Slate talks to the man who revolutionized baseball.
Although Michael Lewis' new book Moneyball is about Billy Beane and his successful transformation of the Oakland A's from also-rans to pennant contenders, the book's unsung hero is a man named Bill James. Over the past 25 years, James' work on player evaluation, player development, and baseball strategy—which inaugurated the body of baseball research known as sabermetrics—has revolutionized baseball analysis and overturned decades' worth of conventional wisdom. For most of his career, though, James was the archetypical prophet in the wilderness. He had a dedicated following of readers—many of whom went on to do groundbreaking statistical work of their own. But baseball owners and general managers essentially ignored him. In the past five years, though, all this has changed. The success of the A's, thanks in no small part to Billy Beane's clever application of sabermetric insights, brought James new attention, and this year a major league team (the Boston Red Sox) hired him as a senior adviser. For the first time in his life, Bill James is no longer a baseball outsider. So, to accompany last week's Book Club about Moneyball, I asked James to talk about Lewis' book, the future of baseball analysis, and some sabermetric puzzles.
To begin with the obvious question, what did you think of Moneyball? More specifically, what did you think of the book's account of your own work and of sabermetrics in general?
I tried to skip over the parts about myself. I established a policy many years ago of trying not to read anything written about myself. Mr. Lewis was very kind to me, and I appreciate his kind words, but ... it is unhealthy to base one's self-image on what other people say about you, even if they are generous.
For a lot of people, Moneyball will be the first sustained discussion of sabermetric analysis they've read. Given that, what do you think are the most important ideas—about player evaluation, player development, and team strategy—to take away from the book?
Well, of course, the ideas that made the greatest impression on me are the ones that aren't mine. The stuff in there about how an offense actually works, the relative value of little ball to power baseball ... I hardly saw that stuff as I read through it, because I knew that 20 years ago. What made an impression on me was, for example, the notion that some teams were paying a lot of money for unique packages of skills, when they could easily replace each of the individual skills by looking for different packages, different combinations of skills. The "front office view" of sabermetrics was extremely interesting to me, because I am trying to step up to the challenge of actually participating in a major league organization.
Reliably projecting a player's future is central to the success of any organization that can't—or doesn't want to—pay market rates for already established players. What are the most important attributes to look at in projecting a player's future? Is the future of a young hitter more predictable than the future of a young pitcher?
Yes, hitters are far more predictable than pitchers. Putting it backwards, because backwards is how you could measure it, the "unpredictability" of a pitcher's career is 200 percent to 300 percent greater than the unpredictability of a hitter's career.
In projecting a pitcher, by far the largest consideration is his health. There are a hundred pitchers in the minor leagues today who are going to be superstars if they don't hurt their arms. The problem is, 98 of them are going to hurt their arms. At least98 of them. Pitchers are unpredictable because it is very difficult to know who is going to get hurt and when they are going to get hurt.
One of your most important insights is the idea that minor league batting statistics predict major league batting performance as reliably as major league statistics do. There have been certain players—think of 1980s players like Mike Stenhouse, Doug Frobel, Brad Komminsk—who seemed as though they would be terrific hitters but never really made it in the big leagues. Did they not get enough of a shot? Are they outliers? Or is there such a thing as a Four A (too good for Triple A, not good enough for the majors) hitter?
James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.