An interview with Bill James
This interview was originally posted on the old ezboard site at http://p086.ezboard.com/fsonsofsamhornfrm14.showMessage?topicID=21.topic on 3/26/2005. It seems prudent to archive it in the SoSH wiki in case the ezboard copy is lost.
Bill James, author and Senior Baseball Operations Advisor for the Boston Red Sox recently took time out from his busy schedule for an interview with one of SoSH's own.
James T: Bill, thanks for taking the time for this interview.
Bill James: I appreciate the opportunity.
James T: In two or three years, the Sox hope to be adding pitching prospects Jon Lester, Abe Alvarez, Anibel Sanchez, John Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen to the club's staff. Do you agree with the Weaver/Bamberger program of having future starters pitch in long relief their rookie year before joining the starting rotation?
Bill James: Sure, but two points. First, that’s Terry’s job, and I don’t try to tell Terry Francona how to do his job. And second, that approach is only meaningful if you’re in control of your own universe, so to speak. On a 90-loss team, a 100-loss team, you don’t have the luxury to operate that way. It may be that the best place for a rookie pitcher is in long relief, but you can’t always do what is best for the pitcher. You have to do what is best for the team. And, from a management standpoint, you have to find or create serendipity between what is best for the player and what is best for the team.
James T: Can you think of a manager in MLB history who reminds you of Terry Francona?
Bill James: My best answer is that he is more like Joe Torre than he is like most of the famous managers of history. Historically, many managers were big-ego guys, guys who had to be the center of attention. Stengel was like that, Durocher, McGraw, even Weaver to an extent. They managed egos by having the biggest ego in the room. That wouldn’t really play in the 21st century, not because baseball players have changed but because society has changed. Terry is practical, organized, reasonable. Al Lopez was like that, and Gene Mauch, but Mauch and Lopez were very different as field managers.
James T: You once guessed that perhaps Fred Haney, skipper of the 1959 Braves had done the worst job ever of managing a team. Who did the best job?
Bill James: One guy who did a terrific job a couple of times was Bob Lemon. The starting lineup of the 1977 Chicago White Sox was Catcher, Jim Essian, First Base, Jim Spencer, Second Base, Jorge Orta, Third Base, Eric Soderholm, Shortstop, Alan Bannister, Left Field, Ralph Garr, Center Field, Chet Lemon, Right Field, Richie Zisk, starting rotation of Francisco Barrios, Ken Kravec, Steve Stone and Chris Knapp, Lerrin LaGrow as the closer. You would think that team would lose 110 games, but in fact they won 90.
James T: Are you surprised that more managers, more teams, especially small market teams, don't utilize platoon arrangements to fill positions?
Bill James: What has happened in the last fifteen years is that the expansion of the bullpens has all but eliminated platooning. Teams used to carry nine pitchers, not 15 years ago but 35 years ago. You have nine pitchers on a 25-man roster, that’s leaves 16 players for eight positions, and you can platoon at three or four positions. Bobby Cox in Toronto in the early eighties was platooning at five positions. Now, teams carry 12 pitchers. You’ve got 13 position players for nine positions, you’ve got a backup catcher and a utility infielder, your options for platooning are very limited. But what we’re doing now doesn’t make any sense, because you can gain many more runs by platooning than you can save by having an extra left-hander in the bullpen. Eventually, people will realize that what we’re doing now doesn’t make any sense, and then they’ll start cutting back the pitching staffs and expanding the benches, and then we’ll go the other way for 30 or 40 years until something else happens and history tears off on some other tangent.
James T: Do you and your family still root for the Royals?
Bill James: We do. I go to 15-20 Royals games a year, the family with me about half the time. But you have to approach the Royals differently than you do a competitive team. You have to root for them to win that game without worrying about the game before or the game after. . .sort of like watching one episode of a soap opera that you know was cancelled in mid-season
James T: Could you compare the feelings of Royals fans and those of Red Sox fans toward the yankees?
Bill James: They’re more similar than you would guess. The Yankees beat the Royals in heartbreaking fashion in ’76, ’77 and ’78, just as they did the Red Sox. The Yankees used Kansas City as a farm team in the 50s and 60s, just as they did the Red Sox from 1919 to 1930. They took Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, but they got Roger Maris from Kansas City. They got Red Ruffing from the Red Sox, but they took Ralph Terry from Kansas City. They got Joe Dugan from the Red Sox, but they took Clete Boyer from Kansas City.
James T: A few friends and I are somewhat frantically pursuing tickets for the upcoming season. Are you aware of how ubiquitous scalpers are outside Fenway Park and of how openly tickets are illegally sold on Ebay? Is the overall scalping situation worse than ever before or is this how it's always been though with different methods?
Bill James: I think there has always been an issue there. Rube Marquard, who is in the Hall of Fame now, came within a whisker of being thrown out of baseball for scalping tickets to the 1920 World Series. . .somehow he forgot to tell that story in The Glory of Their Times. The problem is a lot more noticeable in Boston than it is in Kansas City because, in Kansas City, the ratio of available seats to people who want to go to the ballgame is very different.
James T: What about variable pricing of games?
Bill James: Well, if you have 50,000 seats and demand for games varies between 10,000 and 40,000, there’s no point to variable pricing. That’s been the common situation for almost all of baseball history. But if you have 35,000 seats and demand for games varies between 50,000 and 500,000, don’t you have to try to make the supply and demand match?
James T: With attendance at Red Sox home games averaging 100.7% of capacity even with ticket prices much higher than those of any other team, where is the economic incentive for Red Sox management to make the huge investment required to build a new park?
Bill James: There is always an incentive to keep your customers happy. Fenway is wonderful, but it’s not perfect yet.
James T: With ticket agencies charging 4 times face value for tickets to games against middling teams and 8-10 times face value for yankee games, do you think Sox management deserves some credit for restraint in pricing?
Bill James: I decline to answer on the grounds that my answer might be characterized as sucking up to the other side of the front office. . .
James T: Do you have a favorite section or location in Fenway from which to watch games, and if so, why that spot?
Bill James: In the center field section of the right field bleachers, particularly lower down, those are great seats. The intimacy of the park is somehow more apparent there. You feel like you could reach out and touch second base, whereas in a lot of parks, although you might be just as close to second base, you feel distant from it. I think the combination of the height and the background just works.
James T: I've heard claims that that the bleacher seat background in this and nearby areas at Fenway Park makes it more difficult to pick up the ball when a lefty is pitching in day games. Is there data to support this notion?
Bill James: I’m sorry; I can’t answer the question. I studied this issue, but what I found is the property of the Red Sox. I can’t tell you about it.
James T: Fair enough. I wanted to ask you about a recent article in the Boston Globe which profiled some of the folks working directly with Theo Epstein. It had a caption with 5 names and only 4 guys shown. Nice going Globe, but, leaving that aside, it made it seem like a very fun sort of collegial atmosphere at work.
Bill James: They’re a great group of guys. It’s the greatest group of people to work with that I have ever known. They're mostly about half my age and have twice my energy. People ask me all the time what it is like to work with Theo. Well, Theo’s great, but the guys around him are greater. It’s the group—Brian and Jed and Josh and Galen and Amiel and Antonio and Zach and Ben and Peter and Rock and Mike and Jason and Ship and Tom Moore and Victor. . .it’s the whole gang that makes the experience special.
James T: The article made it seem as though ideas don't just go from each spoke of the wheel to only Theo at the hub but get discussed by a lot of parties.
Bill James: That's right. Ideas originate from a lot of points and run in every direction.
James T: Is the work anything like what you expected when you were first approached by John Henry?
Bill James: I don’t know that I had any firm expectations going in. A great deal of what I do is self-directed, so I suppose a lot of it is established by my own expectations.
James T: What do you do down in Florida during spring training?
Bill James: I go over to the minor league camp, try to put names together with faces. I hang out with Jed and Josh and Theo, try to figure out what is worrying them and if there is any place I can chip in anything. I talk to the amateur scouting guys, try to figure out who we are focusing on in the upcoming draft and whether I have anything to say about those guys that might be useful.
James T: Here's a contrarian thought I wanted to run by you. Did signing Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella hurt the Brooklyn Dodgers' attendance? I remember seeing the attendance figures for the Dodgers through the 40's and 50's and I think their peak occurred before the color line was broken. Yet, the Dodgers became a consistent winner with their new mixed race roster and their attendance dropped. The Brooklyn franchise is often cited as a paragon of enlightened thinking. But did that thinking extend to all their fans? Or, if it did was the decline created by cultural and demographic effects that were industrywide?
Bill James: The Dodgers’ attendance peaked in 1947—the year the color line was broken; major league baseball overall peaked in 1948, I think, and after 1948, attendance per game declined consistently for more than twenty years. People at that time blamed television, the decline of the minors, competition from other sports. . .all kinds of things. It is my belief that attendance declined primarily for three reasons. First, the old parks were in old parts of town, and the character of those neighborhoods changed very dramatically in those years, for the worse. Second, the transportation systems which brought fans to the game, in most cities, were dismantled or decayed. Parking at the games was a huge, huge problem; a lot of times there just wasn’t any safe place to park anywhere near the stadium. Third, those were the years of teams jumping from city to city. While that process jump-started attendance in the short run, it created teams with little or no historic fan base, and thus teams that didn’t draw flies after they had been in town a couple of years, unless they were competitive teams.
James T: Do you think a contributing factor was that, for almost a decade, the World Series was won by one of the three New York teams?
Bill James: I doubt it. I think if you studied it, you would find that the attendance of the New York teams declined as much as or more than the attendance in other cities, which wouldn’t make sense if Big Apple resentment was driving the decline. The move to the West Coast of the Dodgers and Giants didn’t really arrest the decline in attendance, and the fact that there was a different World Series winner every year through most of the sixties didn’t end it. Also, there have been other eras in baseball history when New York teams dominated the World Series to an almost equal extent, but baseball did well.
James T: What's your opinion of the comportment of fans today as compared to throughout baseball history?
Bill James: Well, what do I know about manners? I’m pretty much an unreformed lout, myself. There were a couple of books published in the late 90s, one by Robert Bork and one by a prissy woman named Gertrude something, bitching and moaning about the degeneration of civility in our culture. I read the books, but the thesis doesn’t ring true to me. These books create the impression that our culture is in rapid decay. But they create that impression by (a) selective editing of the facts—for example, pointing to “exploding” crime rates, when in fact crime rates have declined throughout most of the last century, were declining at the time the books were published and are declining now—and (b) simply ignoring most of the ways in which things are getting better. Forty years ago, tolerance for racism and violence was at levels it is hard to imagine today. Thirty years ago, comedians made jokes about rape. Twenty years ago, you went to a baseball game, people would drink themselves silly and fights would break out all over the park. At the same time, we have problems now that we didn’t have 30 years ago. Public vulgarity is rampant; that’s not a good thing, because for one thing it takes all the fun out of private vulgarity. In some ways people are ruder and less considerate than they used to be, I think. I don’t know how to sum up the gains and the losses, honestly, but I’m an optimist by nature. Things always seem better to me.
James T: Have you seen games in all the parks in MLB? Which parks are your favorites?
Bill James: I have not. I was fairly close to getting to all of the parks before 1990, but I have been losing ground for fifteen years. There are about ten parks now that I haven’t seen. I’ll catch up when the kids are out of the house. Obviously, Fenway is the best, I think. At Wrigley, I have trouble concentrating on the game. . .it almost seems like the complete opposite of Fenway, where everybody is locked into the game. There is something about the construction of the park that makes it difficult to concentrate on the game there. Camden Yards is great. Pac Bell has stunning views of the Bay and of downtown San Francisco. Busch Stadium and Royals Stadium are good places to watch a game.
James T: HOK is known as the designer of new parks in recent times was there one firm primarily responsible for the spate of parks 35 years ago, Riverfront, Three Rivers et al?
Bill James: I think those were mostly designed by Albert Speer. . .
James T: If they had the requisite HOK retro park there, do you think an MLB team could be located in Las Vegas without economics or gambling becoming insuperable difficulties?
Bill James: Yes, but the team would bomb big time. It’s a mistake to put baseball teams in tourist areas, because the pursuit of the tourist trade interferes with the development of a loyal fan base. Baseball teams need deep roots. People think you could put a team in Orlando and take advantage of the millions of people a year who are visiting Orlando, but those are one-time visitors, and you only get some percentage of them. To thrive in baseball you need to have 100,000 fans who come to the game ten times a year.
James T: NESN recently re-broadcast the 1975 World Series and the difference in broadcast styles over time was striking. Joe Garagiola sounded like a Raymond Chandler devotee with his florid similes but he at least shut up some. Would you care to comment on the change in broadcast styles over the last 30 years?
Bill James: I think the broadcasters of 30, 40 years ago were on the whole better than the broadcasters of today, honestly. They were bolder, more colorful, more interesting. The concept of “professionalism”, which has damaged our culture in so many ways, has made the broadcasts more predictable.
James T: I remember announcers saying, for years, that in Tiger Stadium the Tigers were letting the infield grass grow very high. Can teams really do that with impunity, create hay fields to protect their groundball staffs?
Bill James: I think so. . .there may be some MLB policy regulating the length of grass, but I’m not aware of it. Honestly, major league baseball—and all sports—would be far better off if they would permit teams to do more to make one park distinctive from another—even so far as making the bases 85 feet apart in one park and 95 in another. Standardization is an evil idea. Let’s pound everybody flat, so that nobody has any unfair advantage. Diversity enriches us, almost without exception. Who would want to live in a world in which all women looked the same, or all restaurants were the same, or all TV shows used the same format? People forget that into the 1960s, NBA basketball courts were not all the same size--and the NBA would be a far better game today if they had never standardized the courts. What has happened to the NBA is, the players have gotten too large for the court. If they hadn’t standardized the courts, they would have eventually noticed that a larger court makes a better game—a more open, active game. And the same in baseball. We would have a better game, ultimately, if the teams were more free to experiment with different options. The only reason baseball didn’t standardize its park dimensions, honestly, is that at the time that standardization was a dominant idea, they just couldn’t. Because of Fenway and a few other parks, baseball couldn’t standardize its field dimensions in the 1960s—and thus dodged a mistake that they would otherwise quite certainly have made. Standardization destroys the ability to adapt. Take the high mounds of the 1960s. We “standardized” that by enforcing the rules, and I’m in favor of enforcing the rules, but suppose that the rules allowed some reasonable variation in the height of the pitching mound? What would have happened then would have been that, in the mid-1990s, when the hitting numbers began to explode, teams would have begun to push their pitching mounds up higher in order to offset the hitting explosion. The game would have adapted naturally to prevent the home run hitters from entirely having their own way. Standardization leads to rigidity, and rigidity causes things to break.
James T: Does your general approach to these issues come from your economics training in college?
Bill James: My economics training was very useful, yes. It had tremendous impact on me, but I have difficulty explaining how. Economics is fundamentally concerned with value—what is the value of a wingding, what is the value of a plate of chicken fingers, what is the value to society of clean air? And my work is fundamentally concerned with value—what is the value of defense as opposed to the value of offense, what is the value of a walk as opposed to a hit, what is the value of a 23-year-old star as opposed to the value of a 28-year player of the same caliber? So the ways of thinking about problems are often very much the same.
James T: Was the way of thinking taught to you in your KU economics courses so different from the way you thought entering school?
Bill James: Long before I entered college, I was thinking about the problems that I still think about today. What the economists did was to show me new options for working through those problems. You understand that these are numbers pulled out of the air, but I might say that, if I was worrying about quantifying the impact of first base defense, then before I went to college I might have been able to figure out five ways to think about the problem, and after I went to college I might have been able to figure out 105 ways to think about the problem. Of those other 100 ways to think about the problem, maybe 20 were shown to me by statistics or math professors, and maybe 15 were shown to me by psychologists, and maybe 15 were shown to me by historians, but probably 50 were explained to me by economists. So. . .yes, my way of thinking about the problems was very, very different after I finished school than before I started it, point a, and, point b, the economics classes had a great deal to do with that.
James T: UNC grad Peter Gammons has advocated the general theory that in the postseason, there's even more of a premium on having strikeout pitchers than there is in the regular season. Is this true?
Bill James: I believe it to be probably true, yes. Here. . .I’ve got some data about it. I sorted all teams in baseball history by their strikeouts as opposed to league average. This data doesn’t include the 2004 season, but anyway. . .there are 94 teams in the study which were 150 strikeouts or more above the league average. Of those 94 teams, 28 made post-season play, and for those 28, their record in post season play was 103-111. If the rest of the data was like that, we would have to say “No, there is no evidence that strikeouts are especially significant in post season play.” But the rest of the data suggests that there is such an effect:
|Teams which are||Total Teams||Made Post Season||Post Season Wins||Post Season Losses||Pct|
|+150 or more K||94||28||103||111||0.481|
|+100 to +149 K||148||53||194||173||0.529|
|+50 to +99 K||268||58||245||203||0.547|
|+0 to +49 K||434||68||213||232||0.479|
|-50 to -1 K||525||60||180||202||0.471|
|-100 to -99K||350||30||106||121||0.467|
|-101 or more K||195||9||33||32||0.508|
If you summarize that, the teams which were 50 or more strikeouts above average had a .527 winning percentage in post-season play, and won an average of 3.9 post-season games. The teams that were 49 or fewer strikeouts above average, or were below average, had a .475 winning percentage in post-season play, and won an average of 3.2 post-season games. . .and “No, these differences could not reasonably be explained by the fact that the strikeout teams were simply better teams.” I have a second very good reason for believing that the theory is probably true, which I can’t explain because it involves proprietary knowledge.
James T: Doesn't this contradict Billy Beane's supposed insistence in Moneyball that the playoffs are just a crapshoot? If there's a kind of team to build that's more likely to succeed it's not a total crapshoot, is it?
Bill James: I can’t speak for Billy, but I would be surprised if he sincerely believes that the post season is totally random. I think that very often, in post-season play, the better team does not win, and I think we’d be kidding ourselves to pretend that we have post-season play figured out. But it could be 60% a crapshoot, 20% determined by having the better team, and 20% determined by having the KIND of team that does well in post-season play, or maybe it could be 80-10-10, I don’t know.
James T: A newspaper article about Tommy Glavine a few years back put forward the thesis that the lack of playing time in cold weather regions hurts position players but that pitchers can just throw snowballs or throw indoors for a few months and aren't so negatively affected. Are there proportionately fewer position players than pitchers from New England who reach the major leagues?
Bill James: Well, let me check. The Sabermetric Encyclopedia has a function whereby you can generate lists of players by state of birth, so let’s do a list of all pitchers born in the state of Massachusetts with 50 or more career wins since 1900. . .there are 25 of them, Tom Glavine #1 on the list. Now position players. .. there are 45 with 500 or more hits, which seems like a fairly normal ratio. Now let’s do a Southern state. ..let’s say Georgia. From Georgia there are 27 pitchers and 34 hitters. So, just spot-checking the data, it doesn’t seem to hold up. The ratio of pitchers to hitters from Georgia much higher than it is from Massachusetts. Let’s do a couple more states. .let’s say Michigan and Florida. From Michigan, a cold state, we have 44 pitchers and 42 hitters. From Florida, an insufferably hot state, we have 13 pitchers and 55 hitters. Wow. So there, it certainly looks like he has a point. Combining the two, we have 69 pitchers, 87 hitters from the cold states, 40 pitchers, 89 hitters from the hot states. So he could be right. . .
James T: With the advent of the lefty specialist reliever, it seems that some lefty pitchers last forever in MLB. How does the percentage of pitchers who are lefties today compare to the percentages throughout MLB history?
Bill James: In 2004 major league left-handed pitchers accounted for 27% of all game appearances (4,986 of 18,272) and for 27% of all innings pitched. In 1984 lefties accounted for 31% of games and 31% of innings. In 1964 left-handers accounted for 28% of game appearances, and 31% of innings pitched. So the percentage of left-handers being used certainly is not increasing, and appears to be decreasing.
James T: Despite the lefty relievers? How could that be?
Bill James: I believe that the number of left-handed pitchers in the game actually is decreasing as a consequence of the use of radar guns. Perhaps the central tenet of my career is that hard information is much more powerful than soft information. Whenever you add hard, solid facts to a discussion, it changes that discussion in far-reaching ways, and sometimes in unfortunate ways. Left-handed pitchers, on average, don’t throw as hard as right-handers. The use of radar guns, which began in the 1970s and became widespread in the late 1980s, has increased the emphasis on throwing hard. Before, when you didn’t know exactly how fast a pitcher was throwing, you could put a guy like Mike Caldwell or Ross Grimsley or Geoff Zahn or Randy Jones on the mound, he may have been throwing 82, but you didn’t know it. You knew he wasn’t a hard thrower, but you didn’t have specific data. Now, you bring along an Abe Alvarez, he takes the mound throwing 85, you put that on the scoreboard and on the TV screen after every pitch, and people overreact to it. You have one guy throwing 85, the other guy throwing 89, you tend to favor the guy throwing 89, even though it probably doesn’t make any difference to major league hitters whether a guy is throwing 85 or 89. This works against finesse pitchers in general, and, since a larger number of left-handers are finesse pitchers, it works against left-handers.
James T: Why don’t left-handers throw as hard as right-handers? Is there actual evidence for that?
Bill James: There is actual evidence about it, yes. Check the lists of “Slowest Average Fastball” in my handbook. . .you’ll find that most of the slowest pitchers are left-handers. The average fastball of a left-handed pitcher is substantially slower than the average fastball of a right-hander.
James T: Why?
Bill James: In the population as a whole, I would guess that the average arm speed of left-handers is probably the same as the average arm speed of right-handers. But in the population as a whole, only. . .what is it, eight or ten percent of the population is left-handed. Among pitchers, it’s three times that. Being left-handed is an advantage for pitchers, which means that, in selecting which pitchers move up the ladder to the majors, it competes with other advantages. Left-handed pitchers are disproportionately represented among pitchers; therefore, they are less carefully selected to be hard throwers.
James T: How about some of the other other stereotypes? Do they typically develop more slowly than righthanders?
Bill James: The aging pattern of right-handed and left-handed pitchers is the same. When you have a hard-throwing lefty like Randy Johnson, sometimes, since he has BOTH of the “plusses”—hard-throwing AND a lefty—sometimes he gets to the majors before he really knows how to pitch, and those cases create the impression of delayed development for lefties. But overall, the aging patterns are the same.
James T: Do they typically have worse control?
Bill James: Taking the years 1990 to 1999, major league right-handed pitchers issued 3.14 walks per nine innings, not counting intentional walks. Lefties gave up 3.24 per nine innings. So. . .they’re a little wilder, I guess. Or slightly more inclined to pitch around big hitters. There is a difference of one walk for every 90 innings.
James T: One substitute for a lefty used to be a righty screwballer, but there don't seem to be any. Is the screwball simply not taught to young pitchers anymore? So few pitchers throw it. Jim Mecir's the only one I can come up with right away. If part of the justification is injury prevention, is this reasonable?
Bill James: Well, there are four or five questions hidden in there, one or two or which I might have a firm grip on. The five questions are: Is it true that young pitchers are not taught to throw the screwball anymore? Did more pitchers used to throw the screwball? Is this because people believe that the screwball causes injuries? Do people believe that the screwball causes injuries? And Does the screwball cause injuries?
My best short answers are “Yes, no, no, yes, and no.” Is it true that there are not a lot of pitchers now who throw a screwball. ..yes, but on the other hand, how many pitchers in the 1960s threw a screwball as a primary pitch? Tug McGraw and Mike Cuellar are the only ones I can come up with, Hank Aguirre I guess. In the 1980s you have Willie Hernandez and Fernando Valenzuela. The screwball has never been a pitch that young pitchers were taught as meat and potatoes; it has always been a pitch that a few pitchers picked up. People do believe that the screwball causes injuries, but that isn’t the main reason it isn’t taught anymore. The screwball was taught to young pitchers for a long time as a third or fourth pitch, to throw the hitter off-stride. Today there are two very common pitches in use—the circle change and the cut fastball—which move or can move in a similar manner, away from a left-handed hitter. Young pitchers are taught those pitches instead of the screwball. I don’t think the screwball is dangerous—in fact, I think the evidence is the opposite. I think that the pitchers who have thrown the screwball—Carl Hubbell, Mike Cuellar, Luis Tiant, Fernando Valenzuela—have generally had longer-than-common careers.
James T: Has the advent of year round training changed the expectations of career trajectories for older players such that the declines of, say, 39 year old players who played 70 years ago just aren't that relevant in looking at a 39 year old player today?
Bill James: What is surprising is how little they have changed, not how much they have changed. Take two groups of players: those born 1894-1896 (a group which includes Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby) and those born 1964-1966 (including those who would have been 39 years old in 2004.) The first group reached their peak value in 1923, and retained 58% of their value in 1928, 15% in 1933. The latter group, which includes Barry Bonds, reached their peak value in 1993, and retained 68% of their value in 1998, 20% in 2003. So. . .yes, things have changed, but not all that much. The improved training has essentially slowed the process of aging by one year.
James T: I would've guessed a greater effect. I sometimes wonder about the effect the constant stretching Ichiro Suzuki does has in keeping him going. And, though I really hate all his groundball slap hitting, I have to admit that I like that he uses such a unique hitting style. It seems as though almost no one hits with a closed stance anymore. It doesn't seem that there's anyone flapping his arm like Joe Morgan, holding his bat extra high like Yaz or trying to do whatever John Wockenfuss was doing with his hands. Is it your sense, also, that hitting stances and styles have become more homogeneous in the last 20 years? If there is homogeneity, is it because everyone's trying to hit the home run?
Bill James: There is more standardization, yes, and (almost) everybody is trying to hit home runs, yes, but I don’t know that one is causing the other. I think it has more to do with the curse of professionalism. Everybody thinks they know the “right” way to do things, even when they don’t. Pitching motions have been standardized and homogenized even more than hitting mechanics, and nobody is trying to throw home run balls. It has more to do with over-coaching, I think. We look for people who do things a certain way, and we teach them to do more things a certain way, even though that may not be the best way for every hitter or every pitcher. So then you get the Cubans in the mix, God bless them, and they’re mixing up their pitches and throwing first-pitch changeups and pitching backward and every other odd variation, which brings a little much-needed variety into the game. And I love Ichiro’s style; I’d like to see a lot more of it.
James T: Yeah, I just wish it didn't result in so many 3 hoppers to short. Maybe it's Sox fan bias but his .372 seems a lot less impressive than Nomar's .372 in 2000.
Bill James: Certainly it is. Nomar hit .372 with 75 extra base hits and 96 RBI. Ichiro had 37 extra base hits and 60 RBI. Ichiro made 464 outs last year, despite hitting .372—a fantastic combination. Nomar made 349 outs, and produced more runs.
James T: Was there any situation comparable to the circumstances of Nomar Garciaparra's in MLB history, a longtime star player being traded in mid-season and his team then winning without him?
Bill James: I believe that the situation may be unprecedented. I tried to find a case, sometime in baseball history, where something much like this happened, and I failed to find one. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t happened before. One situation which is fairly comparable is Whitey Herzog in St. Louis twenty, twenty-five years ago. Herzog traded away Ted Simmons, who was a huge star and by far the most popular player on the Cardinals, and then Keith Hernandez, who had become the most popular player on the team after Simmons left. He was under a lot of pressure when he did that, but he came out smelling like a rose after the Cardinals won the World Series in ’82 and the National League pennant again in ’85 and ’87. But the time frame was different. It was never as quick as this. For us, it was three months from trading Nomar to winning the World Series.
James T: One of the great at bats I saw in 2004 was a lengthy, game deciding one of Julio Franco against Kyle Farnsworth in an early Braves vs. Cubs game. Mr. "More Hundred Mile an Hour Pitches Than Anyone Else" threw 13 pitches to the antedeluvian Franco and not one was inside. Not one. Eventually Franco beat him taking an outside pitch to right. What would Whitey Herzog have done to that catcher? Did the Royals or Cardinals ever have a farm team in French Guyana?
Bill James: I didn’t see that at bat and never heard of it before, but there was a very similar at bat in a Red Sox/Yankee game that drew considerable notice in the Red Sox front office. Baseball is a hard game, and there are many, many ways to fail. I doubt that the pitch selection or pitch location of pitchers in the 1970s was better than it is now, but it was different. As Julio Franco would probably remember.
James T: Julio probably remembers a lot of different trends in umpiring, too. Do you agree with the new one, the use of the Questec system?
Bill James: Strongly. Vigorously. The umpiring now is vastly, vastly better than it was in the late 1990s, and significantly better than it was two years ago. If you could go back to 1997 and watch a game then, you would just be amazed at how bad the umpiring was.
James T: Have we already gained most of the benefit of the Questec system or will outfitting the remaining parks cause even more improvements?
Bill James: I don’t know, but there are a lot of things that could be improved. For example, the umpires have been instructed (I think) not to call time out if the batter is asking for time out just to jerk the pitcher’s chain. But the enforcement of that is very haphazard. The same system could possibly be used to train umpires on how to enforce that more systematically. Baseball is curiously haphazard about enforcing some rules which, in truth, could very easily be enforced.
James T: Such as?
Bill James: Why do we allow the batters to wipe out the batter’s box? The batter’s box is in the rules, and it has a purpose. Would we allow the pitchers to dig up the pitcher’s rubber? The practice of deliberately obliterating the batter’s box began in the 1970s, and didn’t become standard until the late 1980s—the period in which the umpires were out to lunch. But it would be very, very easy to put a stop to it. All you have to do is, when a batter wipes out the batter’s box, you call time out, call out the grounds crew, and instruct them to re-draw the box. If the batter wipes it out again, you eject him. Three to five ejections, and you’d have the batters back in the batter’s box.
James T: On the subject of ejections, of a larger sort, there've been knock down drag out arguments at SoSH over this question. Do you think Joe Jackson lay down in the 1919 World Series or did John Sayles have it right in the movie Eight Men Out?
Bill James: My opinion is that he sold out. But there are a lot of people who know more about it than I do, and one of them is John Sayles. One of the great things about that movie is that the moviemakers thought through the motivation of each character, and made a movie that shows how all of them, acting together, conspired to create a result that no one wanted. This is more true of that movie than of any other historical movie I’ve ever seen, that it gives the sense of understanding each of its characters as an individual.
James T: I asked you earlier about the best job of managing. Who was the best GM? Folks at SoSH are at least somewhat familiar with the legacy of Branch Rickey and his work with the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates and the racially tarnished legacy of George Weiss with the yankees and Mets. Is there another GM in baseball history who should rank with or even be seen superior to Rickey and Weiss? Campanis? Barrow? Bavasi pere?MacPhail (of the '40's)?
Bill James: Nobody was Branch Rickey’s equal, nobody. Barrow was exceptional, MacPhail was colorful and original. Branch Rickey was the only real genius baseball ever had.
James T: Did Rickey ever publish his memoirs or explain what he did in a thorough way?
Bill James: Rickey was never shy about explaining what he was doing, but I don’t think he ever did in book form. There are a couple of books that try to cover the territory. I think I can explain Branch Rickey to you in this way: that Branch Rickey truly understood, in a way that is unique in baseball, that everything which exists is simply an accident of history, that none of it has to be the way it is, and that there is really no reason you can’t seize hold of the forms in which things exist and change them. Sandy Alderson, I think, is a little like that, but Rickey came along when baseball was smaller and easier to re-invent, and he re-invented it. Several times.
James T: I have to ask you this. On an internet baseball fan site, I recently saw you quoted to the effect that veteran leadership had enabled the Red Sox to come back from down 0-3 in the ALCS. But, in that forum, the immediate response was to doubt your sincerity. Bill couldn't mean that! And these were people who held you in high regard. Are you resigned to your reputation at this point in time?
Bill James: Well, believe it or not, I don’t worry about my reputation in that sense. I’ll let that take care of itself. This is probably a long-winded answer, but I’ll try to explain it this way. If I were in politics and presented myself as a Republican, I would be admired by Democrats by despised by my fellow Republicans. If I presented myself as a Democrat, I would popular with Republicans but jeered and hooted by the Democrats. I believe in a universe that is too complex for any of us to really understand. Each of us has an organized way of thinking about the world—a paradigm, if you will—and we need those, of course; you can’t get through the day unless you have some organized way of thinking about the world. But the problem is that the real world is vastly more complicated than the image of it that we carry around in our heads. Many things are real and important that are not explained by our theories—no matter who we are, no matter how intelligent we are. As in politics we have left and right—neither of which explains the world or explains how to live successfully in the world—in baseball we have the analytical camp and the traditional camp, or the sabermetricians against the scouts, however you want to characterize it. I created a good part of the analytical paradigm that the statistical analysts advocate, and certainly I believe in that paradigm and I advocate it within the Red Sox front office. But at the same time, the real world is too complicated to be explained by that paradigm. It is one thing to build an analytical paradigm that leaves out leadership, hustle, focus, intensity, courage and self-confidence; it is a very, very different thing to say that leadership, hustle, courage and self-confidence do not exist or do not play a role on real-world baseball teams. The people who think that way. . .not to be rude, but they’re children. They may be 40-year-old children, they may be 70-year-old children, but their thinking is immature. Or, to put it in one sentence, if I worried about that @#%$ I would have folded my tent 25 years ago, when my ideas were anathema to the mainstream baseball establishment.
James T: Isn't Red Sox management structured in recognition of the deficiency of any one perspective, both Bill Lajoie and Bill James advising Theo?
Bill James: Yes, I think that’s right.
James T: How often do you find your visual impressions of players contradicted by analysis? Is there one particular aspect of the game in which you trust your eyes least?
Bill James: I think the extent to which you can trust your eyes is fairly limited, but on the other hand, the extent to which you can trust the numbers is limited, too. If you watched Johnny Damon hit, based on his swing and his follow through and his balance, those kind of things, you would think he couldn’t hit—but he can. The visual impression is not contradicted by “analysis”; it is contradicted by the outcomes. That’s pretty common. There are fielders who look bad, but get the job done. There are pitchers who look like they are quick to first base, but who never pick anybody off. There are catchers who look awkward throwing, but who don’t give up many stolen bases. But there are pitchers who go 15-11 who aren’t really good pitchers, too. There are hitters who hit .310 but don’t help you, there are fielders who field .980 who don’t help you. You have to be skeptical of all of it.
James T: In the celebration after winning the world series, Curt Schilling gave a toast that elicited a roar inside the Red Sox clubhouse. He said " . . to the greatest Red Sox team ever!". Do you think he might have been right?
Bill James: Was he referring to the 2005 team? Just joking. . .sure, he might be right. But you know, there is luck. That ’75, ’77, ’78 team. . .that was a damn good team. They could have won two World Championships with that team, as easy as not.
James T: What are some reasons why the Red Sox might win more games in 2005 than they did in 2004?
Bill James: A healthy Trot Nixon would be #1 on the list.
James T: It seems that a lot of teams are trying to develop their own proprietary systems of measuring fielding efficiency. As a fan, the one readily available fielding stat to which I attach some credence is zone rating. What do you think of this particular metric?
Bill James: It’s useful. Zone rating was created by John Dewan, who is a good friend of mine, but when it was originally created he made a series of what seem to me like obvious mistakes, and it was years before he got around to correcting them. So John and I used to have huge arguments about zone rating once every two years, regular as clockwork. He has tried to adapt the stat to address my concerns, but I don’t see the data regularly enough to know where we are on it right now.
James T: Todd Walker was a perfectly serviceable second baseman in 2002 according to his zone rating. Then in 2003 he had a very poor year by that same measure. I think fans perceive general fielding ability as a constant. But is it? Does fielding efficiency fluctuate as much as hitting or pitching ability?
Bill James: I would guess that it fluctuates more than hitting ability, because fielding depends on such a wide range of skills. You have a hamstring problem, that’s going to effect your fielding. You have a sore arm, a bad elbow, a sore shoulder, you might be able to hit with it, but it will effect your fielding. If you lose confidence, it effects your fielding. If you lose quickness, I would guess it effects your fielding before it effects your hitting. So I would guess that fielding is more variable, more unpredictable, than hitting. Another point in favor of this argument: look how much fielding roles change over time. Bernie Williams is very much the same hitter now that he was ten years ago, but nowhere near the outfielder. Ruben Sierra had basically the same batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage last year that he did in 1988, but he was a top defensive right fielder then. Now he’s a DH. People think of fielding as a constant because, for good reasons, they don’t trust fielding stats, and don’t monitor them from day to day. Since fielding stats are kind of a cipher, we’re not always aware of changes in fielding performance, when, if a player’s batting average dropped 20 or 30 points, we would certainly be aware of that.
James T: Finally, regarding Boston fans, Tim McCarver recounted that when he and his Cardinals teammates came to Boston for the 1967 World Series they were shocked that everyone in the region seemed to hate them. That was his word, "hate". He said they'd never encountered that attitude before. Are there real regional differences in fan attitudes and dispositions?
Bill James: There may well be some regional differences, but I think there is a high risk of error in generalizing about them, just as there is a high risk of error in generalizing about blonds or lawyers or any other group. I will say that the Cardinal fans at the 2004 World Series were almost unbelievably polite and considerate. After the guys won it in St. Louis, my wife was sitting there in her Red Sox hat, and just person after person after person came up to congratulate us, to tell us that they were happy for us, to tell us that it was about time, etc. That was an amazing experience, or an amazing part of an amazing experience.
James T: On behalf of everyone who has enjoyed your writings, let me say thanks for providing entertainment and enlightenment. And on behalf of Red Sox nation, please accept thanks for the part everyone in the front office played in creating that amazing experience and making so many so happy.
Bill James: My pleasure. I’d like to have a dozen work experiences as good as this one. I doubt that I’ll ever have another.