the rules going forward. It's really impractical to start punishing people after the fact for rules violations that were ignored at the time.