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?
Well, no, there is no such thing as a Four A hitter. That idea, as I understand it, envisions a "gap" between the majors and Triple A, with some players who fall into the gap. There is no such gap. In fact, there is a very significant overlap between the major leagues and Triple A. Many of the players in Triple A are better than many of the players in the majors.
The three examples you cite are three very different cases. Stenhouse never had 180 at bats in a major league season, so one would be hard pressed to argue that he got a full trial.
Frobel is a different [instance], in which I think there probably wasn't a real strong case that he was a good hitter to begin with. Frobel hit .251 at Buffalo in '81, hit .261 at Portland—PacificCoast League—in 1982. We would expect, based on those seasons, that he would hit .200, .210 in the major leagues, with a pretty ghastly strikeout/walk ratio—which is what he did. Then he had the one good year at Hawaii in 1983, looked like a better hitter, and fooled some of us into thinking that he was better than he was. But ... it was one year, 378 at bats, of performance that isn't that impressive. It wasn't enough, in retrospect, to conclude that he was actually a good hitter.
[Then] there are some players whose level of skill changes—drops—between two adjacent seasons or between two seasons separated by two or three years, usually because of an injury but sometimes because of some other factor. Frank Thomas is not the same hitter now that he was a few years ago; Tino Martinez isn't; Mo Vaughn isn't.
When those "disconnects" happen between major league seasons, we ascribe them to sensible causes—aging, injury, conditioning, motivation, luck, etc. Comparing major league seasons to minor league seasons, occasionally you get the same disconnect. Sometimes a guy simply loses it before he establishes himself in the major leagues. That's what happened to Komminsk, I think—he shot his cannons in the minor leagues.
I'm trying to make two general points here. Point 1: When there is a disconnect between a player's major league and minor league records, some people want to ascribe this to some mystical difference between major league baseball and minor league baseball. Unless you can say specifically what that difference is, this is akin to magical thinking—asserting that there is some magical "major league ability," which is distinct from the ability to play baseball. The same sorts of disconnects happen routinely in the middle of major league careers—not often as a percentage, but they happen. Everybody who plays rotisserie baseball knows that some guys you paid big money for because they were good last year will stink this year. It is not necessary or helpful to create some magical "major league ability" to explain those occasional disconnects between major league and minor league seasons.
Second point ... the creation of new knowledge or new understanding does not make the people who possess that new knowledge invulnerable to old failings. I can't predict reliably who is going to be successful in the major leagues in 2004, even if we stick with the field of players who have been in the major leagues since 2000. I can't do that, because there are limits to my knowledge, and there are flaws in my implementation of what I know. The principle that minor league hitting stats predict major league hitting stats as well as major league hitting stats predict major league hitting stats can be perfectly true—and yet still not enable me or you to reliably predict who will be successful in the major leagues in 2004, because I still have limits to my knowledge and flaws in the way I try to implement that knowledge.
Within the sabermetric community, a pitcher's strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio has traditionally been taken as a good indicator of his overall performance. The A's starters in the last two years—and especially this year—have relatively mediocre strikeout rates but have done a very good job of keeping opponents from scoring runs. Is there anything surprising in this?
The question embodies four assumptions that I would be reluctant to sign on to. First, it assumes that statistics from a third of a season are meaningful. Second, it assumes that what is true of the individual pitcher must be true of the team. Third, the special importance that we attach to strikeouts has to do with projecting a pitcher into the future, not with evaluating the present. As to evaluating the present season ... the strikeouts are no more important than the walks, probably less. Fourth, the A's strikeout-to-walk ratio is better than the league average.
Right now, there are at least three teams—the Red Sox, the Blue Jays, and the A's—who appear to be employing a sabermetric methodology with some rigor. Even with more outlets for experimentation, are there still ideas you've proposed (either in terms of player evaluation or game strategy or organizational structure) that are still too radical for teams to consider?
Oh, certainly. Well ... it depends on what you mean by "proposed." I follow the maxim that you never start an argument you can't win. If an idea has no chance of gathering a following, I might sit on it rather than throwing it out to drown.
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?
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?
Yes; I didn't have a real good idea of some of the things the A's were doing until I read the book. Actually—shouldn't admit this, I guess, but ... I had been working for several years on a book about baseball history, and thus, for several years, had not paid an awful lot of attention to what was happening in our own time.
I didn't, until reading the book, have any sense of who Billy Beane was, who J. P. Ricciardi was, or how they had been able to sustain the A's organization through difficult times. Some of those things I didn't know because I hadn't really been paying attention, and some of them I didn't know because, until the book came out, they hadn't been reported.
Finally, do you think most baseball teams will eventually adapt, and incorporate sabermetrics into the way they work on a day-to-day basis? Or will there always be a Pope to the sabermetrician's Galileo?
There will always be people who are ahead of the curve, and people who are behind the curve. But knowledge moves the curve.
James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.