February 18, 2008


Bill James has made the sports world a better place (Joe Posnanski, 2/.17/08, Kansas City Star)

[I] think Bill [James] has changed the landscape of what it means to be a 21st-century sports fan. He was not the first guy to shake his head at conventional wisdom (like, who says that pitching is 75 percent of baseball), then dive into the data and try to find real sports answers. No. Bill was just the guy who made it seem like fun.

It has been fun for him. James was inducted into the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame on Saturday — along with World Series hero Joe Carter, college baseball legend Phil Stephenson and former major-league pitcher Brian Holman — and at the ceremony he told the story of playing on his high school baseball team in Mayetta, Kan. One day his coach held a team meeting and explained what each player’s role would be … but he didn’t mention Bill’s name. When the meeting ended, Bill went to the coach and asked, “What’s my role?”

His coach said: “If you behave yourself, you can sit on the bench.”

Bill has never been much about behaving himself. He went to college, went to the army, went to work. And when he was supposed to be working as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp plant in Lawrence — I guess he was supposed to keep the pork from attacking the beans or vice versa — he was in fact tabulating box scores and breaking down the game and trying to figure out why in the heck Enos Cabell was playing every day.

He wrote about baseball, but in a different way. He was an outsider, and he embraced that role. He wrote sacrilegious things, wrote batting average was no way to measure a hitter, wrote that ballparks could make a break or a player’s numbers, wrote that counting errors was a pretty pointless way to measure a guy’s defense. At the time the stuff was so different from what was in the papers and on television that many people took to mocking Bill James. That was OK. He mocked back. He was better at it.

Over time, of course, people began to realize that most of what Bill was saying was true — or at least a lot more true than the conventional wisdom. Batting average is, in fact, a ridiculously flawed statistic because it doesn’t bother to count walks. Ballparks, as anyone who watched Neifi Perez hit .321 at Coors Field, do have huge effects on ballplayers’ numbers. And you cannot judge a fielder by his errors anymore than you can judge a pitcher by his wild pitches.

As the years went along, Bill’s ideas started to make an impact on the game. The Oakland A’s built much of their moneyball philosophy on Bill’s writing. The Boston Red Sox hired him to be an adviser and, though Bill says his role is small, they have won two World Series since.

But I think Bill’s biggest impact has been on fans — we don’t just take what coaches and analysts spoon feed us. No, people look for themselves these day. Is Derek Jeter a good defensive shortstop? There are a lot of numbers that indicate no (and few statistics that say yes). Does defense really win championships in the NFL? Maybe. Maybe not. Is time of possession really the most important statistic in football? Doubtful. Do players miss more free throws with fans waving their arms behind the glass? Someone should look it up. Someone is looking it up right now.

This is the age of questions, and Bill had a lot to do with that.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 18, 2008 1:49 PM

I hate what James has spawned. Every year it is "Established Win Shares" or some other new thing that only geeky fanboys have the time to understand. It is like reading video gamers or Star Trek fanatics.

It distracts from the beauty of the game. It just makes baseball another geeky pastime.

Posted by: Bob at February 18, 2008 3:14 PM

I'm more a college basketball fan than a baseball fan and I enjoy pouring over the tempo free stats produced by Ken Pomeroy in emulation of Bill James's baseball stats. If you enjoy basketball and statistics you should check it out.

Posted by: Patrick H at February 18, 2008 3:46 PM