Bill James Interviewby Chris Jaffe
February 04, 2008
For those of you reading The Hardball Times unfamiliar with Bill James, let me tell you . . . . no wait, that's right. I honestly can't conceive that a site like this has any readers who haven't heard of him. This is a sabermetric site, and he's the biggest name in the field.
Heck, he's better known then sabermetrics itself. Sometimes I'll run into someone and they'll ask about my interest in baseball, and I'll explain that I write for this site and am really into sabermetrics. "Sabermetrics? What's that?" So I explain for a bit until a look of recognition flashes in their eyes, and they nod their heads. Then they hurl rotten eggs and tomatoes at me. But that's another story.
However, if instead of saying the ol' s-word, I mention that I'm really into Bill James type stuff, I get that look of recognition right away. And then they pelt me with bricks and bobcats. But we don't need to get into that.
My favorite story about Bill James (if you overlook the fact that he doesn't appear in the tale) comes from SABR35 in Toronto. Some friend of mine noticed the city had some rickshaws, and got on one. As they got in, their driver asked them what they were doing, and they simply said they were in town for a baseball convention.
"Is Bill James there?" All they said was "baseball convention" but that's his reply. Why yes he was there, and one of the passengers had spoken to him that morning.
"NO WAY!!" The driver just lost it. "Bill James? THE Bill James?" He started literally grabbing other rickshaw drivers and telling them, "Hey, you know that baseball writer I told you about - Bill James - he's here in Toronto!" He started jumping up and down, asking where James was staying . . .It was like something out of the movies. Specifically, "Romancing the Stone." (Joan Wilder? THE Joan Wilder?)
Fortunately, Bill James was able to dodge the rickshaw drivers stalking him long enough to oblige me with this interview:
Can you tell us a little about yourself (age, background, family—general stuff)?
I'm 58, graduated from Kansas University in 1971. I was married in 1978, and we have three children: Rachel, who will be 22 in March, Isaac, who is 19, and Reuben, who is 14.
Over in the Old World, where are your ancestors from? When did they get off the boat to come to America? Did they immediately move to Kansas and settle down?
I am mostly Irish. My four grandparents names were Burks, Yates, McCool and James, so I got the only surname in the group that wasn't Irish.
My ancestors have been in the country a long time. My great-grandfather was among the first white settlers in Kansas, and they had been in America generations before that.
What's your first memory you have of your childhood?
Sitting out on what we called The Parking in the summer, chasing fire flies. The Parking was a strip of grass between the house and the street that sloped downward at about a 45º angle.
Did you play? Were you any good?
I wasn't an athlete, no. I grew up in a small town where everybody was on the school teams, and I enjoyed playing, but I didn't have any ability.
What was the first MLB game you ever saw in person?
Probably '63 or '64, a school group organized an outing to a Kansas City A's game.
How many different MLB ballparks have you been to? Favorite? Least favorite?
I don't know. . .I must have been to about 40 parks. Through about 1997 I had been to almost every park, but I'm way behind now. I guess it's more than 40. . .I've seen the old and new Comiskey, Candlestick and the new park in San Francisco, Memorial and Camden Yards in Baltimore, Jacobs Field and the old park in Cleveland, Mile High Stadium and Coors Field in Denver, the Astrodome and the new park in Houston, several others doubled up like that. Kansas City, of course, and I've seen Montreal and RFK in Washington, Veteran's and the new park in Philadelphia. But there are maybe 10 parks opened in the last 10 years that I haven't gotten to yet.
I love Fenway, of course, and I was very fond of old Tiger Stadium, which I thought was a rather magical park.
When you go to a game, where do you like to sit (upper deck or lower deck? First base side or third base? Stuff like that).
It depends on the park, and honestly, I like to move around. I used to like to sit in the front row of the upper deck in Kansas City, but my younger son doesn't handle heights so well. There is an area in center field in Fenway that is a very good place to see a game.
How much baseball do you watch a year?
I would guess I saw 65 or 70 games at Fenway last year, regular season games, plus all of the postseason in Fenway, the World Series games in Colorado, all or almost all of the Red Sox home schedule in spring training plus some of the road games, a few minor league games here and there. Are you counting television? Because I couldn't even begin to estimate then.
When did you start growing your beard?
I've had a beard since I was in college except when I was in the Army, 1971-1973. I've had a beard all of my adult life, basically.
Why did you decide to title your annual books abstracts?
All the good titles were already taken.
In the early days of the Abstract, did you ever have any doubts if you'd be able to make it?
You have to understand: everybody I talked to about it told me that there was no market for this stuff, the public didn't care about this kind of material. Even the people who were interested in it thought there was no economic number of people who shared their interest. Of course I had times when I thought everybody else might be right and I might be wrong.
Given that most of SABR's membership is more interested in baseball history rather than any sort of statistical analysis, why did you coin the word "sabermetrics" to describe the new wave of baseball stats?
Well, we needed a word, and I wanted to honor SABR, and. . .I just put it together that way. The mind is kind of random.
Who has influenced your writing style? Do you have any guidelines you try to follow when writing?
Yes, I write like I talk. . .I write like people talk. I learned from everybody I like to read, I guess.
How do you handle writer's block?
What, in your opinion, is the main advantage of win shares? What is its biggest drawback?
The essential advantage of Win Shares is that it reduces accomplishments of a wide variety of types to a common scale. The largest disadvantage is the great difficulty of figuring them.
You've contributed to two of the last three THT Annuals and written for the website. Meanwhile, as far as I know, you've never contributed to Baseball Prospectus, though that group has been around longer, and is more established. Why do you have more to do with this site? (Not that I'm complaining mind you. Not at all, nyuh-uh. Just wonderin').
It's just personal connections. I don't mean any disrespect to the Prospectus people, but the people at The Hardball Times have asked me to contribute, and I have had articles just sitting on my computers, so I sent them one.
Did you get a ring in either 2004 or 2007 when the Red Sox won?
Yes, I have a ring from 2004, and will have one from 2007. The Red Sox were very generous with who all got rings.
You've moved to Boston for the Red Sox job. How does life there compare to life in Kansas? Do you expect to move back to there or stay in your new home?
The biggest difference is that there are many more Dunkin' Donuts out here; otherwise everything is about the same. We'll be moving back to Kansas in August.
You've got a new book coming out—Baseball's Gold Mine. What's that going to be about?
The book consists of about 15 articles and hundreds of little notes, most of them illustrated by a chart. There is a section for notes and charts about each team, and then the articles are blended in. It will be out in a few weeks, and I'm very optimistic about how it will be received.
You've got a new website you're coming out with as well, Bill James online. What will be the nature of that site—a think tank for research analysis, a blog, a reference site, something else? Will you be the only contributor or will there be others?
The basic idea for the site is that I wanted to have a place where I could communicate directly with my readers, to publish articles and get feedback from the audience in real time. It isn't a blog, as I understand the term, because I think blogs are essentially opinion-driven, as opposed to research-driven. Not trying to limit what you can do in a blog; I'm sure there are blogs of all types. Anyway, what I do is, I find a question, I do research, I write it up, which is what I have always done; I don't really traffic in opinion very much. I do write some "columns," as opposed to articles, and columns are opinion pieces.
But a site, to be most useful to a reader, to really become a part of the reader's life, needs something new all the time, something happening every day. To create that "something happening all the time," we have created a lot of "information packages" that of course will be automatically updated.
How to do that? Well, obviously there is no point in telling the readers the things that they already know, so we have gone through a years-long process of trying to identify everything there is about baseball that we don't know, that the reader doesn't have any way of finding out. Then we created "profiles"—I guess there are 30 or 40 of them now, and will be more—which contain all kinds of information about the teams and the players that you don't have any other way of knowing, at least now; of course other people will rip us off, and the same information will be appearing on other sites in a matter of months.
We'll also do games, and I do hope to have 25 or 30 other writers writing there eventually. But it is hard to get that process moving before there is money coming in, and so far, it's all been money going out.
When will it launch?
Does the increased activity of the new book and website mean that you're disengaging from the Red Sox?
No. I'm still consulting with the Sox. I still go to Fenway several days a week.
How closely do you follow current work in sabermetrics?
I'm afraid I'm very bad about it. My new year's resolutions every year are to lose weight and to start paying more attention to the sabermetric debates. But by nature, I just do my own work.
What baseball websites do you frequent?
None whatsoever. I suppose that isn't true. . .I go to Retrosheet probably 15, 20 times a week on average, and I go to MLB.com every day during the season to check box scores and stuff. I find myself on ESPN.com probably every day, doing research, and I go from web site to web site collecting information like everybody else does. I read articles sometimes when they are recommended to me or when I discover them in the process of doing research. But as to reading articles or postings on web sites, on my own initiative. . .I just never do.
Who is the nicest person you've ever met in baseball?
Competitive niceness? I don't know if there is such a thing. There are three or four people in my office (with the Red Sox) that I could mention, but they kind of work at keeping their names out of the paper. Gabe Kapler...don't know Gabe real well, but he is famous for being a nice person, and has been to me as well. Justin Masterson is like that. Sam Reich, brother of the agent Tom Reich, is an extremely nice person.
What do you think is the future of sabermetrics?
League-perspective decision making. Looking at decisions based from the standpoint of the league.
Simple example: the wild card. The National League has 16 teams, and four teams make the playoffs. Sixteen is divisible by four. The natural thing to do, it would seem to me, would be to make four divisions and have four division races.
It wasn't done that way, and if you ask anybody why it wasn't done that way, they'll say "they must have thought that there would be more interest in the races if you kept a wild card there." But is that true?
It's an issue about which one could do research. One could define what constitutes a "meaningful game" in a pennant race, or, more probably, three or four levels of significance in competition, simulate a league competition 100,000 times one way and 100,000 times the other, and figure out whether you have more meaningful games played one way or the other. It might be that we're doing it right; it might be that we're doing it wrong. Nobody really knows.
Why hasn't this been done? It hasn't been done because there is no general understanding that it can be done or no confidence that the research would reach an accurate result. We're in the process now of building confidence in our work process, up to the level at which people naturally think to ask for our input.
If there was no baseball, what would you be doing with your life?
I'd be a clerk of some sort.
For Win Shares, why 3 WS per victory instead of something more Base-10 friendly like 5 or 10?
Those things don't work in practice. Five would work, sort of. . .10 doesn't work at all. With 10 Win Shares you wind up measuring skills in unrealistically small increments, and you wind up with no confidence that a player with 33 Win Shares is actually better than a player with 32. The current system. . .if you take a list of players with 14 Win Shares, just a short list of three to five players, and a list of players with 13 Win Shares, you can look at them and see why one group would be ahead of the other. But if you used a base of 10 that wouldn't be true. With 10 Win Shares per win, one Win Share would be less than one run. That creates real problems.
Last year I heard at the SABR convention that you were modifying the formula for Win Shares. Is that true?
I've been working on Win Shares and Loss Shares. There are some things about it that are fouled up. . .about the way that I am figuring them. . .and I can't get the time to back off and straighten them out. But I'm going to start publishing them soon, anyway.
Now for some mostly random questions I like to call "stupid stuff." In your opinion, what's the greatest rock'n'roll album of all-time?
Volunteers, Jefferson Airplane, 1969
What's the most overrated movie you've ever seen?
Do you have any non-sports related hobbies?
I collect crap.
Do you have any personal TV guilty pleasures?
If I felt guilty about it, why would I tell you about it? I watch The Office, 60 minutes, C-Span and all those real-life detective shows about old crime cases.
What's your dream car? What's the dream car you can reasonably afford?
Don't have one. Absolutely don't have one.
What do you like on your pizza?
Sausage, green peppers, onions, cheese.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.