Bill James Teaches Us about Abstract Thinking

By Glen Sparks

Yesterday, I wrote down a lengthy list of important pitching categories. You’ll recall that Clayton Kershaw leads the National League in every one.

Fans today rely on a mountain of baseball information.  You couldn’t get as in-depth when analyzing some of the great old-timers. Baseball writers and fans looked at win totals, ERA, strikeouts and a few other measures. No one in the 1920s making a case for Walter Johnson over Cy Young, or vice versa, looked at xFIP. It didn’t exist.

Stats like xFIP didn't exist in Walter Johnson's day.

Stats like xFIP didn’t exist in Walter Johnson’s day.

The statistical revolution in baseball (at least from a fan’s perspective) began in the early 1980s, or about the same time the first Bill James Baseball Abstracts hit the stands. I remember poring through the ’82 Abstract at a local bookstore. Wow. And it was just $5.95, plus tax. What a bargain. Was Tolstoy ever this good?

No one was writing about baseball the way that Bill James was. He added touches of humor to his sharp analysis. About perennial prospect Steve Balboni, James wrote that “there’s something kind of sad about a bald-headed rookie, don’t you think?”

Yes, James ranked Steve Garvey as the 12th best first baseman in baseball (at least after the 1981 season), and, yes, that bothered me a bit as a Dodger fan, and, yes, I understand that Garvey was ranked so low because he liked to take a walk about as much as Babe Ruth liked to pass a gin joint. But, I still think Garvey was better than Warren Cromartie (the No. 7 first baseman in that edition).

It didn’t matter, though.  I kept reading.  So, did everyone else.  Overnight, James became the go-to guru for all things baseball statistical. He was a Friday guest on St. Louis’s KMOX radio for years. He talked up on-base percentage and slugging percentage over batting average and RBI, and he championed range factor over fielding errors. In his Historical Abstract, James made a Hall of Fame case for Darrell Evans, a player most fans viewed as solid rather than immortal. Baseball fans began to look at the game in a different way, just like they would after Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball.

Think I’m kidding? The Boston Red Sox employ James as an advisor. Sixty Minutes profiled him in 2008, and Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s