Q&A with Bill James
“Baseball just exists to be enjoyed.”
Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, Bill James grew up in a small town in Kansas that wasn’t particularly geographically close to any major league baseball stadium. But the adult Bill James, known to many as “the father of sabermetrics,” became a baseball writer, historian, and statistician whose influence on the way the game is both strategized and analyzed is difficult to estimate.
In 2006, Time named him in the Time 100 as one of the most influential people in the world. James has written over two dozen books since 1977 dedicated to both the history of baseball and statistics relevant to the game.
BallNine was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Bill James for this week’s Up N’ In.
Bill James during photo shoot at Royals Stadium. View of runs created equation on scoreboard screen. James is an author and the founder of Sabermetrics. Kansas City, MO 5 / 4 / 1981 (Photo by Lane Stewart / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
Thank you so much for your time and for being willing to speak with BallNine about your work and your baseball interests. How did you become such a baseball fan?
Baseball just exists to be enjoyed. People tend to become more fanatic about those things that aren’t really about audience enjoyment, but baseball is really not about those external factors.
The way I became interested in baseball was through the 1961 Post cereal boxes, on which there were printed baseball cards of players from the 1960 season. I cut out the cards, which had the stats of the players on the back. I was fascinated by the cards, growing up in a small town about 80-90 miles away from Kansas City. I didn’t really get to major league games as a child. Some of the players who interested me at the time were Tito Francona, Yogi Berra, and Elston Howard.
My family did go to a minor league game in 1957, but I was too young at the time to actually understand it very well. It really was the back of the Post boxes that was the trigger for my fandom of baseball. One other factor was that Kansas City baseball was on the radio and I listened to every Kansas City A’s game I could in the summertime.
You began writing your thoughts about baseball and what wasn’t being reported – why did it strike you that published play-by-play was so important?
The departure point for me was trying to learn things that nobody knows. That’s my approach to everything, and baseball is no exception. But the issue around play-by-play not being published is that there was no way to count up the details of what happened in every game, across every team – so you couldn’t assess any of the implications. For example, counting how many double plays a player got was a problem because no one was publishing the play-by-play. The Elias Sports Bureau was controlling all the specific information at the time.
(Original Caption) Baseball: Portrait of statistician Bill James during photo shoot at his home. James is an author and the founder of Sabermetrics. Lawrence, KS 5/4/1981 (Photo by Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
How popular, initially, was your idea that more metrics and analytics were needed to really understand the game? Did you foresee your ideas becoming the influence they’ve become?
It wasn’t my idea that baseball needed more metrics, no. I wasn’t trying to have any influence. It never occurred to me that anyone in baseball would find it all so interesting and useful. I just had a lot of questions I wanted answers to, and was trying to make a living as a writer.
My process was: Find a question nobody knows the answer to, find the answer, and then publish it. There still are many, many questions that no one knows the answer to, even though so many have joined the field. The open questions are inexhaustible. You can work the process forever.
In the 1970s when Nolan Ryan pitched, he was considered a phenomenon. Announcers would say routinely, all announcers, almost any time Ryan started, they would say that ‘When Ryan starts the game, there’s always an extra five or ten thousand fans in the stands.’ It was something people said all the time. But that actually turned out to be untrue in 1975 through 1977 – even if it happened, say, in 1972. It was just something people said. Once you learn that wasn’t true, you wonder if that ever happened for any pitcher at all. Or, why doesn’t attendance keep growing for a star pitcher?
One reason it wasn’t the case for Ryan was that you had to plan for ticket purchases – you had to buy them somewhere, like at a local savings and loan. The place would communicate with, say, the Royals; and then that point of purchase would have to be the intermediary for the ticket purchase. It was extremely awkward and time-consuming to buy tickets. Walk up sales weren’t that significant.
Plus, season tickets didn’t depend on who was pitching. There was probably a moment in 1972-1973 when Nolan did draw a big crowd, but it passed. Mark Fidrych in 1976 drew large audiences. But for only one year. The sustained phenomenon – we have no evidence of. Walter Johnson in 1912 no doubt drew larger crowds – but there was probably no durable effect. So, you see, as soon as you ask one question, more appear. They multiply…
Closeup of notes, equations, and calculator by statistician Bill James at his home. James is an author and the founder of Sabermetrics. Lawrence, KS 5/4/1981 (Photo by Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
What are your thoughts regarding where sabermetrics and analytics are today, and the place they hold in the game?
I believed more in the potential audience for this than ANYONE else did. That belief was central to my life. I gambled my career on that belief, on the belief that I could make a living doing something that no one had ever made a living by doing. I was told constantly that there was no audience there. I believed more in the potential audience for this than did others, but I still underestimated it by a factor of a hundred or a thousand. But a lot of current sabermetrics today are focused on winning one game, or one inning, etc.
That was never the central focus of my work. I studied issues like ‘At what age do ballplayers peak? Is that different for speed players vs. power players? Is it different for pitchers? Are successful teams mostly built from the draft, or by player acquisitions? How long does it take a franchise to establish a mature fan base?’
Of course I care about the winning and losing stuff, but to me, that’s 20% of the subject. To me, sabermetrics has been drawn down a blind alley into which if ALL that is studied is the stuff that has a direct impact on the success of the team, then you’re missing 80% of the subject; and also you’re tremendously limiting your own potential impact, your own influence. Sabermetrics, for its own good, needs to un-hitch from the narrowly focused stuff.
But anyway, that’s a dangerous question – what was your influence? I can’t say what influence I had on anyone or anything.
Portrait of statistician Bill James during photo shoot at Royals Stadium. James is an author and the founder of Sabermetrics. Kansas City, MO 5/4/1981 (Photo by Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
What do you see as wrong about the game today, and what is right?
Most of the changes in baseball over the last 20 years are NOT derived from analytics.
I wish more analytics had been devoted to ‘how do we make the game as interesting as we can?’ There’s a very small set of answers to this. There’s a selfish strategy to using analytics for a win because it’s not focused on improving the game for the fans. If the selfish strategy grows unchecked for many years, though – it has ill effects. Baseball even to today is still a great enjoyment. But there are flaws in the entertainment value of the game.
Complete games pitched are down, pitching changes are huge, the number of home runs has greatly increased; and that has been happening for 100 years. Since night baseball started, the average length of a game got longer. Strikeouts have been increasing since the 1890s. Analytics has nothing to do with any of those trends.
Common things have disappeared (such as the complete game pitched, stolen base, sac bunt, and pinch hitter) and new things are abounding (no more one-pitch at-bats). You used to see more one-pitch at-bats because pitchers threw the ball over the plate and took their chances. But to prevent home runs now, pitchers no longer throw over the plate and take their chances. Now the pitcher’s goal is to not throw over the plate – to try to be almost outside the zone.
A lot of things in the game have changed. Overall the entertainment level has dropped. Analytically, the frequency of the home run dominates the game and the more frequent it becomes, the less exciting it becomes. The offense doesn’t revolve around a sequence of events or actions anymore, so there’s a lot of “waiting time” for fans between events in the game.
Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share with BallNine’s audience on the use of sabermetrics and the state of baseball today?
I’m in favor of all the new rules changes, except banning the shift. The rule changes are efforts to address the things that should’ve been addressed a long time ago. But the shift isn’t the reason batted balls in play (BABIP) is down. The reason it’s down is open to question.
Will banning the shift cause a cleaner defense and fewer errors? Errors have been dropping since the 1880s. Errors go up because people assume they have to go up. Back in the 1910s the outfield wasn’t even necessarily mowed. There were outfielders trying to find the ball in high grass, just for example. But over time, grounds keeping standards kept going up, so errors went down. Is it good for the fan, though? The bad hop due to more natural ground surfaces was part of baseball for 100 years. You see it less now, but you still do see it. Would it have been better to leave the field the way it was? The game has changed. Errors have disappeared because field conditions got better and gloves and equipment got better. So will banning the shift also make a difference? We’ll just have to find out.
Thank you so much for your time. BallNine and our audience really appreciate it.