An Interview with Bill James

What the hell do you say about Bill James? No introduction is necessary, but not having one seems lame. It’s Bill James.

Obstructed View: You’ve mentioned in recent years how talking with scouts in Boston has helped you see the game in a way you hadn’t explored before. Has this changed the way you view some of the conclusions you and other sabermetricians reached?

Bill James: It may have, but I’m not aware that it has.   The question sort of implicitly assumes that there’s a conflict between the way I see the game and the way the scouts see the game.    The reality is more that we’re working on the same problems from different angles.  I can only see so much, only understand so much.  Working with people who understand other elements of the game is helpful. 

OV: The Cubs hired Theo and you two worked in the Red Sox organization for a long time. From afar you’ve surely developed some opinions about how the Cubs front office has been run. In what different ways can we expect the Cubs to go about making decisions?

BJ: That’s sort of like you had asked me to review a movie by contrasting it with some other movie that I just dimly remember.

OV: You’ve mentioned in past interviews online and at other times that you’ve been given too much credit for sabermetrics. I believe much of the credit is well deserved, but I also think some other important analysts have been forgotten. Who inspired you and if you had to pick one person not given enough credit, who would it be and why?

BJ: As to who inspired me. . .the econometrics guys from the University of Chicago in the 1950s/1960s.   One person not given enough credit would be Craig Wright, who worked for the Texas Rangers in the 1980s. 

OV: Using your concept of Similarity Scores, Baseball-reference.com has Alfonso Soriano most similar (at the age of 35) to Jermaine Dye, Torii Hunter, Joe Carter, and Jim Edmonds which might suggest he has some value to the current Cubs. How much weight do you put on Similarity Scores and have you found it to be useful in determining future performance?

BJ: Similarity scores are enormously useful and I use them every day.  But I don’t know that I see any similarity between Alfonso Soriano and Jim Edmonds.

OV: One of the first questions directed at Jed Hoyer during his first press conference reflected a popular sentiment here in Chicago: the Cubs need to improve defensively from what they showed in 2011. Given the complexity in gauging defensive talent and its impact on run prevention, how difficult is it for a GM to significantly improve team defense?

BJ: Well. . .it is not harder to improve defense than it is to improve the offense or the pitching.   It’s probably not any easier, but it’s not harder.  We have good and reliable measures of defensive performance.

OV: It seems that a common thought process behind some of the most well-known Saber-minds (yourself, Billy Beane, Theo) is that it is important to not focus so much on what one does know, but what one doesn’t know. What part of the game would you say we know the least about at this point?

BJ: There are many areas of the game that I know nothing at all about, so that would be contrasting one zero with another.    I know nothing about international baseball.  I know nothing or next to nothing about pitch calling (from the catcher’s standpoint).    I know next to nothing about what is called mechanics.    All that stuff about who lines up where on a relay throw; because I didn’t play the game at a high level, I don’t really understand that.    There’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand.

OV: In what areas of research do you see baseball analysts exploring that hasn’t yet been explored?

BJ: College baseball, certainly.    We seem to get hung up on the issue of the quality of the competition, which is really a nothing issue, but people get hung up on it.   It’s a nothing issue in the sense that it’s not REALLY a difficult problem.    But we never seem to get universally accepted or widely understood answers on that issue, so we don’t seem to go anywhere from there. 

OV: Would you tend to agree with the statement that the Cubs (prior to the latest organizational changes) were the most backwards team in regards to how they viewed advanced analytics? How big of a project is it going to be to take the Cubs from where they were to a place where the Red Sox are today? And do you think the Cubs can ever fully catch up, or will they always be behind because of their late start in the process?

BJ: I doubt that the Cubs were as backward as you think in that area.   I know there were at least a couple of guys who worked there who were very progressive, and I suspect more.   I wouldn’t think that’s a real barrier to progress.   The real barriers to making progress are like bad contracts that you have to live with, a shortage of talent flowing out of the minor leagues, a shortage of talent in the development process or the scouting process; those things take time to overcome.   Not having analytical guys around you; you can take care of that in a week.

OV: How has the way you watch and enjoy baseball changed over the years? As it has gone from pastime to profession, what has that done to the way you feel about the game?

BJ: Well, the more you understand the game, the more you can enjoy the game.  

OV: In your annual handbook you do the hitter projections, but you do not have anything to do with the pitcher projections as you believe they cannot be projected. Is this because of similar reasoning as Gary Huckabay used when he said there is no such thing as a pitching prospect? Is a pitcher’s performance that much more unreliable than a hitter? Why do you think that is?

BJ: I used to think that pitching performance was too difficult to even attempt to project, but the pitching projections in the Handbook are about as accurate as the hitting projections.   I think there are some things you can’t do.    Sometimes, if everything lines up right, you can take a hitter out of the minor leagues and say “This is a good minor league hitter; we expect him to hit about .280 with 18 home runs,” and sometimes you’re almost exactly right about those things.   I don’t know that you can ever do that with a pitcher; I don’t know that you can ever take a pitcher out of the minor leagues and project accurately what he’s going to do in the majors in his first year or two.   There are too many variables.  But for established pitchers, the major league projections are as accurate as the hitter’s projections.   I was just a little late to understand that. 

OV: Obviously the Alfonso Soriano deal has been much worse than expected due to various leg injuries removing a major component of his value (speed). How crazy is
it to make a comparison between Soriano and Carl Crawford at the time their contracts were signed? How similar would you say the two players were at the time they entered free agency?

BJ: I can’t really comment on Carl.

OV: I just finished reading Popular Crime and thought it was a great book. First, how do you find the time to read more than a thousand books on crime stories while spending so much time researching and writing about baseball? Second, what crime story would you liked to have included in the book, but were unable to? What makes it a Popular Crime story?

BJ: I would have liked to write about Danny Rollings, but it was just too dark. . ..at the point of the book where the Danny Rollings story would have come the book was on the thin edge of being too gritty, too bloody.   Writing about Danny Rollings at that point would have been like throwing a bucket of blood across the pages at exactly the wrong moment.   (Rollings was the Gainesville Ripper, so called.)   A similar problem was the Sylvia Likens story, which comes from Indianapolis in the mid-1960s; it’s just difficult to deal with a story like that in a way that doesn’t turn your stomach.   I would have liked to write about the murder of Julia Wallace,which is an English case from the early 1930s.   There were a lot of very interesting stories that just did not fit into the book at the place where I would have had to tell the story.    In the 1960s you’re kind of writing about the assassinations and the radicals, and to throw in this pathetic, gross story about a teen-aged girl horribly abused in a basement just doesn’t fit, even though it’s a very interesting story that raises a series of worthwhile issues.

Bill James is the author of countless books on baseball. The Bill James 2012 Handbook was recently released. Earlier this year he branched out and published a non-baseball book, Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. Two months earlier Solid Fool’s Gold was published. For $3 per month you join Bill James Online. And oh yeah, he’s the owner of two World Series rings and still works for the Boston Red Sox. He also grew up in the great state of Kansas where one of our writers currently lives.

Thank you to Bill James for taking some time to answer our questions here on our obscure corner of the internets.  Truly, this is the best thing to every happen on this blog.

We had hoped that having him answer a few questions about the Cubs and baseball would allow for an unrediscreditation of our blog, but alas, we failed to ask the question for which man has long searched for an answer: Who owns the Cubs?

We didn’t even get any clarification about what might or might not be a misting station.  We should really just stick with posts about writing posts about the proper posting of posts (and, of course, not eating dinner).


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