He is the guru who invented a whole new way for Americans to partake of the national pastime from their reading chairs. More recently he has gone to work in the major leagues to see if he can translate his baseball theories into wins on the field. Meet an American sporting icon.
Bill James has been called "the most influential baseball writer in the sport's history." In a sport shrouded in myth, James's success is itself the stuff of-legend. Thirty years ago, while working in the boiler room of a pork and beans cannery in Lawrence, Kansas, James produced a series of self-published Baseball Abstracts, which analyzed the game and its players with wit, irreverence, and the orthodoxy-smashing use of statistics. (Using James's logic, bunting, stealing, and the use of a bullpen "closer" are sucker's plays.)
The Abstracts attracted a cult following, then major publishers, and eventually a wide readership that included, among others, future Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.
Michael Lewis's recent best seller, Moneyball, described how the Oakland A's have used the insights of James and his fellow "sabermetricians" to outfox far wealthier teams. Last season, after years of writing his mordantly erudite fan notes, Bill James left the bleachers and joined the game as a senior baseball operations adviser for the Boston Red Sox.
Kansas historian Tint Rives interviewed Bill James at the Emerson Biggins sports bar in Lawrence, Kansas.
TAE: Just what does a so-called "sabermetrician" do?
JAMES: The human mind searches for order in everything it perceives. What a sabermetrician does is search for order and patterns--objective proof--on questions that are debated by baseball people. Sabermetrics starts with the question, "What are the characteristics of winning teams?" and then moves to "Why are these things characteristics of winning teams?"
We take an historical approach to the game. Because baseball is inherently meaningless, its history is more clear and less clouded than the history of things that are meaningful.
And we rely heavily on statistics (though no good analysis in any sport is driven solely by statistics). I've tried for 25 years to keep sabermetrics from being taken over by the bad habits of academicians--overspecialization, discussing issues that are of interest only to other academics, and discussing them in a manner which is inaccessible to anyone who hasn't been following the discussion for years.
TAE: Was there a specific Eureka! moment for you when you were working at the bean plant and analyzing patterns in baseball on the side when you realized you had something that could become your vocation?
JAMES: Well, there was a period when all of my friends were getting married and l was going to weddings and talking to people. And it seemed like at every wedding I would run into somebody who was fascinated by my baseball analysis. Most of the world was trying to tell me I would never earn my keep by doing this. But I began to think, "If these people are so interested in what I'm doing, how can it not be possible to make a living at it?"
TAE: Michael Lewis's Moneyball cast sabermetricians as heroes and the old-school baseball men as hidebound dunces. Was the book widely read by people in major league baseball? Did it cause you--as one of its heroes--any discomfort?
JAMES: None whatsoever. I think it may have caused a few awkward moments for Billy Beane [the Oakland A's general manager], but hell, Billy can handle that. The book was very kind to me, and I appreciate that. I didn't read the book as portraying old-school baseball men as hide-bound dunces. Nobody who has talked to me about it was offended.
TAE: You write, "The most important discovery I've made is the fact that you can predict a player's major league batting performance based on his minor league record." …