Joe Throwback: Bill James
I’ve written about my friend Bill James on numerous occasions, but I think this is my favorite one — built this one around the premiere of the movie “Moneyball” in 2011. Bill is unlike anyone I’ve met and I know he’s got his fans and his detractors and all of that. I unabashedly love the guy. And I think he belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
OAKLAND — Bill James bought a new sport coat for the occasion. It’s a nice jacket, a sensible design, the sort of thing that a college literature professor might wear, and it allows him to do exactly what he wants to do: blend into the scene. He and his wife, Susie, fly into the Bay Area for the event. They stay at the La Quinta Inn near the airport. They take the train into downtown Oakland. They walk through the huge crowd at the Paramount Theater more or less without being noticed. Every now and again, they see a celebrity and are happier for it.
The absurdity of it all doesn’t throw them much, not anymore.
Hollywood made a movie about sabermetrics. Yes. That word. Sabermetrics. Hollywood actually made a movie about the search for objective knowledge in the game of baseball. Well, of course, you could argue that “Moneyball,” which had its star-studded premiere here on Monday, is really about an iconoclast named Billy Beane. You could argue that “Moneyball” is really about the Oakland Athletics’ attempt to win with less money than most other teams. You could argue, perhaps most persuasively, that “Moneyball” is about Brad Pitt, who might be the only actor in the world with enough juice to get this sort of movie made in the first place.
Why argue, though? This is the premiere of “Moneyball,” and there has never been a movie quite like it. Downtown Oakland crackles with glamour and baseball. Actors walk across the red carpet, which in this case is green and looks like outfield grass. Producers talk about the journey to get this movie made. Actors talk about how much fun it was to dress up and act like baseball people. Reporters ask each other in sarcastic tones: “So, who are you wearing?” Oakland A’s fans stand across the street and pick up different chants, ranging from “DAY-vid JUSS-tiss” to the less rhythmic “FIL-up SEE-more HAWF-man!”
“I thought they did a great job with the movie,” says Michael Lewis, who wrote the book Moneyball. “Let’s be honest: Did I think they could make a movie out of Moneyball? No. Never. I even told the studio that. And when they did make it, I thought it would suck.”
The movie does not suck, not at all; that’s the wrong word, and that’s a story for tomorrow. The story for today is how we even got here. It is a story about a man who is not really in the movie. No actor plays him. He’s mentioned here and there, but only for a few seconds. Still, without him, there is no “Moneyball.” There is no sabermetrics, at least not under that name. Certainly, people would still be looking for objective knowledge in baseball — people were looking long before him and they will be looking long after.
But without the life’s work of Bill James, they sure as heck would not have made a movie about it.
What would a formula for Bill James’ career look like? I’ve thought quite a lot about this and have finally came up with one:
(Cu * D) / (CoW) = Bill James
What does that mean? Well, first: What do you think it could mean? See, Bill James believes that baseball statistics and formulas should tell stories on their own. Sometimes he will be at a ballgame, and they will flash some pitiful statistic up on the scoreboard, something like “John Johnson has hit in six of his last nine games,” or, “Lefties hit .268 off Will Wilson in July.” And it will drive him mad. Who cares? Tells you nothing. Fills the imagination with blackness.
Instead: Take a look at these numbers from a season:
.354 batting average, 55 stolen bases, 31 walks
These are made-up statistics, but if you are a baseball fan, you can see this player, can’t you? You can look at those numbers and create an image in your mind. It doesn’t have to be just like my image. You might see a left-handed hitter, while I see a switch-hitter. You might see him as white or African-American or Dominican or Asian. You might see a shortstop, while I see a centerfielder. Whatever: We both see a kind of player, a fast one, a free-swinger, a slasher. Maybe he bunts a lot. Maybe he has a knack for hitting the ball the other way. Maybe he’s Tony Gwynn. Maybe he’s Ichiro.
Here’s another one:
20-6 record, 4.28 ERA
Just two statistics this time (three if you count wins and losses separately). Again, can’t you picture him? Maybe he’s a workhorse of a right-handed pitcher, maybe 6-foot-1, with a force of will and a refusal to come out of games. Maybe he’s a soft-tossing lefty who has a knack for being on the mound when his team scores five or six runs. But there’s something… an image that emerges from the numbers, like a snake from a basket.
Now look at these statistics:
1,237 yards, 15 touchdowns, 4.2 yards per carry
What does this running back look like? Can you see anything? He’s obviously good, really good. But do those numbers spark an image for you? It’s a personal question: Maybe they do for you. Maybe you immediately think of a certain kind of player. To be honest, they don’t for me. That runner could be Jim Brown or he could be Larry Johnson. He could run with the step-by-step precision of Priest Holmes or dance like Barry Sanders or plow like Jerome Bettis. He could run behind a great line that opens up craters for him or he could be an amazing one-man-show who finds creases where none seem to be. He could be almost anything. The only thing I can really say from those numbers is: I’d like him on my fantasy football team (back when I played fantasy football).
Look at these numbers:
24.7 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game
Elton Brand? Dirk Nowitzki? Dominique Wilkins? Larry Bird? Maybe it’s Yao Ming, towering over everyone. Maybe it’s Bernard King, driving hard to the basket. Perhaps you see a story in those numbers, but again, I don’t.
There is something about baseball, perhaps, a rhythm, a blend of individual and team, something that gives its numbers a richness that goes beyond digits and decimal points, and that is what brought Bill James to life.
The (Cu) in the above formula is curiosity, of course. Bill James grew up in a small Kansas town called Mayetta. He will talk a lot about his childhood, but not so much about the pain. His mother died when he was 5. His father suffered at times in business and with his health. Bill buried himself in baseball. He suspects that he would have anyway, that baseball and its numbers struck his mind in a certain way that would have been there no matter the circumstances. When he was 12, he collected baseball cards off cereal boxes and he would always remember that he was struck by the connection between the season totals of Jim Davenport and Elston Howard.
Davenport in 1960: .251 average, 6 homers, 38 RBIs in 363 at-bats. Howard in 1960: .245 average, 6 homers, 39 RBIs in 323 at-bats.
Those two seasons were more alike than any other two baseball cards, he decided. “My brother Bob couldn’t figure out what the hell the point was,” Bill would write years later, “and who cared.”
His mind could not help but make those sorts of connections, though. His mind could not help but ask questions. Always questions. The questions peppered him constantly, so much so that he did not really think much about school or much of anything else. How do teams score runs? How can you judge fielders? How much is pitching really worth? When he went to the University of Kansas, he made friends, and he protested the war in Vietnam (at least for a little while, until he decided that the protesters needed to be protested too), and he listened to a lot of music. But those baseball questions never really stopped coming at him. They still come at him.
“I have a question for you,” he will often write me in emails, and then he will ask something like, “Do you think that writers are more likely to have a song stick in their heads than people who don’t work as much with words?”
As he has often said, if there wasn’t a game like baseball, he feels quite sure that the constant questions would have still filled his mind. That’s just his nature. But because there IS a game like baseball, most of the questions were baseball-related, and when he got out of the army he could not help but try to answer those questions. The idea of becoming a baseball writer was foggy at best. He did not know what he would do. He got a series of jobs, the most famous of those as a night watchman for the Stokely Van Camp pork and beans cannery in Lawrence, Kans. The only bits of clarity came from baseball. And in the dead moments — and there were so many dead moments in those early years — he tried to come up with some answers to pacify the questions raging in his mind.
The (D) in my Bill James formula is distrust, and maybe you can begin to see the form of Bill James building. Many people have questions about baseball. But most of us are placated by the answers we are given. Bunting is the best way to get that run across? Fine. A walk is about the pitcher and not the hitter? OK, sounds good. There are certain hitters who just have the ability to knock in runs? Great. Let’s go play some ball.
Bill has a sharp and hypersensitive distaste for bull——. This is true even for his close friends. The answers that people offered to his baseball questions did nothing at all to stop the whistling in his mind. If anything, the whistling grew louder. The questions that troubled him most in the early years seem odd now, but you can see how everything was coming into focus for him.
Take one question in particular: Do great and exciting pitchers like Nolan Ryan draw more fans than others? Why that question? Who really cares? But I think that question was a particular breakthrough for Bill James because it seemed so obvious (OF COURSE Nolan Ryan outdrew other pitchers) and it was relatively easy to answer. All he had to do was look up the attendance when Ryan pitched and when others on his team pitched. This wasn’t exactly EASY in 1977 — it was long before personal computers and Retrosheet.org, so he had to go through the box scores he had clipped out of The Sporting News — but it was relatively easy. And what he found was: No. Nolan Ryan absolutely did not draw more fans than other pitchers. He didn’t draw more than his Angels teammates, such as Don Kirkwood in 1976. And in the Astrodome in Houston, he was outdrawn by Vern Ruhle and Joe Niekro in 1980.
Well, if people could get something that simple wrong, they could get just about anything wrong. It wasn’t in Bill’s nature to trust conventional wisdom anyway, but the more he looked at the box scores — the more hours he spent with the evidence — the more he came to believe that so much of what people said automatically about baseball was silly, misleading, incomplete.
He kept looking at those box scores and kept looking and kept looking, and this is the image that endures of Bill James — him in that pork and beans plant with graph paper and clipped box scores and line after line of numbers. It was around this time that he started to really challenge some of the conventions of baseball. It was around this time that he concocted the word “sabermetrics.”*
*Sabermetrics — now in the American Heritage Dictionary as “the application of statistical analysis to baseball records, esp. in order to evaluate and compare the performance of individual players” — comes from root SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research.
It was also around this time that he started to find people like himself — a community of people. Mostly, though, he worked alone. The very concept of errors — of judging players’ defense based only on the plays that an official scorer thought he should make — drove him nuts. Crediting wins and losses to pitchers as if they and they alone were responsible drove him nuts too. The inability of baseball’s numbers to take into account the differences in ballparks also drove him nuts (how could you judge Jim Rice, who played half his games in Fenway Park, and Bob Watson, who played half HIS games in the Astrodome, in the same way?).
Yes, he was driven nuts early and often, and he raged back with a sort of funny, blunt and often searing writing that appealed to an audience that nobody had realized existed. Bill James was not the first person to search for deeper knowledge in baseball, not even close, but unlike anyone else, he could bring that search to life on the page. Many of his formulas became pretty famous in baseball circles — runs created, Pythagorean winning percentage, favorite toy, secondary average, similarity scores, Hall of Fame monitor, and on and on — but it was the writing that broke through. His essay on the absurdity of the “pitching is 90 percent of baseball” cliché is a classic, and left no survivors.
If Bill has regrets about his early writing it is that he feels he was often too mean. But I suspect that it had to be that way. He found himself on the front line of a fight that he had no intention of starting. Bill had always thought that if he spent hours and hours looking up numbers and discovering that, say, players who get on base are especially valuable in the leadoff spot, or that pitchers with bad won-loss records are sometimes very good pitchers, well, he thought that people in baseball would appreciate that information and maybe even use it.
But, of course, that’s not what happened. They really did gripe about how he had never played the game. They really did say that baseball is a game of the gut and a game of the heart, and you can’t offer anything of any use about baseball with formulas or science. They really did say that he did not love baseball, not the way that baseball was meant to be loved, and that he was only hurting the game.
The funny thing is that the first people around baseball who did hear his song were player agents, particularly the Hendricks brothers. In a 1982 salary arbitration case, they were representing a pitcher named Steve Trout, who had gone 9-16 for the White Sox in ’80 and then a mere 8-7 in the strike-interrupted 1981 season. The White Sox — led by an assistant GM named Dave Dombrowski — made the point that Trout was clearly not in good shape after the 1981 strike, and all you had to do was look at his record in 1980 to see that he had been disappointing the year before. The Hendricks brothers then pulled out that guy named Bill James, who pointed out that in 1980 Trout lost six games where he had allowed three earned runs or fewer, and that in his first eight games after the strike his ERA was 3.06. Trout was awarded the money.
Bill James kept writing about baseball, though he tried always to keep it fresh. He wrote The Baseball Abstract every year for almost a decade and then decided that it had run its course. He wrote books about managers and the Hall of Fame and so on. At some point he came to expect that nobody inside baseball would ever really listen to what he had to say about it. He made his peace with that. He still loved the game, and loved exploring it. One of my favorite paragraphs that Bill ever wrote was from his New Historical Abstract:
“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.”
The (CoW) of the formula is the trickiest part — but it’s the one that I think clarifies the genius of Bill James. (CoW) is complexity of the world.
In one of the early, discarded versions of the film “Moneyball” — the movie had numerous forms before coming to life on the big screen — Bill James was to be played by an animated character. Nobody was at all sure how this was going to work (least of all, Bill) but I think this was a bit of inspired casting because, over the years, so many people have stubbornly insisted on seeing him as a cartoon. The Bill James image — humorless statistician who sees baseball and life through the prism of bloodless numbers — is a transcontinental flight from the real man, but at some point he learned to stop worrying and love the bombast. When “The Simpsons” asked him to play himself on the show, he happily enunciated his one line: “I made baseball as fun as doing your taxes!”
“What difference does it make?” Bill asks, and then he changes the subject to, say, the music of Roger Miller (“Roger Miller is fun about once a year. I’ve got like eight albums of Roger Miller stuff, like ‘My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died’ and ‘Lu’s Got the Flu,’”) or the varying qualities of George Clooney’s movies or how he has become convinced that Lizzy Borden could not have committed those murders.
If there is a guiding principle to all of Bill’s work, it is this: What difference does it make? The world is a complicated place. Baseball is a complicated game. This, more than anything, is what the Bill-as-cartoon people miss. He does not think that there are RIGHT answers and WRONG answers, certainly not to the questions that rage in his head. He just thinks that there are ways to get closer to the truth.
“We will never figure out baseball,” he says. “We will never get close to figuring out baseball.”
This, I think, is the critical final piece. Curiosity might have been the flint, distrust of conventional wisdom might have been the steel, but that only gives you a spark. What turned the work into a raging fire was that Bill James has never really believed that he had figured it out. He never even believed that you COULD figure it out. All he wanted to do was get the conversation going, advance the ball, give people new things to think about, let the discussion evolve and keep evolving. In the later years, Bill found that his word WAS read by people who mattered. The personal computer changed everything — there have been countless baseball studies done that would have literally been impossible 30 years ago. Television screens got bigger*.
*Bill thinks that bigger television screens might be the No. 1 reason for the explosion of statistics in baseball. “When they put batting average, home runs and RBI on a screen 35 years ago, it took up a fourth of the screen,” he says. “If they’d put the pitch count, the batter’s count, the score and the runners on base on there, the batter would have been entirely obscured. But with the immense TV screens that we all have now, you can show six channels and see everything.”
Bill James started to be recognized. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The Boston Red Sox hired him, and he received two World Series rings.
Baseball people, some of them at least, started to look hard at his work. He captured the imagination of an ex-marine named Sandy Alderson, who passed along Bill’s books to a failed prospect named Billy Beane, who became a successful general manager and shared some of his winning secrets with a marvelous writer named Michael Lewis, who wrote a book called Moneyball that caught the attention of a famous actor named Brad Pitt.
And that is how we got here to the Paramount Theater in Oakland, a big crowd, limousines, bright lights and Bill James wandering unnoticed with a new jacket and his wife Susie on his arm.
“There are two fruits here that I have never seen before,” Bill James is saying now, and this is the post-movie party in the Fox Theater, which is a few blocks away. There is music blaring, and camera phones flashing, and celebrities who played in the movie at every turn. Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy — who is 6-foot-7 and throws a good cutter and has a funny and must-follow Twitter account — wanders over for a while. McCarthy, at the moment, is leading the American League in an interesting statistic called Fielding Independent Pitching.
“He’s having a very good year,” I explain to Susie after Brandon leaves. Susie is an artist, and she sees baseball through an artist’s eye. She asks: “What is his record?”
I start to say that his 9-8 record doesn’t really tell how well McCarthy is pitching, but Bill says, “I think it’s something like 14-10.” This is not a time for sabermetrics. This is a time for small talk, for people-watching, and we talk about Brad Pitt movies and the struggling Red Sox and why the DJ won’t play a song released in the previous 30 years (at that moment “Hotel California” is playing). We also talk about the two fruits that are on the buffet tables, two fruits that Bill has never seen before. The first is kind of like a plum, but not really a plum.
The second is a sort of ball that looks like it is covered with green artificial turf.
“I think that’s just for decoration,” Susie says.
“I know,” Bill says, “but I wonder what kind of fruit it is.”
“No,” Susie says, “I don’t think it is a fruit. I really think it’s just a decoration.”
Bill stays silent for a while after that. Maybe he’s thinking about how crazy it is, his life, from comparing baseball cards to all those hours spent over box scores to a movie premiere where Brad Pitt plays a hero who challenges baseball’s conventions. More likely he’s wondering if that green ball can be eaten and why anyone would.