I think of Bill James more as a baseball writer than as a “stats guru.”
Seen in that light, I would contend that he is the most important baseball writer of the past 50 years. Maybe ever. (Roger Angell remains my favorite.) James has not only observed and written about the game, he’s changed the way it’s perceived by many — and even influenced the way it’s played between the lines.
Which is not to say that he’s perfect. There was a time in the mid- to late-80s when his frustration and snark became too much for my taste. Interestingly, I believe James himself suffered from a similar distaste, since he shut down the famed “Abstract” series in 1988. My theory is that he’d gone sour and had the good sense of self to realize it. So he went off, recharged, and left the seminal Abstracts in the rear-view mirror.
Moreover, the best of James’s writing is characterized by a lithe, questioning mind, a trait that accepts no easy assumptions, resistant to “conventional wisdom.” He asks, “How do we know?” The irony is that in today’s baseball, many of those fans most influenced by advanced statistics have simply adopted a new dogma. Like half-baked sociologists, they became rigidly conventional, predictable (and closed-minded) in a brand new way and called it enlightenment.
Anyway, I just grabbed The Mind of Bill James by Scott Gray in a used book store. I found it fast, easy, entertaining, and insightful. James always gives you something to think about. He’s aged well, I think, seems older and wiser and more . . . inclusive. Moderate, maybe. He’s not as interested in picking fights anymore, since I think he’s come to respect (or tolerate) differing perspectives.
He’s still a lively, surprising writer. That’s his great gift, the thing that separates James from the dreary “analysts.” He writes great sentences. He entertains. The folks at Baseball Prospectus have learned that lesson well, btw. A lot of other folks list long strings of numbers and it’s slog to reach the end of the paragraph.
Gray’s book is good, not particularly deep or insightful. Unfortunately, Scott Gray writes from a fanboy perspective and that limits the scope of it. There’s very little real critical thought in it. At least, none of it is directed at James himself. There are times when you can imagine Gray typing the manuscript while kneeling at James’s feet, after every paragraph or so looking up at the great master for approval. Nonetheless, every page is filled with an interesting thought or observation.
Here’s 41 random thoughts, sometimes framed in a killer sentence, sometimes in a string of sentences.
* “I think you’re better off to assume an intelligent audience and challenge people to keep up.”
* “I’m a firm believer that many people get more out of going to college than they do out of going to class.”
* On what he learned in the army: “The more talent you have available to you, the less respect you have for it.”
* “I believe, rightly or wrongly, that low pressure is better than high pressure, young is better than old, and using the bench is better than not using the bench.”
* “When people discover a little of the pattern by which things are put together, they tend to overreact, to overstate the value of the knowledge.”
* “When a young player exhibits the signs of emotional instability, don’t bet on a handy psychologist to pull him out of it. It’s probably a good idea just to stay away from him.”
* “What so many baseball fans find unacceptable about free agency is that it simplifies the formula for building a winner; instead of spending x amount of dollars here to acquire a pool of potential talent and doing this and that and the other to bring the talent around so as to win maybe five years later, you simply pay the money and get the player.”
* “Dan Ford is arguably a hitter, but he plays outfield like a blind man staying overnight in a friend’s apartment.”
* “People who say they don’t trust the records or that they are suspicious of statistical analysis are simply not thinking about what they are saying. Are people suspicious of the statistics which say that Lou Brock is a great base stealer, or of those that say he doesn’t hit as well as he used to? The difference between a .275 hitter and a .300 hitter, even once a ballplayer is well established, is simply not visible. It is a difference which can be seen in the record books — an extra hit every two weeks — and nowhere else.”
* “The subject is baseball. The numbers bear a relationship to that subject and to us which is much like the relationship of tools to a machine and to the mechanic who uses them. The mechanic does not begin with a monkey wrench; basically, he is not even interested in the damn monkey wrench. All that he wants from the monkey wrench is that it do its job and not give him any trouble.”
* “Don’t argue with me — just look at the facts.”
* “Given an option, all men prefer to reject information.”
* “When I say that this man [Jose Cruz] is a great hitter, I mean he is a great hitter — as good as, maybe better than, hitters like George Brett, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, and Bill Madlock. If you look at their stats in road games over the years 1981-84, it is obvious that, as long as all players were in neutral parks, Cruz was the best hitter among that group.”
* “A team with a .400 OBP and a .400 SLG would score more runs than a team with a .350 and .450, although both add up to an .800 OPS.”
* “The question is not which statistic is ‘reliable’ and which is ‘unreliable,’ but rather, what degree of trust we choose to put in each one.”
* “Statistical images simplify the real world. This clarifies the picture, which is useful, but the problems come when people insist that the real world is as simple as the statistical picture.”
* On Cleveland OF Rick Manning: “Patience with a young player, yes, but not this much patience. There is a place for impatience in the building of a baseball team, too. All of us, baseball players included, have a tendency to coast for as long as we can, and never to find out what we can do until we have a time of crisis. If I was running the Indians, I’d create a crisis for Rick Manning in a hell of a hurry. If he finds himself, great; if he doesn’t, we’ve got a baseball team to run.”
* “I can’t stand it when people say that if he does the job with the glove it doesn’t matter what he hits. Of course it matters what he hits . . . . Whenever you hear that when you have one thing, this doesn’t matter or that doesn’t matter, and you’ll hear it fifty times this year, you’re listening to baseball games go flying out the window.”
* On the Royals in 1992: “The Royals now must face the fact that after four years of rebuilding they have nothing going for them; they are at the beginning of a rebuilding cycle, not the middle or the end. And that is what will be hard for them and their fans — to accept that what is gone, is gone. It looked good, but it didn’t work, and nothing now can be saved from it. While anyone may be a year away from a miracle, they must face the fact that they are not a year away from having a good team, but three years. They need to face the fact that they need to start over.”
* “It isn’t the theory that wins. It’s the players.”
* “To bring together a core of people who want to win and who are willing to pay the price for that; that, I continue to believe, is terrifically important, the heart of the team.”
* “None of us knows exactly what the true odds are in any given game situation. None of us knows, and none of us ever will know, not a hundred years from now when they have computers that will fit on your fingernail and spit out the history of the universe at a billion words a second, none of us will know for sure what the odds are because each unique situation contains a thousand variables, at least a hundred of which will not have had enough trials to be evaluated.”
* “It never really surprises me that someone can ignore everything that I believe in and still be very successful.”
* On Joe Morgan: “This is not to deny that you were a brilliant player, Joe, but you are becoming a self-important little prig.”
* “Picture a vast desert. A single tumbleweed blowing across the desert will attract the eye because it’s the only thing moving. A runner steal bases draws attention not because what he’s doing is important, but because he is moving.”
* On Lou Whitaker and his perceived faults: “Give the man credit for what he is.”
* “People are entitled to wrong and stupid opinions; you don’t have to beat them out of them.”
* “Babe Ruth was a cyclone who swept up the precious strategies of the generations before him and scattered them in ruins.”
* On announcer Milo Hamilton: “He broadcasts baseball games in a tone that would be more appropriate for a man reviewing a loan application.”
* “I am not saying that ‘clutch ability’ does not exist; I do believe it is greatly overemphasized, and that the talk about it says more about the prejudices or experiences of the speaker than it does about any player. But to take the passions and prejudices out of the game would be to take the game out of the game, and I certainly would not want to be a part of that.”
* “I don’t think that athletics would exist without the admiration of athletes, and I don’t think it can survive without the admiration of athletes.”
* “We have gotten ‘less tough,’ as a society, over time, and we don’t BELIEVE in toughness.”
* “Call up you nearest baseball fan, right now, and ask him this question: How many more runs will you score in an inning when you have the leadoff man on than when you don’t? I’ll bet he says 28 percent or something. The answer is 242 percent.
* If Henry Cotto is a major league ballplayer, I’m an airplane.”
* Teams that are winning tend to ignore or not notice their weaknesses. Teams that are losing will (and are more free to) make needed changes.”
* Good minor league talent is a far better thing to bet on than ‘proven’ major league talent that isn’t good enough to win.”
* [Whitey] Herzog is too smart to believe in building a ball club by trading, or building a ball club from free agency, or building a ball club out of the farm system. He believes in building a ball club out of ballplayers. That’s all.”
* “Wanting to win a pennant has everything to do with winning a pennant.”
* “Knowing how to drive an automobile does not make you an adventurer, and knowing how to run a computer does not make you an analytical student of the game.”
* “Whatever other people undervalue will therefore be under-priced, and can be purchased cheaply.”
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST . . .
“The extent to which you can trust your eyes is limited, but the extent to which you can trust the numbers is limited, too. If you watched Johnny Damon hit, based on his swing and his follow-through and his balance, you would think he couldn’t hit — but he can. The visual impression is not contradicted by ‘analysis’; it is contradicted by the outcomes. That’s pretty common. There are fielders who look bad, but get the job done. There are pitchers who look like they are quick to first base, but who never pick anybody off. There are catchers who look awkward throwing, but who don’t give up many stolen bases. But there are pitchers who go 15-11 who aren’t really good pitchers. There are hitters who hit .310 but don’t help you, there are fielders who field .980 who don’t help you. You have to be skeptical of all of it.“