Join Date: Oct 2000
Q & A: Baseball Guru Bill James
Bill James, the legendary baseball stat guru and godfather of the data-driven "Moneyball" movement that has changed how front offices evaluate players, has written a new book, The Bill James Gold Mine 2008. TIME's Sean Gregory caught up with James, now a senior advisor to the world champion Boston Red Sox, from the team's spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., to talk about the state of analytics in baseball, the Roger Clemens steroids controversy, and whether a certain New York Yankees star looks like Henry Fonda.
TIME: This new book is a collection of essays, with statistical nuggets sprinkled throughout. How'd it come about?
James: I've been looking, for a long time, for way to have a casual interaction with my audience. And so I started an online service where I talk to my audience, kind of every day. And, in the process of doing that, we developed a lot of charts and profiles that are useful for online, and I've written a lot of articles that are posted online. And the book is a summary of some of the most interesting stuff from online.
What nugget surprised you the most?
Brad Hawpe of the Colorado Rockies had just a fantastic year getting clutch hits. In my view, he was clearly the best player getting clutch hits last year, driving in about 45 runs in clutch situations, not counting the post-season. That was by far the most in the majors. A lot of regulars, all season, don't drive in 10 runs in the clutch. Driving in 45 runs in clutch situations is a huge thing. So that was probably the biggest surprise to me, because I had no idea that that was true.
For the book you developed a mathematic measure of consistency in a ballplayer. Who is the most consistent player of all-time?
It's not a surprise. The most consistent player of all-time is Henry Aaron. He had the same numbers every year that he had the year before. In our own generation, Albert Pujols has been as consistent as Aaron was. In fact, he's been more consistent. But backing away from it and looking at the whole career, the number one guy would have to be Aaron.
After poring over all the data, what player was much more inconsistent than you would have previously thought?
There are a lot of players that go up and down. But it would be hard to top Henry Aaron's teammate for 10 years, Rico Carty. Rico Carty went from being the best player in the league one year, to being injured or useless the next year. It was pretty much a regular thing for a long period of time. As a model of inconsistency, he was it. [More recently, ex-New York Yankee third baseman Scott Brosius, MVP of the 1998 World Series, gets a miserable "D+" consistency grade from James. Ex-outfielder Eric Davis, a two-time All-Star and solid player throughout his 17 seasons from 1984-2001, gets just a C]
My favorite parts of the book were the "stupid" awards that you gave out. And I'm quoting stupid because you called them stupid.
I call them stupid cause they are. That's basically it.
My favorite is the Dave Kingman award, which is given to the player who, through the formula you created, is shown to "best exemplify the idea of hitting home runs without doing anything else positive as a hitter." It was my favorite award despite the fact I was a huge Dave Kingman fan growing up. He was a famously prickly guy — has he sent you any angry letters or anything for naming this award in his honor. Or more like his dishonor?
I doubt he's heard about it yet, the book just hit the stands. I look forward to perhaps getting a nicely wrapped dead gerbil or something like that [in the 1980s, Kingman infamously mailed a dead rat to a reporter. Past winners of this "award," besides Kingman, include Steve Balboni, Fred Lynn, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire. The 2007 winner was Cincinnati Reds catcher Dave Ross, who hit 17 home runs [EM] with a mere 39 RBIs. He hit just .203, and struck out 92 times in 311 at bats.]
You use some colorful language in the book, making the reams of statistical information much more reader-friendly. At one point, you basically compare teams that use the shift against Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz to "Polocks hunting landmines." You say they're "dumb." Though you are quick to point out that there are only "three Polish guys" who are "offended by Polock jokes." Why push the envelope?
Everybody who is my age, or everybody who is over 30, knows that joke. I mean, I'm not sure I get the point of the over-shift against David Ortiz. It helps you if he hits a ground ball, but if the bomb goes off, you can put those infielders anywhere you want to, it doesn't really do you any good. The damage that David does comes when he hits the ball 380 feet. It really does not matter much where you put your infielders when that happens.
This brings up an interesting dilemma. You work for the Boston Red Sox, yet you're basically telling teams they're not gaining any advantage shifting on David Ortiz. Are you conflicted? Did you ever think, "I don't want to tell people that information, I work for the Red Sox, I want them to win?"
Yeah, I have to engage in a balancing act as to what I can say, and what I cannot say, pretty much all the time. I did weigh it. 'Is this something I should say? Is this something I shouldn't say?' People are good enough to credit me with a lot of influence, but I think the next time some team reads one of my books and thinks 'Okay, we'll stop shifting on David Ortiz,' will be the first time that something like that has happened. I try to be careful. There are some things I can't say. But on the other hand, you're writing a book. Your responsibility is to the reader, not to the Red Sox.
Did you have to clear the Ortiz section with the Red Sox?
That particular nugget? No. I tried to make sure the Red Sox knew what I was doing, because I didn't want to blindside them. But I didn't exactly clear anything. I used my own judgment.
You often show that conventional baseball statistics aren't as important as they appear. In the book, you write "every year that passes, the ERA (Earned Run Average) becomes a little more irrelevant." Why is that?
The reason the ERA is becoming a little more irrelevant every year is that pitchers don't pitch whole innings anymore. Relief pitchers anyway. If you go back to 1915, 1920, really, all pitchers pitched full innings 99% of the time. And you could measure a pitcher's effectiveness by how many runs he allowed in those whole innings. But modern pitchers, in particular modern relievers, pitch portions of an inning. And in a situation where each pitcher pitches a portion of an inning, who you charge the run to becomes critical. And the rule on whom we charge the run to is so careless and sloppy that it doesn't work. It often leads to pitchers having ERAs that do not reflect how they really pitch, either because the reliever allowed a bunch of runs to score that were charged to somebody else, or because the starting pitcher who left guys on base got hurt by it.
What do you think is the most useless statistic in baseball today?
Wow. There are so many candidates. You get really useless stats when you break them down into very small at-bats. So the stuff that appears on centerfield scoreboards during ballgames, a very high percentage of it tends to be totally useless. It's of the nature of — and I'm not trying to parody it — it's of the nature of, "John Robinson hit .396 after the sixth inning this year." You know, as if he had an ability to hit after the sixth inning. It's virtually impossible to explain how such a thing happens. Looking at the data, you would just say, "it's a data glitch, so what?" That sort of small sample data glitch tends to dominate television broadcasts sometimes, and very often the fan information sections at the ballpark.
Moneyball author Michael Lewis' examination of statistical driven team management started a craze throughout baseball, as teams hired more "numbers guys" to make player personnel decisions. What's the state of Moneyball in the game right now? Who's winning the battle between the statisticians and the scouts, who evaluate players more on physical ability than esoteric math, in baseball front offices?
I can only really speak to our organization; there is absolutely no such battle in our organization. I see the scouts, I sit with the scouts at the games, I did today, I will tomorrow. We're all trying to figure out the same things. In spring training, you see an endless parade of young kids. We're all trying to figure out which one of these kids is going to be a good player. They have their way of approaching it, and I have my way of approaching it. But I have tremendous respect for their skills, and in our organization at least, if they don't [respect me], they're polite enough to keep it to themselves. That kind of tension doesn't really exist.
To answer your question in a much broader context — the statistical analysts have permeated the game to a much greater extent than almost anyone realizes. I doubt that there's an organization anymore that totally ignores sophisticated statistical analysis. And in most organizations, people who do fairly sophisticated statistical analysis are listened to and respected. It certainly wasn't like that 10 years ago.
One of my other favorite nuggets in the book is about "closer fatigue." You write an essay about Mariano Rivera, proving that, yes, the more he has worked on previous days, the less effective he's likely to be. But most notably, you write that he looks like Henry Fonda. Really? I'm not seeing that.
You're not seeing that? Aw. You ought to rent The Grapes of Wrath, then watch a Yankees game. And I guarantee you will see it. Well, I can't guarantee you. You're actually the first person who has reacted that way. The reaction I've gotten from everybody else is, 'Yeah, that's right, I can't believe I haven't noticed that.'
If guess I haven't watched enough Henry Fonda movies. Moving on . . . If you were to be named commissioner of baseball tomorrow, what would be first change you make?
Well, the commissioner can't really make changes. He can organize the process leading to change. That's a petty answer. To give you the real answer, I'd try to do something about the game dragging in the late innings. We need to make the games snap along a little better, particularly in the late innings. There are more than six times as many pitching changes in a game now than there were two generations ago. That's a huge change in the game. And it's not a change for the better, in my view. Maybe it's a change for the better in terms of trying to win. But in terms of its impact on the fans, how the fans enjoy the game, I don't see that as a change for the better. So I'd probably try to organize some kind of move to see if we couldn't get an agreement to limit the number of pitching changes in the late innings.
This is the rule that I would adopt. I've thought about this for a long time, and I don't see why this doesn't work. One time per game, you get a free pitching change without restriction. Otherwise, when you put a pitcher on the mound to start an inning, he has to stay in the game until he's charged with a run allowed. In other words, you have a limit on how often you can put a pitcher out there, let him face one batter and "let's bring in somebody else."
Who's the team to beat in the National League?
I would have to say the two best teams in the National League are the [Philadelphia] Phillies and the [New York] Mets. And if you had one team to beat, it probably would be the Mets. [Pitcher Johan] Santana has added to what was already a very good team, plus you have Pedro [Martinez] probably coming back and being of significant value this year. Plus it's a team that's got a strong storyline. They have to try to recover from what happened to them last fall. So there are a lot of things going there.
Your archrivals in the American League East, the New York Yankees, have a new manager, and with George Steinbrenner's sons taking over the day-to-day operations, new owners running the show. What's your gut reaction to what they've done, and where you see them going this year?
Well, the Yankees are kind of moving on to the future. There's something I call Sam's Law — after Sam Rich, an attorney from Pittsburgh who has been a friend of mine for many years. Sam's Law is that young pitchers will break your heart. I think that when teams go into a pennant race depending on young pitching, it very often it takes a year or two for that young pitching to be as good as you thought it would be. The Yankees have that problem, and we have that problem — we're depending on [Jon] Lester and [Clay] Buchholz and some other guys to be useful to us. It's going to be interesting to see how many of those young pitchers live up to those expectations.
So what's the feeling in Red Sox camp right now?
Everybody reported in good shape. We have no contract issues. [Pitcher Curt] Schilling is probably lost to us for the first half of the season, and that's a serious loss. But there are a lot of players in very, very good shape. Our problem, in quotation marks, is that we have two centerfielders. So when your problem is that you have two of something, that's a lot better problem than having none of something. Do we foresee a third world championship? No. That might be considered cocky. But we have a good team, and we should have a decent year.
Do you think Roger Clemens used steroids?
I do not. I hope he did not. I don't know if this guy used anything. I don't find the evidence at all convincing. You know, I get kicked in the teeth a lot for being the guy who never believes that anyone is guilty. And that's fair enough. But I just think that he's entitled to the benefit of the issue as long as the evidence is inconclusive. I think it's really inconclusive.
Do you have any World Series predictions?
No, I used to do predictions, because I had to. But I haven't trapped myself in a position where I've had to in awhile. I'll give you one prediction. I'm not saying they're going to win the World Series, but the most improved team in baseball this year is Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay is a lot better than they have been since as long as they've been around. They finally have things put together, and they're going to be a .500 or better team this year.
Even in the American League East, where the Red Sox and Yankees have dominated for such a long time?
Yeah. That's why I question whether anyone in this division is going to be able to win 95, 96 games. We've had two teams from the AL East in the playoffs for years, and maybe we will again. But the AL East is so strong and competitive this year, with Toronto and Tampa Bay as good as they are, I don't know if that's going to happen.
Getting back to the book a bit — you know, many fans sitting in the sports bar look at Bill James, all this baseball math, this "sabermetrics," and probably think, 'Gosh, these guys have too much time on their hands. They're geeks.' What's your response to that type of thinking?
You've got me.