It’s almost impossible to imagine the modern game of baseball without the contributions of Bill James. The longtime Lawrence resident and KU grad is a pioneer in the field of Sabermetrics, a word that James coined based on the acronym for the Society of American Baseball Research.
Over the past 40-plus years, James’ work in analyzing baseball has challenged long-held myths about the game (stolen bases and intentional walks? Not really worth the risk), changed game strategy (such as using relief pitchers earlier in games) and led to the creation of entirely new ways to measure player and team performance (James’ baseball statistical innovations include Runs Created, Win Shares and the Pythagorean Winning Percentage).
Not bad for a guy who started deeply analyzing baseball to pass the time nearly 50 years ago while working as the night watchman at the old Stokely Van Camp pork-and-beans plant in Lawrence. James began widely publishing his work in the 1980s in his influential series of Baseball Abstract books, and many of his theories were immortalized in the 2011 movie “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt.
Long seen as a rebel (his exclusion from the Baseball Hall of Fame is inexplicable), James ultimately was welcomed into the baseball establishment when he was hired by the Boston Red Sox in 2003 as a senior baseball adviser. In his 17 years with the Red Sox — mostly commuting from Lawrence — he helped the team to four World Series championships.
Most recently, James, 74, has expanded his interest from baseball to crime, publishing two well-received true-crime books, “Popular Crime,” and “The Man From the Train,” which was co-written with his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James.
On Sept. 16, James will appear at the Kansas Book Festival at Washburn University in Topeka for a conversation with former Kansas City Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski, called “Why We Love Baseball.” It will be moderated by Brad Allen, director of the Lawrence Public Library.
James recently sat down with Mark Potts of the Lawrence Times to talk about baseball, his approach to research — and even an unusual short-lived baseball-themed Lawrence restaurant. This interview transcript has been edited and condensed.
LT: What do you look for when you watch a baseball game? Is it different from just being a fan?
BILL JAMES: I suppose the way I watch a game is different with each game that I’m watching. Today’s game, I was working while I was watching it. And so I would say 80% of my attention was on the work and 20% on the baseball game, although the 20% would spike up if something happened in the baseball game. … If I’m physically at a game and paid money to be there and that sort of thing, then all my focus is on the game, to such an extent that, well, I don’t eat hot dogs or drink beer or do anything during the game. I just watch the game. I don’t do ballpark food. I’m there to watch the game. Anything that you know affects how you perceive anything else. So things I know about baseball from having more or less devoted my life to it for 50 years are all present in how I’m seeing the game. But also the things that I don’t know. The nature of my mind is (that) I tend to focus on what I don’t know rather than on what I do. I focus on the questions more than I do the answers.
LT: What got you started in studying baseball when you came back to Lawrence in 1973 from being in the Army?
BILL JAMES: As a young writer I tried several things. … But the thing that always worked was writing about baseball. As long as I tried to do something else for a living, my interest in baseball was a drain on my energy. And all of the energy that I put into baseball drained out of my work. Once I switched to writing about baseball, all that energy drained into my work, rather than out of it, and that made a great difference.
LT: Did you have any statistical training?
BILL JAMES: No. None. … I’m not a statistician. I’ve never been a statistician. It’s not what I do. It’s a complete misunderstanding. I started asking questions and trying to find the answers. When you research anything, you tend to wind up with a number as an answer for it. So people who associate numbers in baseball with statistics categorized me as a statistician, but that’s never what I was.
LT: So your approach was just trying to answer questions you had about the game?
BILL JAMES: I remember going to a Royals game one time and I thought OK, I’m gonna take a notepad and I’m gonna write down every question that comes to me that could be a research project. By the end of the second inning, I had a list of six questions and to study all of them would have taken me two years. … I could go to a game tomorrow and the same thing would happen, if I focused on the billion things I don’t understand. And if you start focusing on them, you start thinking, all right, how can I study that?
LT: What were the first baseball questions you tried to answer?
BILL JAMES: I guess the first question I put a lot of time into is a question that’s so complicated that after having been studied for 40 years by people smarter than me, we still don’t have really good methods, but I was trying to find ways to evaluate fielding and fielders that would work. And the ways we have to evaluate fielders now are better than what we had in 1975. But they’re still challenged.
LT: What was the raw material like when you started researching baseball? Statistics still were pretty crude and hard to find back then, right?
BILL JAMES: You had to scrap for anything you had. The first abstract that I published included a lot of data, but we literally went through every box score. The Sporting News published box scores for every major league game, so we went through every box score and added up what every player had done at home, and what he’d done on the road. We counted how many people attended the games started by each pitcher. A lot of other data we kind of had to infer from.
LT: This was also before personal computers. So you were doing this on an abacus?
BILL JAMES: Well, fortunately, I can do math in my head really good. So that’s helpful.
LT: How has the amount of data that’s available changed over the years?
BILL JAMES: You can’t imagine. It’s gone from a trickle to an ocean.
LT: Did working for the Red Sox change the way you looked at things? Did baseball look different from the inside?
BILL JAMES: Very, very much. The biggest thing I learned is how many people have to contribute to a championship team. I think that was always my idea, but I didn’t really see it until you see it firsthand. You don’t understand that. Take a single player off a championship team — he’s got a father and an uncle who started coaching him when he was very, very young and he’s got a little league coach and he’s got a high school coach and he’s got a college coach. And he’s got another 30 guys in the system and 200 ex-teammates who contributed to making him what he is and all of those together. You don’t realize how broad the funnel is that winds up on field at the major league level.
LT: In “Moneyball,” a lot is made of the tensions between old-school baseball scouts who focus on players’ physical attributes, versus the approach you took that was much more statistics-based. Did you encounter any pushback from longtime baseball people when you went to the Red Sox?
BILL JAMES: I was never aware of it. … I never had any problem with any scout in all the years I was with the Red Sox. No controversies, nothing. … (After “Moneyball” came out) I didn’t watch it from then until, like three weeks ago, it was on one of the streaming channels and I watched it. It was only the second time I’ve ever seen it. I really didn’t realize that the movie highlights the scout/analytics split as much as it does. But I’m sure that’s true and it must be true in (“Moneyball” author Michael Lewis’) experience, but it wasn’t in mine.
LT: So the Red Sox were very receptive to what you were advocating?
BILL JAMES: At the time I got there, the owner had committed the franchise very deeply to being an analytical leader, and so anybody who wasn’t on board with that stayed pretty quiet about it. Over time, I didn’t really meet resistance. The ideas that were talked about in “Moneyball,” I had been advocating those ideas for 25 years, and they had a public, they had a base and they had a literature. But the new ideas that I developed, that didn’t have a public and didn’t have a base and didn’t have a literature, people didn’t get and still don’t. … I was there for 17 years. So I was there a long time. But the influence of my ideas grew less over time, because those ideas were (new) ideas. … I’m not good at explaining the impact of the ideas I had. I’m not that good at explaining why they matter.
LT: What are you researching now?
BILL JAMES: I’ll tell you what I’m working on now. This is what I’ve been obsessing over, what I was working on an hour ago, what I was working on three days ago: Everybody in baseball seems to assume that injury rates for pitchers have exploded. Why are there so many more injuries? First of all, you have to start establishing there are more injuries. And I’m not convinced that that’s true. … But how do you measure whether, in fact, more pitchers are getting hurt more often? And you have to measure whether they are before you can do a real analysis of why they are. But you know, it’s a complicated question, and it requires serious study. … In the research I’m doing right now, research I was doing an hour ago, I came up with an idea of how to do that. It may work; it may not work, but that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m following through on that idea: How do you develop a constant over time to measure the rate of injury?
LT: What data do you feed into that?
BILL JAMES: Any pitcher stat there is. … and then build up a metric that measures injury rates for pitchers over time. … The problem is that you have to make a constant value system despite the changes in (pitcher) usage patterns. When you do that, then you can ask the question, OK, do pitchers used in this way devalue more quickly than they (used to)? … It’s much more of a max effort game now than it was 20 years ago. Everybody’s out there grinding as hard as he can on every goddamn day. So it’s very plausible that that has resulted in increased injury rates and declining effectiveness. (Sept. 1, 2023 update: See James’ now-complete writeup on Pitcher Value Retention at this link.)
LT: Didn’t you once say that Major League baseball managers should play tabletop baseball games to learn about how to manage, the same way pilots learn from flight simulators?
BILL JAMES: I think that’s right. I think it’s just a normal thing in the world. I mean, a young surgeon being trained to be a surgeon in the modern world (uses simulations). In the 18th century, the way you learned to be a surgeon was by cutting people up, but you know, that doesn’t fly anymore.
LT: Are you still involved in the tabletop game Ball Park Baseball, which has Lawrence roots?
BILL JAMES: Yes. I still play Ball Park Baseball. I still learn from it. The Ball Park (inventor) was a man named Chuck Sidman, who was a professor of history. … He came up with this idea of how to build a mathematical simulation of the game (in the late 1950s). … At KU he met other baseball fans, and they started a league. …The people who were in the league decided to start a business based on it, and they started a place called The Ball Park (in Hillcrest Shopping Center in the 1970s). The idea was you would go there and you would have a beer, and in their concept, they’d have these gourmet sandwiches, and people would come and play a game of Ball Park Baseball and have a sandwich, and everybody would make lots of money. As you can probably guess, within two years it was a hot dog and a bag of chips. So the food wasn’t too good. … The Ball Park did very well for a couple of years and went out of business … But the game stayed, and there are still people all over town (who play it).
LT: Do you play fantasy baseball?
BILL JAMES: No, I don’t. … I didn’t get into playing fantasy baseball because I didn’t want people to think I was writing about fantasy baseball. I was writing about the real game. And I didn’t want people to confuse the two.
LT: What made you move from writing about baseball to writing about crime?
BILL JAMES: Well, when I was with the Red Sox, it was hard to write about (baseball). It was hard to talk to the public about things that I knew and things that I learned (from working for the team). I’ve always been, from a very young age, extremely interested in crime stories. I could have been a crime writer, a true crime writer, if things clicked. I didn’t write any articles about true crime cases in the ‘70s or send them anywhere. But if I had done that, and it had worked, I might have wound up doing that instead. I’ve always been fascinated by crime stories. I was at church today, and I was talking to this guy, and he told me about a crime that happened in the 19th century, that I’d never heard of, that was so fascinating. The story he told me got me thinking, “That is a book!” I don’t have time to write all those books. But I wish I did.
LT: What’s your next project? You’ve talked over the years about working on a history of Kansas, or a list of your 500 favorite movies, or an update of your “Historical Baseball Abstract.” What’s next for you?
BILL JAMES: Well, that is my problem, being an older person. I have 500 books that I want to write. And I’ve had a hard time for the last several years saying, “OK, this is the one I’m going to do.” … I never talk about what I’m going to do next, to be honest. I mean, I’d talk to you about it, but you’d have to turn off the recorder.
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Mark Potts (he/him) is a former reporter and editor for the Associated Press, San Francisco Examiner, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post.