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Bill James: Baseball not just by the numbers

'Sultan of Stats' back with 'New Historical Abstract'

Bill James
"It's thought that a book about baseball can't be a book about ideas. But it can," says baseball historian and writer Bill James.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- In the past 20 years or so, there has been a proliferation of baseball statistics. The use of the computer has expanded the pool from the basics -- home runs, earned-run average, runs batted in -- to esoteric data like "batting average with runners in scoring position with less than two outs when facing a left-hander who was born east of the Mississippi River and used to play for the Chicago Cubs."

Baseball historian and author Bill James likens the endless numbers to "information dust."

"And we're covered with debris," he added.

James might seem an odd person to point this out. His books, such as the Bill James "Baseball Abstracts" and "Baseball Books," invented several new statistics and burrowed deep into the ones that existed. But James, unlike many who have quoted statistics for statistics' sake, looks to the figures to turn up new nuggets of information.

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His new book, "The New Bill James Historical Abstract" (The Free Press) -- a completely updated and revised edition of his 1985 book -- continues that work.

It's the profession of an endlessly curious baseball fan.

"You have to brush away the debris and find the stuff that's interesting in and of itself," he said in a phone interview from his home in Lawrence, Kansas. "If you start with the information and try to connect it with an interesting question, you'll never get there. You have to start with the question ... and find the information that (leads to an answer)."

Contradicting conventional wisdom

James' answers have often been unexpected.

"He often takes conventional wisdom ... and contradicts it," said Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, a longtime James reader who once inquired if James' methods could be used for basketball. (Kasten is also president of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks.)

Before James, the typical fan -- and, for that matter, many sportswriters and historians -- paid little attention to such variables as the impact of park dimensions, the value of stolen bases, or the truth of established beliefs over who was to credit (or blame) for a team's fortunes. Now such interpretation is taken for granted.

Contradicting conventional wisdom

"I have found his research and analysis to be useful tools in covering and appreciating baseball and its history," said Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci.

Like many fans, James, now 52, started playing with statistics just for fun. He started writing articles, but to pay the bills, he worked a variety of jobs, from boiler-room attendant to night watchman. "I was a schoolteacher for a year," he recalled. "You can't teach school AND write. I couldn't, anyway."

In the late '70s, he started publishing his "Baseball Abstracts," yearly dissections of baseball players and baseball seasons that were typed, photocopied and sent to other aficionados. He built up a cottage industry and the publishing world noticed; in 1982, the "Bill James Baseball Abstract" was put out nationally, and became an annual bestseller -- despite concern that there was a narrow market for his work.

"I think that all books that are interesting are books about ideas," James said. "And it's thought that a book about baseball can't be a book about ideas. But it can."

Imitation being the sincerest -- and easiest -- form of flattery, he was quickly copied by writers and magazines, each trying to out-Bill James Bill James. The pressure to produce each year, under tighter and tighter deadlines, eventually led him to give up the annuals, he said.

"By the time I was finished, the competition had pushed the release date up to February, so the book had to be done in early December, which gave me four or five weeks to do it. It was really tough," he recalled.

'It's the people that are more interesting'

But that's led him to immerse himself more deeply in baseball's long history, as well as its perpetual argument-starters. He's written works on the Hall of Fame ("The Politics of Glory") and baseball managers ("The Bill James Book of Baseball Managers"), as well as the "Historical Abstracts."

Statistical interpretation, while still the heartbeat of the "New Historical Abstract," is far from its only attraction. The book devotes a substantial portion of its 998 pages to discussing the 100 best players at each position, accompanied by short biographies or descriptions by contemporaries.

The biographical effort actually started several years ago. "After the information explosion ... it occurred to me that it's the people that are more interesting," James said.

James based his 100-best rankings on a new stat called "Win Shares," a system of crediting the accomplishments of teams to individual players. The minutiae of Win Shares will be released in a forthcoming book, but in essence it quantifies a player's value.

The system offered some surprises, James says.

"Craig Biggio was a surprise," he said. The current Astros second baseman is ranked as the fifth-best 2B of all time, ahead of Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Frankie Frisch and Nellie Fox. Conversely, George Sisler, who hit .400 twice, is only listed as the 24th-best first baseman. "Perhaps the most overrated player in baseball history," James writes.

A fine, opinionated writer

Which is one reason James' books are so popular: He doesn't shy away from expressing his opinions, and he expresses them engagingly.

"James' appeal is pretty simple," wrote columnist Eric Neel. "He can write, he's inquisitive, and he cares about baseball."

Among the more striking observations in the book is an essay on the '61 New York Yankees, often ranked as one of the greatest teams of all time. James refutes that assessment point by point, noting that the Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris Bronx Bombers had a decent, but not spectacular, offense; a mediocre bench; and one good starting pitcher. His belief won't make him very popular in New York, but James doesn't care.

"I'd developed methods of figuring out great teams," he said. "When I first found that the '61 Yankees didn't show up, I'd come up with different methods. But I finally concluded that they're not a great team."

(If it's any consolation to Yankee fans, he ranks the '98 Yanks among the all-time best, and says, "I am quite certain that there has never been a team that was stronger, top to bottom.")

The "New Historical Abstract" is James' first book in four years, and he's been working on it for much longer. There have been other interests: In the late '80s, he added his name to a book of statistics; more recently, there was a Bill James calendar. (That won't be returning, he says.) He's also assisted players and agents at the bargaining table, marshaling data to show the player's value.

His name has practically become a trademark among fans. But despite his success, he remains, at bottom, a fan himself. His books often begin with the same disarming line -- "Hi. My name is Bill James" -- as if he were merely a patron at a ballgame, introducing himself to you over hot dogs, beer and that lousy call at third base.

Despite his occasional frustration with the game, and fatigue over his work, he doesn't see that changing.

"My affection for baseball has tremendous momentum," he said. "I could get as far away from it as I want, but then I'd start wondering about some problem. Baseball is always there."


• The Free Press: Bill James
• The works of Bill James
• The Baseball Archive: A Bill James Primer

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