A conversation with Bill James.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 10 2003 1:15 PM

Moneyball Redux

Slate talks to the man who revolutionized baseball.

(Continued from Page 2)

There's a general perception in baseball that players are now aging differently and continuing to perform better for longer (players like Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds being obvious examples). Do you think this is actually true, or is it simply a matter of a few extraordinary outliers?

It's just outliers. Randy Johnson and Clemens and Bonds are not only the obvious examples; they are the whole basis of the argument. Clemens and Johnson were born in 1962, 1963, and are still pitching well, and this focuses attention on them. But if you make a complete list of pitchers born in 1962 and 1963, their value peaked in 1990 and has declined by more than 80 percent. Other pitchers of the same age include Mark Gubicza, Doug Drabek, Jeff Montgomery, Randy Myers, Sid Fernandez, Danny Jackson, Chris Bosio, Mark Portugal, Jeff Brantley, Eric Plunk, Bill Wegman, Bobby Thigpen, Jose Guzman, Scott Bankhead, Greg Harris, Les Lancaster, Greg Cadaret, Todd Frohwirth, Jay Tibbs, John Dopson, Jeff Ballard, Charlie Kerfeld, Urbano Lugo, and Calvin Schiraldi. Have you seen Chris Bosio lately? He's a pitching coach somewhere. ...  Looks like he's about 63.

It seems as if one of the places where teams might be able to carve out a competitive advantage for themselves is in the area of keeping pitchers healthy. The A's seem to think they've figured out how to do this. Do you think they have? If so—or if you think it's possible to adopt a program that would keep pitchers healthy—what would the key components of that program be?

It is an area infinitely capable of research, learning, and improvement. So if you're asking, "Are the A's at the finish line?" the answer is "Nowhere near." If you are asking if the A's are ahead of the rest of us, the answer is "Apparently they are."

To generalize wildly, defense has always seemed like the most difficult skill to capture statistically. Your Win Shares method seems to do a good job of describing players' defensive performance. But what do you think of the prospects of using play-by-play analysis to differentiate players' defensive skills? Is it possible to draw a meaningful separation between data and noise at the play-by-play level?

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Yes, it is possible. But ... this is among my primary projects right now, and I don't want to talk about the sauce while it's still in the skillet.

What's the next frontier of baseball analysis that will be explored? What's the next frontier that should be explored?

Whether it is the next great frontier, who the hell knows, but one area that is open is the area of league decision-making—trying to think logically and clearly about how leagues should behave. Teams try to behave logically; players try to behave logically. Leagues, because they are formed of competing interest groups, often fail to address issues clearly, and thus arrive at illogical positions from the failure to address issues proactively. Simple example: It would have been far better for [professional] baseball to have provided bats for the players. At the start of each game, the umpire brings out 24 bats to be used by the two teams; these bats are the only bats which can be used in the game. There are several reasons why this is better, from the league's standpoint, than allowing the sporting goods companies to become pro bono suppliers of bats. But they didn't do it, simply because nobody was thinking about the issue from the standpoint of the league.

In the 1984 Baseball Abstract, you wrote: "When I started writing I thought if I proved X was a stupid thing to do that people would stop doing X. I was wrong." Twenty years later, at least a few teams have stopped doing X—and, just as important, started doing Y—because of your work, and the Red Sox are now paying you to tell them what they should be doing. Why did it take so long? How does it feel?

How does it feel ... good, but our vocabulary to describe feelings is limited. The other thing—I wouldn't write that anymore and can't really relate to it. The world is a cacophony of competing explanations. It takes time for people to focus on what you are saying, to sort it out of the thousands of other explanations. It was a part of the naive arrogance of youth to suppose that the world would react quickly to things that I learned, as if I were a doctor tapping the knees of the baseball universe. At 53, I am astonished at how much people react to what I write, rather than how little.

Did you learn anything about baseball from Moneyball?

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