Strength in numbers

A conversation with Bill James, the famed statistical baseball analyst just hired by the Red Sox.

Topics: Baseball,

Friday, the Boston Red Sox officially acknowledged that the game of baseball has moved beyond the 19th century by hiring Bill James. I shouldn’t have to tell you who James is; I assume anyone reading this column is familiar with James’ numerous baseball abstracts or “The Bill James Historical Abstract” or his book on the Hall of Fame, “The Politics of Glory,” or one of several other volumes that changed the way a generation looked at baseball.

For an indication of exactly how much James changed the way people think about baseball, compare any newspaper sports section or current sports magazine with anything written before, say, 1985, when James’ influence began to take hold. Sports editors who once scarcely conceded the value of batting averages and earned-run averages now devote numerous columns to discussions about the merits of on-base percentages, the relative importance of home vs. road stats, and the proper role of bullpen aces. No baseball analyst has done more to instill a sense of clarity and common sense to the game’s history.

I called James at his Lawrence, Kan., office as he was preparing for his new job.

First of all, what did you think of the World Series? It got a lot of knocks in the sports pages in this part of the country [the East Coast], and a lot of the local fans were disgruntled. I imagine that had something to do with the fact that the Yankees weren’t in it, but personally I thought it was a terrific series.

I couldn’t agree more. I thought it was delightful. I thought it was an interesting contrast from last year, which had four, as I remember, close, well-pitched games. This year’s was a hitter’s series. But I thought there were a number of dramatic turns and twists and an unusual number of truly vivid personalities on both teams. Barry Bonds, of course, but all those Angels players who went from nowhere to world champions. I loved every minute of it.

Of course, some people thought there were a few minutes too many to love.

That is becoming intolerable. It’s bad enough that kids don’t get to see the games, but I think it’s really bad for baseball when the World Series ends so late that most working people can’t stay up late enough to see the games and talk about them the next morning.

What was your most memorable moment?

Well, for me, it was when Dusty’s kid ran out on the field.

We can all be thankful that it wasn’t Pete Rose rounding third base or that kid would be history.

Or, God, can you imagine Ty Cobb with those spikes? It’s frightening. By the way, there’s some kind of index somebody keeps which measures how good a World series is by comparing it to the 1975 Series between the Red Sox and Reds. By that standard, I think this rates as the third or fourth best World Series ever. The improbability of the Angels coming back after getting down 5-0 in the [seventh inning of the] sixth game was huge.

I have to tell you that I’ve been watching the Angels since the last third of last year, and there was never one moment in my mind when I thought that the Angels weren’t going to win, up to and including when they were down 5-0 to the Giants in Game 6.

Really? I thought their luck had run out at that point.

I had already come to the conclusion that what they were doing wasn’t a matter of luck but, what did Branch Rickey say, “the residue of design.” Anyway, much as I enjoyed it, I dread what’s going to happen next year if everybody starts imitating them by fouling, fouling, fouling, and fouling off pitches. Games are going to last five hours or more.

Can you imagine what that’s going to do to your eardrums at Yankee Stadium?

It’s going to be like spending five hours with your head in front of the amps at a Led Zeppelin concert. Why are you avoiding talking about your new job with the Red Sox?

Probably because I don’t want you to accuse me of being a management stooge.

That’s true. For years, you did arbitration work for the players. Maybe the owners got together and hired you as a way of saving them some money.

I haven’t done any arbitration work in recent years, but I always loved it. I got to know sides of some players that I never would have seen otherwise.

Name a player that you came away liking more after arbitration than before.

Well, Tim Raines, for one. I found him to be very intelligent and engaging and a lot more open than I had thought. It was great work.

In a way, aren’t you doing the same kind of thing now? I mean, by advising the teams on certain players based on your statistical studies, aren’t you helping the team and the player?

That’s exactly the way I think of it. As a kid, I always thought about what I would do if I was running an organization, and now the idea that my research might contribute to the success or failure of a large organization is a little intimidating. But I’m really looking forward to it.

This isn’t the first time you’ve worked for a team, is it? Didn’t you do some things for the Kansas City Royals?

I was hired as a consultant by Kansas City a few years ago. But they never quite knew what to do with me. I’m sorry that that didn’t work out because I’ve been a Royals fan for years. I’ve done some work for the Blue Jays too. I think the situation will be different with the Red Sox. Larry Lucchino, the president and CEO, is pretty progressive and has been a proponent of objective analysis for a long time, and their general manager, Theo Epstein, is pretty well versed in my work. Frankly, I was surprised at how well they knew my stuff, and more than a little bit flattered. And I have to say that John Henry, the owner, is more progressive minded than any owner I’ve encountered.

Is it a new experience to have billionaires calling you at home?

I have to say it hasn’t happened a lot lately, but in my limited experience I’ve found it rather pleasurable.

Have they given you a title yet?

I read where someone said “Senior Advisor for Baseball Operations,” or something to that effect, but I’m really not sure yet.

Can you get some good tickets for Red Sox games? Maybe at Yankee Stadium? I always have trouble getting good seats for Red Sox games here.

Maybe I can get you some when they play the Royals. We’ll see.

I’ve got to say, you’ve got a lot better material to start out with in Boston than in Kansas City or Toronto. The Red Sox frontline talent is just awesome. It seems to me that almost any advice you give them would have to make them better. I started flipping through the Baseball Encyclopedia, and I couldn’t find a team in baseball history that had players of the caliber of Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Shea Hillenbrand, Tim Wakefield and Trot Nixon, and still had so little impact on the pennant race.

I’d say that’s a pretty fair evaluation. Clearly when you have players that good, you’re not too far from winning something.

I’ll give you some good advice right off the top of my head: If the Sox get a really good left-handed pitcher who’s also a terrific hitter, advise them not to sell him to the Yankees.

I’ve already thought of that one. I also made a note to advise them on defensive replacements at first base in the late innings of World Series games.

One thing I’m really curious about — given your impact on baseball and the way everyone thinks about it, why did it take a major-league team so long to contact you?

Darned if I know. I’ve been asking myself that same question for years. There were times when I was beginning to wonder if anyone was really paying attention to what I was writing.

Best of luck, except when the Red Sox play the Yankees. And don’t forget about those tickets.

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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