Bill James

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Template:Otherpeople Bill James (born October 5, 1949 in Mayetta, Kansas) is an important and influential baseball writer, and is its most influential statistician. Since 1977, James has written over two dozen books devoted to baseball history and statistics. His approach, which he termed sabermetrics in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), attempts to use scientific data collection and interpretation methods to explain why teams win and lose.

Biography

The Bill James Baseball Abstract

James, an aspiring writer and obsessive fan, began writing baseball articles after leaving the United States Army in his mid-twenties. Unlike most writers, his pieces didn't re-enact games in epic terms, or offer insights gleaned from interviews with players. A typical James piece posed a question (e.g., "Which pitchers and catchers allow runners to steal the most bases?") and then presented data and statistics that answered the question in his understated prose style.

Editors considered James' pieces so unusual that few believed them suitable for their readers. In an effort to reach a wider audience, James self-published an annual he titled The Bill James Baseball Abstract in 1977. The first edition presented 80 pages of in-depth statistics compiled from James's study of box scores from the preceding season.

Over the next three years, James's work began to win respect. New editions added essays on teams and players, written in increasingly lively and engaging prose. By 1982, sales had increased tenfold, and a media conglomerate agreed to publish and distribute future editions. These books made the bestseller lists.

While writers had published books about statistics before (most notably Earnshaw Cook's Percentage Baseball, in the 1960s), none had ever reached a mass audience. Attempts to imitate James' work spawned a flood of books and articles that continue to this day.

In 1988, James ceased writing the Abstract, citing workload-related burnout and concern about the volume of statistics on the market. He has continued to publish hardcover books about baseball history, which have sold well and received admiring reviews; these books include two editions of The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

On two occasions, James has published a series of new annuals; neither duplicated the impact of his earlier work. The Baseball Book (1990-1992) was a loosely-organized collection of commentary, profiles, historical articles and occasional pieces of research. The Player Ratings Book (1993-1995) offered statistics and 50-word profiles aimed at the fantasy baseball enthusiast.

Innovations

Among the statistical innovations attributable to James are:

  • Runs Created. A statistic intended to quantify a player's contribution to runs scored, as well as a team's expected number of runs scored, that is calculated from other offensive statistics. In its simplest form: Runs Created = ((Total Bases * (Hits + Walks))/(Plate Appearances). Applied to an entire team or league, the statistic correlates closely to that team's or league's actual runs scored.
  • Range Factor. A statistic that quantifies the defensive contribution of a player, calculated in its simplest form as RF = (Assists + Put Outs)/(Games Played). The statistic is premised on the notion that the total number of outs that a player participates in is more relevant in evaluating his defensive play than the percentage of cleanly handled chances as calculated by the conventional statistic Fielding Percentage.
  • Win Shares. A unifying statistic intended to allow the comparison of players at different positions, as well as players of different eras. Win Shares incorporates a variety of pitching, hitting and fielding statistics.
  • Pythagorean Winning Percentage. A statistic explaining the relationship of wins and losses to runs scored and runs allowed. In its simplest form: Winning Percentage equals Runs squared divided by the square of Runs plus Runs Allowed. The statistic correlates closely to a team's actual winning percentage.

STATS, Inc.

In an essay published in the 1984 Abstract, James vented his frustration about Major League Baseball's refusal to publish play-by-play accounts of every game. James proposed the creation of Project Scoresheet a network of fans that would work together to collect and distribute this information.

While the resulting non-profit organization never functioned smoothly, it worked well enough to collect accounts of every game from 1984 through 1991. James's publisher agreed to distribute two annuals of essays and data - the 1987 and 1988 editions of Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Statbook (though only the first of these featured writing by James).

The organization was eventually disbanded, but many of its members went on to form for-profit companies with similar goals and structure. STATS, Inc., the company James joined, provided data and analysis to every major media outlet before being acquired by Fox Sports in 2001.

Acceptance in mainstream baseball

For most of his career, James's ideas have either been ignored or rejected by professional baseball teams. James' sabermetrics rejects much of the "conventional wisdom" that has been passed down by players, executives and writers over decades. Most teams, managers and players prefer to continue to follow maxims that were developed decades ago.

In recent years, James's ideas have begun to gain official acceptance. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane began applying sabermetric principles to running his low-budget team in the late 1990s, to great effect (as chronicled in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball), and sabermetricians have penetrated other organizations since then.

In 2003, James was hired by a former reader -- John Henry, the new owner of the Boston Red Sox. The move generated some controversy, but after 25 years James had finally gained an official position within Major League Baseball. New Red Sox GM Theo Epstein also turned out to have a sabermetric bent.

One point of controversy was in handling the Red Sox' relief pitching. James had previously published several analyses of the use of the closer in baseball, and had concluded that the traditional use of the closer both overrated the abilities of that individual, and used him in suboptimal circumstances. Reportedly, James influenced a reorganization of the Boston bullpen, with several moderately talented relievers and no clear closer. When Boston lost a number of games due to bullpen failures, they were forced to acquire a traditional closer (named Byung-Hyun Kim) in order to address the issue. Many writers considered this to be a rejection of James' ideas, and the signing of ace reliever Keith Foulke following the season further suggests this. Others, however, argue that the Boston pen was simply not very talented and that the outcome doesn't necessarily undermine James' arguments.

It should be noted that Boston did not implement James' idea of the "relief ace". James did not suggest a "bullpen by committee"; rather his studies showed that the relief ace should be used in close or tie games as early as the 7th inning, when the outcome of a ballgame is really decided. Boston had no relief ace in 2003. During the 2004 regular season Foulke was used primarily as a closer in the Tony La Russa-model; however, Foulke's usage in the 2004 postseason was along the lines of a relief ace with multiple inning appearances at pivotal times of the game. Houston Astros manager Phil Garner also employed a relief ace model, perhaps unwittingly, with his use of Brad Lidge in the 2004 postseason, further demonstrating the efficacy of James's relief ace concept.

James is still (2005) employed by the Red Sox, having published two new sabermetric books in the preceding four years. Indeed, although James is typically tight-lipped about his activities on behalf of the Red Sox, he is credited with advocating some of the moves that led to the team's first World Series championship in 86 years, including the signing of non-tendered free agent David Ortiz, the trade for Mark Bellhorn, and the team's emphasis on on base percentage.

Bibliography