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BCB Interview: Bill James

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I'm sure I don't have to introduce Bill James to this audience. However, if you don't know who Bill is, he's the baseball analyst generally acknowledged to have invented sabermetrics. His books helped revolutionize the view of statistical analysis of baseball in the 1980's.

I had the opportunity to interview Bill during spring training this year, and although it's been a few weeks since I met with him, what he told me isn't out of date. I did send an email to Bill after Carlos Zambrano was moved to the bullpen to get his view on that move; I've added his response to the interview.

Incidentally, I enjoyed Bill's annual view of baseball, The Bill James Gold Mine 2010; it's got some interesting studies on various baseball questions and answers them in ways you might not have considered.

BCB: When you first started what is now known as sabermetrics, what did you hope to accomplish by it? What was the aim? What was your goal?

Bill: When I was younger I wanted to be a writer and I thought that there were a number in of people in the country who were interested in that material and you wouldn’t believe how fragmented the audience was at that time. There was no place you could publish articles of the type of stuff I was interested in. What I was trying to do was to gather together the people who were interested in what I was interested in so I could write for them.

BCB: You mention wanting to get your information out to people. When you started, if there had been blogs around, would you have started blogging about it?

Bill: Probably. And this is my dumb luck. In self-publishing, just before self publishing became practical, if I had done it five years later I would have been buried behind people who were better at it than I was, but the fact that I was doing it before other people were was very helpful to me. And all my career I’ve received undue rewards for being ahead of the curve on that issue and a couple of others. This is a true story: in 1976 Dick Cramer published an article in the Journal of the Society of American Baseball Research, wrote a very good analytical article that stands up well over time. In 1977 he sent them another article and the editor said he didn’t know if there was a market for an article of this type every year. So the entire de facto market for books about sabermetrics, articles about sabermetrics was only about two years. So, once there was a place to go with it, there were a lot of people waiting to go there.

BCB: What’s your reaction to the way these things have caught on the last 10-15 years?

Bill: Astonished and surprised and a little of both. I’m frequently given credit for more than I deserve, having an impact on things. I appreciate the attention but sometimes it’s over the top.

BCB: What do you think are among the most useful of the new metrics that have been invented and also, what is the useful thing you personally came up with?

Bill: This is probably a surprising answer but perhaps the most useful thing I ever developed was Similarity Scores. And when I developed Similarity Scores I thought of them simply as a tool, just fooling around with it. The idea of Similarity Scores is if you take a player and say: "Who in history is most similar to this player?", it turns out no matter what else it is you study -- if you study how much money should be paid to a given left fielder that may return to your team or may not… if you’re studying whether somebody should be in the Hall of Fame or whether they should not... if you’re studying whether a player has a chance to come back from an injury or does not –- one of the best things you can do is identify the most similar players. It turns out to be a little tool that’s useful in a lot of different directions. Actually, we have quite a few totally useless things that have been developed, many of which are generally intended to be useful, they’re just intended to be kind of fun. I just invented one. It’s a pitcher’s duel score. It just applies to, you can put the facts about any game in a computer and you can get a pitcher’s duel score. It identifies like what’s the sixth best pitcher’s duel of the 1960s? Talk about useless information. I am amazed by what’s fun to know … by and large 99 percent of it is pretty useless.

BCB: You’re still consulting with the Red Sox?

Bill: I am.

BCB: How much do they go with statistical analysis and at what level do they use these as opposed to using scouting for decisions?

Bill: Well, I’m limited in what I can say about my relationship with the Red Sox. I don’t make any decisions. They are nice enough to ask me what I think about every player move, basically. And I’ve always told them that I’m thankful for being a resource. But you can’t believe unless you grow up in the organization how many people are involved in a successful organization. You can’t imagine how many people it takes to contribute to a World Series. And I would never want to exaggerate my own role. The Red Sox were nice enough to give me a couple of World Series rings and I’ve very, very pleased to have them, but I would never want to suggest that I’d earned them. I’m thankful that they were good enough to give them to me.

BCB: What's your reaction to Carlos Zambrano's move to the Cubs bullpen?

Bill: Oh, I don't know. I really don't. I mean ... you're not wasting innings if they're good innings. I'm certain that Zambrano will move back into a key role as soon as he shows some effectiveness. But whether he is more valuable in one role or another ... honestly, I have no idea.

BCB: What’s the next thing about baseball that you don’t know that you’re going to study?

Bill: College baseball. College baseball a few years ago was an awful spectator sport. I don’t know if you know that. The games just dragged on and it seemed like they were deliberately disrespectful to the fans. It seems like it’s a lot closer to being a spectator sport now and I think it might catch on.

BCB: What’s your reaction in general to the proliferation of people who use statistical methods to rank players in various categories as opposed to traditional styling, as opposed to simply watching players. Some will rank players 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 based on a specific metric and almost will look down on you if you say well, yeah, this guy does this but maybe he isn’t so good at doing this so there should be some other way of analyzing players. What would you say to someone like that?

Bill: It’s the most difficult question you ask, mainly for two reasons. One is: I question ranking players or rating players is an appropriate part of sabermetrics. And the reason that that’s true is that we try to create knowledge. How players rate, or how they rank compared to one another is not knowledge and never can be. It is opinion stated as numbers. It’s very questionable whether that is a legitimate part of the field of knowledge. Nonetheless, so many people who jump into this try to jump immediately to the answer –- the great question at the end of the study. We always work toward that but you never get there. It’s not just in my own life because I’m old and I don’t have that much longer to work but we’re not going to get there in anybody’s life because there’s more that you can learn and more that you don’t know. So, that’s one problem with doing that. The other is that one learns not by studying what one does know, but by studying what one does not, and I think undue focus on what we do know can very easily undermine a growth or development of what we in fact do not know. And I think we need to be very careful about it for that reason, as well. I’ve learned things from sitting beside scouts at Red Sox games for the last eight years that it appears everybody knew except me. I hope that I’ve always tried to be respectful of everybody’s way of seeing the game and I try to discourage any kind of sabermetrics that stands and judges other people’s ways of thinking. That’s probably the longest answer I’ve given to a question in my life.