Vanguard after the Revolution

Bill James sparked a baseball insurrection, but he has regrets about the world he wrought

AP Photo

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Here is Bill James on one of his favorite words and causes: “Bullshit.”

“Bullshit has tremendous advantages over knowledge. Bullshit can be created as needed, on demand, without limit. Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.   

There was a Kansas football game a year ago; some Texas-based football team, much better than Kansas, came to Lawrence and struggled through the first quarter — KU with, like, a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. The rest of the game, KU lost, like, 37-0, or something. The announcer had an immediate explanation for it: The Texas team flew in the day before, they spent the night sleeping in a strange hotel; it takes them a while to get their feet on the ground.

“It’s pure bullshit, of course, but he was paid to say that … if it had happened the other way, and KU had lost the first quarter, 24-0, and then ‘won’ the rest of the game 17-14 (thus losing 38-17) … if that had happened, we both know that the announcer would have had an immediate explanation for why THAT had happened. … Bullshit is without limit.”

* * *

Bill James is 65 years old, and he still has an acute sensitivity to bullshit. This has been the defining instinct in his professional life. For forty years now, he has been writing purportedly about baseball, but more about that grating buzzing sound of bullshit that has served as background music to our National Pastime.

When James began writing his annual Baseball Abstracts, people all across the game crowed that pitching was 75 percent of baseball. They usually said this after a dominant pitching performance, like the one Madison Bumgarner had against Kansas City in Game 5 of the World Series. In those days, saying “pitching is 75 percent of baseball” served as philosophy, and as good old-fashioned common sense.

To Bill James, it sounded like garbage trucks colliding. Seventy-five percent? What? Who did that math? He wrote a 2,000-word essay tearing apart the nonsense, not because he wanted to but because he HAD to, because that was such unadulterated bullshit that it had to be stamped out for the good of mankind.

“It’s just a number,” he wrote, “picked out of mid-air and plunked down in the middle of a bunch of words in a way that seemed to make sense, provided you don’t think too hard about it – quite a bit like saying that ‘Philosophy is 75% God,” or ‘Movies are 75% acting’ or ‘Sex is 75% mental, 25% physical.’”

That allergy to bullshit has never ceased. Now, James hears people say things like, “Every team wins 50 games and loses 50 games, and so it’s the other 62 that make the difference.” That, too, sounds somewhat logical, but to James it rings as nonsensical and as exasperating to him as the old pitching line a long time ago.

“Bill James is 65 years old, and he still has an acute sensitivity to bullshit. This has been the defining instinct in his professional life”

“What does that even mean?” he asks. “Are they saying 62 games a year for every team are up for grabs? You can’t study baseball for five minutes and possibly believe that. People just SAY things that don’t mean a thing.”

People always thought he was writing about statistics. Through the years, they called him a statistician sometimes or, even more galling to him, a guru of baseball statistics.

He wrote: “I was once described by a now defunct publication as ‘the guru of baseball statistics’ and by Sparky Anderson as ‘a little fat guy with a beard … who knows nothing about nothing.’ Actually, I’m seven inches taller than Sparky is, but what the heck, three out of four ain’t bad, and it sure beats being described as the guru of baseball statistics.”

People referred to statistics James invented – things like Pythagorean Expectation, which estimates how many games a team will win based on runs scored and allowed, and Runs Created, which attempts to estimate, well, how many runs a player created – and assumed that he was all about reducing baseball to complex math. But Bill James was never very good at math. And he never cared about baseball statistics in the abstract.

He was just looking to stamp out the bullshit.

And now, 10 years after “Moneyball,” 40 years after he began writing about baseball in spare moments while serving as night watchman at the Stokely-Van Camp Cannery, Bill James looks around and, well, he still sees a whole lot of bullshit, some of it in places he helped build.

* * *

Here is Bill James on baseball statistics, circa 1988:

“As I saw it, baseball had two distinct mountains of material. One the one hand, there was a mountain of traditional wisdom, things that people said over and over again. On the other hand, there was a mountain of statistics. My work was to build a bridge between those two mountains. A statistician is concerned what baseball statistics ARE. I had no concern with what they are. I didn’t care, and I don’t care, whether Mike Schmidt hit .306 or .296 against left-handed pitching. I was concerned with what the statistics MEAN.

“Sportswriters, in my opinion, almost never use baseball statistics to try to understand baseball. They use statistics to decorate their articles. They use statistics as a club in the battle for what they believe intuitively to be correct. That is why sportswriters often believe that you can prove anything with statistics, an obscene and ludicrous position, but one which is the natural outgrowth of the way that they themselves use statistics. What I wanted to do was teach people instead to use statistics as a sword to cut toward the truth.”

* * *

Nobody was doing what Bill James was doing in the 1970s. He had predecessors, of course, people who tried to look objectively at baseball through the numbers, outsiders who studied the game’s data and came to interesting and unexpected conclusions about the limitations of batting average or the self-defeating nature of bunts or whatever.

But no one before James had ever concluded that there was an AUDIENCE for such thoughts. Certainly no one had ever so stubbornly written about baseball for that audience. James began writing about baseball because it was the only thing he could think to do. He had grown up in a small Kansas town, attended the University of Kansas, served in the Army just as the Vietnam War was ending, and he only knew that he wanted to write. And he found that the stuff he kept writing was about baseball.

The first few years, James was told a thousand times that nobody cared about this baseball stuff he was writing about, nobody cared whether or not Nolan Ryan drew larger crowds than other pitchers, nobody cared how players performed on their birthdays, nobody cared what new methods might be better than batting average at evaluating a player’s offensive contribution.

Well, wait, that’s not exactly right. What he was told instead was: “Look, I care about this stuff because I’m a huge baseball fan, but nobody else will care.” He was told that every day, more than once, and at some point, he came to believe that if he just wrote for THOSE people – the baseball fans who told him that nobody else cared – he would have a big enough audience to make a living.

“There are 40 million baseball fans in this country,” he once wrote. “If 99 percent of them hate the book, that’s no problem. That leaves 400,000 potential buyers. If one-fourth of those people who don’t hate the book will buy it, you’re on the best-seller list.”

As it turns out, there was a very large audience of baseball fans who had grown tired of the same bullshit that drove James to distraction, tired of being spoon-fed clichés about valiant pitchers who simply knew how to win, tired of reading quotes from managers about a .200 ballplayer who helped the team in so many hidden ways, tired of only being told a story from the insider’s point of view.

Covers of 'The Bill James Handbook' (2003-present)

Fred Lynn was James’ national breakthrough. When Fred Lynn was traded from Boston to the California Angels, he was widely viewed as one of the best players in baseball and a certain Hall of Famer. He had been Rookie of the Year, MVP and a batting champion. Lynn told reporters (who enthusiastically amplified his thoughts) that he would play even better in California because he was closer to home. As James says: “He wasn’t lying to us. He really thought that.”

But Lynn was very clearly wrong – this was blatantly obvious to James all the way in Lawrence. Lynn’s great offensive numbers were, at least in some part, an illusion created by the great hitting atmosphere of his home park in Boston. Lynn had learned how to use the Green Monster at Fenway Park – the year Lynn led the league in batting, for instance, he hit .386 at Fenway Park, .276 away. James knew that Lynn had no chance at all, especially as he grew older, of putting up numbers in Anaheim that resembled the numbers he had put up at Fenway Park. And Lynn did not.

“If he had looked at the question as an outsider,” James wrote, “he could not possibly have been surprised by that failure.”

And yet, James realized, people inside baseball would ALWAYS be surprised by such failures because, by definition, they were inside baseball. They could not see outside their own tunnel. This would not change. It cannot change. Thirty-two years after Lynn, the Angels spent an enormous amount of money to bring in Josh Hamilton, expecting him to put up similar numbers in Anaheim to those he put up in a great hitting ballpark in Texas.

Yes, James’ outsider approach found readers, enough to keep him writing about and studying baseball his whole life. More, though, his approach found imitators. Bill James’ early work is often compared to the music of The Velvet Underground; the old line goes that only 30,000 people bought The Velvet Underground’s debut album, but every one of them started a band. Well it seemed just about every person who read Bill James’ early Baseball Abstracts would start a Website or a blog, and write about baseball (or other things) as an outsider. And then, they did this in other sports. And then, they did this in politics and entertainment and music … and it still goes on.

This, James says, is his proudest accomplishment:

“Just demonstrating that it could be done; demonstrating that there was a market for this type of writing,” he says. “People have always been interested in the kinds of things I wrote about; one can trace the INTEREST in these types of questions back a hundred years before I started writing about them. … But I demonstrated … that there IS, in fact, a very large and very general audience of systematic analysis of baseball or any other popular sport.”

* * *

Here is Bill James on Wins Above Replacement, perhaps the hottest advanced statistic in the game right now:

“Well, my math skills are limited and my data-processing skills are essentially nonexistent. The younger guys are way, way beyond me in those areas. I’m fine with that, and I don’t struggle against it, and I hope that I don’t deny them credit for what they can do that I can’t.

“But because that is true, I ASSUMED that these were complex, nuanced, sophisticated systems. I never really looked; I just assumed that the details were out of my depth. But sometime in the last year I was doing some research that relied on these WAR systems, so I took a look at them, and … they’re not very impressive. They’re not well thought through; they haven’t made a convincing effort to address many of the inherent difficulties that the undertaking presents. They tend to get so far into the data, throw up their arms and make a wild guess. I don’t know if I’m going to get the time to do better of it, or if it will be left to others, but … we’re not at anything like an end point here. I assumed that these systems were a lot better than they actually are.”

* * *

Over the years, countless people have blamed Bill James for the statistical saturation of baseball and every other sport. The line he voiced for his character on “The Simpsons” – “I made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes!” – more or less covers the charge.

For the most part, that has never bothered him because people who actually read and understood his work knew that it was never about the goofy statistics that dumb down our games. When we watch baseball on television together, I see how he grimaces when an announcer says something like, “He’s hitting .330 with runners in scoring position the last 21 days,” or “This hitter is 3-for-6 against this pitcher.”

When we watch baseball in ballparks together, I see how he laughs when the scoreboard celebrates a player for “hitting .293 when leading off an inning since June 21.”

These statistics, and so many like them, he knows, are exactly the OPPOSITE of what his work has been about, even if there’s a large percentage of the public that will never see that. Mindless numbers that add nothing to understanding, cherry-picked numbers meant to substantiate held opinions, small-sample numbers that are taken to mean more than they do — this is the very bullshit that has compelled him to write more than a dozen books and devise hundreds of new ways to look at baseball.

But James does wonder if he did spark something else, a certain cynicism about things that he has grown to dislike more and more as the years have gone. He sees it in all walks of life now. He doesn’t confuse this cynicism with being critical. In James’ early years, in particular, he was a biting writer. He attacked BS with sledgehammer force. He crashed in through the glass window and then stomped around, knocking stuff over.

“The Cleveland Indians remind you of one of those movies that is supposed to be a metaphor for Life,” he wrote, “and the only thing you can think of while watching it is that if this is life I’m sure glad it isn’t mine.”

“Everybody tells me that Enos (Cabell) is a hell of a good guy, and you know, you can tell he is. His abilities being what they are, would he be in the major leagues if he wasn’t?”

“OMAR MORENO. Ecch. … There can be absolutely no excuse for writing his name on a lineup card.”

James has softened a great deal, but he readily admits he can still be a biting writer and person with little patience for what he regards as ignorance or stupidity. He likes that edge in other writers when they have done their research and are going after bullshit.

But he wonders if the generation of baseball fans he inspired have expanded their skepticism to the point where it has crowded out other things like wonder and tolerance and a healthy understanding of our own limited understanding.

Omar Moreno -- championship player (AP Photo)

“If there’s a sea of ignorance,” he says, “We’ve taken one bucket of water out of it. That’s all. We are tremendously smarter about the game, yes … but baseball is so complex we will never understand even a tiny percentage.”

Right now, Bill James thinks this sort of arrogance can be dangerous in the sabermetric community. There is more baseball data available now than ever before, and the data grows exponentially. “Understanding cannot keep up with the data,” he says. “It will take many years before we fully understand, say, some of the effects of PITCHf/x (which charts every pitch thrown). It’s important not to skip steps.”

He sees smart baseball analysts and fans get mesmerized by the data and lose touch with their own basic understanding of the world. People are becoming skeptical of everything, including things that don’t deserve skepticism. During this World Series, many people – yours truly, included – attacked the strategy of baseball managers without considering that the manager has much more information than we do and that there are so many things that none of us know, no matter how detailed the statistics.

He groans whenever he hears people discount leadership or team chemistry or heart because they cannot find such things in the data. He has done this himself in the past … and regrets it.

“I have to take my share of responsibility for promoting skepticism about things that I didn’t understand as well as I might have,” he says. “What I would say NOW is that skepticism should be directed at things that are actually untrue rather than things that are difficult to measure.

“Leadership is one player having an effect on his teammates. There is nothing about that that should invite skepticism. People have an effect on one another in every area of life. … We all affect another’s work. You just can’t really measure that in an individual-accounting framework.”

“James sees smart baseball analysts and fans get mesmerized by the data and lose touch with their own basic understanding of the world”

The young Bill James rather famously wrote that he could not find any evidence that certain types of players could consistently hit better in the clutch – he still has not found that evidence. But unlike his younger self, he will not dismiss the idea of clutch hitting. He has been a consultant for the Red Sox for more than a decade, and he has watched David Ortiz deliver so many big hits in so many big moments, and he finds himself unwilling to deny that Big Papi does have an ability in those situations others don’t have. He wrote an essay with this thought in mind, suggesting that just because we have not found the evidence is not a convincing argument that the evidence does not exist.

“I think I had limited understanding of these issues and wrote about them — little understanding and too-strong opinions,” he says. “And I think I damaged the discussion in some ways when I did this. … these sorts of effects (leadership and clutch-hitting and how players interact) CAN be studied. You just need to approach the question itself, rather than trying to back into it beginning with the answer.”

* * *

Here is Bill James on baseball’s pace of play problem:

“You can’t REALLY address the problem unless you limit the ability to change pitchers. For more than 100 years, the number of pitching changes per game has gone up, and up, and up, and the number of MID-INNING pitching changes has gone up, and up, and up. It is still going up. If you carve 10, 15 minutes out of the game somehow, it isn’t going to make any difference at all because, in 10 years, there are going to be two or three more pitching changes in every game that will put us right back where we are now.

“What was that old Phyllis Diller joke? ‘I figure that cleaning the house when the kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk when it’s still snowing.’ It’s the same principle. You can’t solve this problem while it’s still getting worse.”

* * *

Bill James has never stopped writing about baseball, never stopped being fascinated by baseball, never stopped loving baseball. It has surprised him. He always suspected that, sooner or later, he would move on to something else. He has many other interests. He did write a book on famous murders, and he is working on a couple of other things now including a book with his wife, Susie, about their beloved Kansas.

But even at 65, James’ mind is still filled with baseball. He loves the work he does with the Red Sox — the team lists him as a Senior Advisor. He enjoys the writing he does for his baseball Web site. And then, he just thinks about the game all the time. Every few days or so, an e-mail will pop into my inbox as Bill will write about strong Rookie of the Year classes or epic collapses by great pitchers or why there are so few runs being scored.

“With the cameras we have now, systematic discrepancies in the calling of balls and strikes are easy to spot,” he wrote. “So this year, there was another wave of ‘let’s get the strike zone RIGHT.’

“I got an e-mail from a guy who really studies this stuff, saying that OK, you can call the strike zone by the book if you want to, but if you think that’s going to HELP the hitters, you’re going to find out something quite different.  And it turned out that he was right; the umpires ARE doing a better job of calling strikes by the book, but it sure as hell isn’t helping the hitters.”

James just thrills in this stuff, still thrills this game and, in looking over his still bustling career, hopes that he helps others love baseball the way he does. James enjoyed saying that line on “The Simpsons” because it’s a funny line, and because he does not mind the people who have never read his stuff thinking that about him. But it would bother him if people who have religiously read him through the years really thought he turned baseball into doing taxes. He is smitten by baseball, all of it, the history and the arguments and the smell of the grass and the game broadcast on the radio.

And he is happy that he opened the door for other people who thrill in the game, whatever game, to go deeper into their sport. There are so many people out there now doing Bill James’ work, keeping an eye out for baseball bullshit, stamping it out, digging into the game’s history to better understand baseball. He’s convinced that baseball fans are much smarter about the game than ever before because of the thoughtful and detailed analysis offered by people like Tom Tango and Nate Silver and James’ disciple Rob Neyer and the gifted writers and statisticians at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet and so on.

He just doesn’t want the new generation of people to forget that they have created their own share of bullshit. After all, James did.

“I hear people say silly things like, ‘What happens when everybody in baseball is smart?’” James says. “That’s just ridiculous. One form of ignorance will always replace another. There will always be smart teams and dumb teams. As (comedian) Ron White said: ‘You can’t fix stupid.’”