When it comes to baseball statistics, analyst Bill James wrote the books
Bill James, the author, statistician, and baseball fanatic, was hired by the Red Sox as senior baseball operations adviser in Nov., 2002. (For The Globe Photo / Dave Kaup)
By Kelsie Smith, Globe Correspondent | March 30, 2006
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- You can't MapQuest 445 Tennessee St. Not technically, anyway.
It's on a block that doesn't actually exist, the street ending where it runs into ''The Kaw" -- what locals call the Kansas River.
But drive east down Fifth Street -- past Mississippi, Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio until the curve in the road at Fifth and Tennessee (here in Lawrence, the streets are named from east to west in the order in which they entered the Union) -- and there it is, shoved into an awkward corner lot, 15 feet from the train tracks, another 15 from the river.
The house is simple white, with wood siding, cobalt blue trim, and a clue that gives Bill James away -- resting atop a cobblestone pillar, an oversized baseball.
Perhaps it's fitting that the most mysterious member of the Red Sox' front office works at this mystery address in Lawrence, Kan., a quiet college town some 1,470 miles from 4 Yawkey Way.
The godfather of modern baseball statistical analysis, James is among a growing number of sabermetricians (a term he coined) being hired publicly by major league teams. The 56-year-old broke onto the scene with his revolutionary ''Baseball Abstract" in 1977, a book he produced annually for 12 years.
His ideas have been lauded and laughed at, excoriated and extolled, but here in this small, Midwestern world, James listens to none of it -- the bad or the good. He just works. The house-turned-office is simple. A few prints hang randomly on the walls and some baseball memorabilia lines the mantle. Homemade bookshelves constructed of raw boards resting on stacks of bricks stretch from floor to ceiling and trace the walls of James's office. Boxes are strewn about the floor, an old computer monitor sits abandoned on a table, and papers cover the desk -- it's five rooms filled with a lifetime of obsession.
The humble little house didn't always sparkle.
According to James's wife, Susan McCarthy, a tall, slender redhead who works from home as an artist, the place was in such bad shape a few years ago that the insurance company refused to cover it unless they fixed it up.
''It really did look bad. It just needed to be painted and the yard looked terrible," she recalls, sitting in the much more stately living room of the James's massive, vintage Victorian home on Ohio Street, just a few blocks from the office. ''Bill was supposed to be taking care of getting someone to mow, and he let months go by. He just doesn't like to take care of stuff like that."
What James does like to take care of are numbers, at least some of them.
''I'm utterly uninterested in any numbers that aren't connected to baseball," says James, who majored in English and economics at his beloved University of Kansas. ''If you put a dollar sign in front of it, I don't understand it. Math requires discipline. I work by obsession rather than by discipline."
In Kansas, James practices his obsession alone, saying he's ''too damn disorganized" to hire the help he needs (and, pausing quizzically asks, ''Are you looking for a job?").
And so the place is quiet. That is, except for the seven trains that rumble by each day on the tracks right outside the office window, shaking the shelves but going completely unnoticed by James as he talks about his work with the Red Sox.
Writing his ticket
This is James's fourth year as senior baseball operations adviser for the Sox. What that title means, or, rather, how much weight it carries, has been widely speculated. Does James affect daily rosters? Does he suggest shifts in the outfield in the middle of games?
Go ahead and ask him, but good luck getting a straight answer. Bill James is not a yes-or-no kind of guy. He will let you in, but just a little. No names, of course. No specifics. But shortly after returning from an eight-day trip to Fort Myers, Fla., in February, James described one of the 16 ''work projects" he picked up at spring training.
''There's a player on our team who we might keep or who we might trade," he generalizes. ''And there's an issue about his performance last year about which we need specific information. The specific information is, do players who have this tendency ever get over it or is it permanent?
''I need to study that, and I need to get that done within a week or two because I need to send it to [general manager] Theo [Epstein] because Theo needs to make a decision. Is this guy going to stay with us or do we involve him in a trade?"
His work today, it seems, has come a long way from that first Abstract, which wasn't exactly a success. James doesn't remember how much it was or how many he sold, but McCarthy remembers all too well -- at $3.50 a piece, the ''1977 Bill James Baseball Abstract" sold about 50 copies.
The second abstract fared slightly better, according, of course, to McCarthy, who remembers it sold more than 100 copies. James, whose last full-time day job was working at the Stokely-Van Camp pork-and-bean plant in Lawrence in the late 1970s (where he worked as a security guard and boiler room attendant, among other things), bumped up the price a whole 50 cents, a testament to the fact that, for him, this was about passion before profit (McCarthy says James wasn't sure what he was doing was worth any money, so he had a hard time charging people for it). But by the sixth edition, James had an agent, a book deal, and a little peace of mind.
''It finally allowed him to think, 'Yes, I can really do this,' " McCarthy says. ''Up to that point, it was still questionable because he certainly wasn't making enough money when it was self-published. It was a huge deal for us because neither of us ever had any money at all. Now we had some, and we were able to buy a house."
James does remember that book deal. He remembers feeling relief that the burden of self-publishing was gone. Talking about it, though, his tone is matter-of-fact. But ask him about his days working for agents on arbitration cases, and you see glimpses of that 11-year-old boy in Mayetta, Kan. (population about 300), who fell in love with baseball in the summer of 1961.
He tries to explain why arbitration was so fun. He proceeds haltingly, as he often does, changing directions in midthought, searching for an applicable analogy.
''It's sort of like playing lacrosse or stairwell field hockey or some game that nobody else played, but you loved it and played it all the time," he says. ''Everybody told you what a crappy game it was and why don't you play basketball or something normal. And then, all of a sudden, you're in a situation where there's a million dollars on the table and everyone has to play a game of stairwell field hockey with you. It's kind of like, 'Hey, this is fun. All these guys are trying to play my game.' "
Behind the scenes
James no longer plays alone. Today aspiring sabermetricians form groups across the country as Jamesian philosophy becomes more widely accepted. But perhaps the two most important Bill James devotees are John Henry and Epstein. Henry first read a James abstract in the early 1980s and says as an adult he waited for new Bill James books like he waited for new Beatles albums as a kid.
''In the summer of 2002 Theo [Epstein] and I were discussing the future GM," Henry wrote in an e-mail. ''[Theo] was standing in the doorway of my office, smiled and said, 'We should hire Bill James to be our general manager.' While he was being lighthearted about it, both of us knew that what was called 'Moneyball' was really 'Jamesianball.' "
Henry found James's e-mail address, and sent him an introduction and an offer all at once. He asked, among other things, simply, ''Why don't you work in baseball?" and added, ''We're intent on building an open, warm, and exciting working environment for the best in the game on and off the field. With or without you, we are going to be building on what you have introduced to the game we love."
James had been working on the fringes of professional baseball for more than 20 years when he got that first e-mail from Henry. He had arbitrated and secretly consulted for other teams, including the Royals in the 1990s. In those days, admitting James might be right was a Major League Baseball faux pas (he says there was ''very strong resistance" to his ideas in the organized baseball community for about 15 years), so part of his agreements with teams was silence, and that didn't bode well for James, who responded to an e-mail requesting an interview with, ''Oh, I talk to everyone." His early work with teams was frustrating and unsuccessful, a pattern he has broken since joining the Sox. And while Henry's pitch was quite compelling, James says he didn't need to be convinced.
''I was always battling the fact that people didn't really understand what I was talking about," James says. ''Theo and John Henry understand what I'm saying usually before I finish the sentence. When I tried working for other teams . . . I was talking gibberish."
Then, trailing off in notable Jamesian fashion and slipping into an impersonation, he adds, ''It was a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke. Did you ever see 'Cool Hand Luke?' "
In Boston, communication is not a problem. When James was hired in November 2002, the Sox didn't hesitate to make it public. Assistant GM Jed Hoyer says announcing James's hiring was never a question.
''Why hide it?" Hoyer says. ''It's something we're very proud of. We want to hire the best employees possible and from our standpoint why would we hide that?
''One thing with Bill is he's been a lightning rod for controversy, because there's a lot of conflict surrounding the sabermetric community, and he's considered kind of the godfather of that, but he doesn't care what people think about him, say about him. In that aspect I think he's perfect for Boston. He's unflappable."
James says he feels welcome to voice his opinions to the front office, but generally waits until someone asks. How important is he to the Sox? ''If I were to drop dead it would be quite awhile before the Red Sox noticed." Do they make moves you don't recommend? ''Yes, sometimes I'm filing a minority report," such as this spring, when James argued vociferously against one player and the Sox invited him to spring training nonetheless.
Feeling at home
Many of James's opinions are vented in the requisite quarterly reports. The first three years James worked for the Sox, one of those reports was a free agent analysis submitted to Epstein shortly before Thanksgiving. This year, because he ''had a different relationship with the committee that was steering the Red Sox" during Epstein's absence from the team, James didn't submit a free agent analysis.
Generally, though, the report details every player who might be a free agent in the upcoming season, an estimate of what he will sign for, and James's comments -- longer comments on players whom the Sox might be interested in, ''one-word" comments on the others. (Henry says James's reports are so valuable that ''a long time from now" James should publish them in their entirety).
A project James was working on after returning from Fort Myers involved comparing players' strikeout rates in the minor leagues with their strikeout rates in the majors. James predicts a player strikes out more in the majors than in the minors ''almost 100 percent of the time." He is trying to find out how the numbers relate so scouts have a guidepost for determining if a prospect should be moved down the list based on their current strikeout percentage.
It's the kind of thing James loves -- it's the work he loves from the place he loves. It's walking down Massachusetts Street (Lawrence's downtown, chosen because the town's settlers were from Massachusetts) without being noticed. It's KU basketball, and keeping stats at his son's Little League games. And, after all these years and all those books (26), it's about still loving baseball. Sure, this place feels a world away from Fenway, but it was here that James grew up in harmony with one fundamental Boston tradition.
A Kansas City A's fan as a child, James read ''The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" annually, and he's been quoted as saying, ''Kansas City hates the Yankees more than Boston does." He also made sure his children (Rachel, a sophomore at Hollins University in Virginia; Isaac, a senior at Lawrence's Free State High School; and Reuben, a sixth-grader) got the message, reading the book at least twice to each of them.
McCarthy says the kids always knew their dad was famous in the baseball world but didn't realize how famous until he got the Sox job. Rachel is the only one in the family who reads stories about her father (her parents stopped long ago), and Isaac is the only one sabermetric-minded.
So when your own kids don't really think you're all that big of a deal, and you live in a town where celebrity reaches its zenith on the floor of the Jayhawks' Allen Fieldhouse, a baseball stat guy, no matter how genius, enjoys unbridled anonymity.
''I realized the other day that Isaac's best friend has no idea who I am," James says laughing. ''That's fine. That's perfect, actually."
Perhaps it's that humbling existence that keeps James so modest. As the inventor of the Runs Created stat, and Major League Equivalency, which predicts how a minor league player will perform in the majors, along with several others stats, James's contributions to baseball are undeniable. Still he remains hesitant to claim his work has any real value.
His two favorite hobbies -- baseball and crime novels -- are things he says ''respectful academics wouldn't touch." Whatever causes James's self-effacing style, he says it's left him ''spending a lot of time declining invitations to take myself seriously." But writing 26 books is serious business, and James admits a staid approach when it comes to his passions.
''I'm every bit as serious about trying to figure out baseball as an economist is about trying to figure out the economy," he says. ''[When I read crime novels], I'm just as serious about trying to figure out what happened there as an academic is trying to figure out something about cancer research. It's not that I really believe it's important. I'm not under some illusion that this actually makes any difference. I just take a very academic interest in things that are not academically appropriate."
Academic or not, James's work has secured his place in baseball lore and, at present, in the Sox' front office. And when the senior baseball operations adviser does drive the 51 miles from Lawrence to the Kansas City International Airport, and takes the inevitable two-flight trip to join his colleagues on Yawkey Way, Henry says James's presence turns grown men into little boys.
''When he arrives for a stint in Boston, it really feels like baseball's wizard has arrived," Henry says. ''There is a feeling of wonder and awe from those of us who really appreciate Bill's genius and demeanor. He is one of a kind."