April 3, 2008

Freakonomics and Bill James

Last week, Stephen J. Dubner of the Freakonomics blog solicited questions for Bill James. He answered a lot of them and, as always, his answers are both witty and thought-provoking.
Q: Can you tell us about a time when you thought numbers were misleading and why?

A: I would say generally that baseball statistics are always trying to mislead you, and that it is a constant battle not to be misled by them. ... We haven't figured out anything yet. A hundred years from now, we won't have begun to have the game figured out. ...

Q: Can you tell us a time when you did an analysis and expected one thing, but the numbers told you something radically different?

A: Well, it happens every day. My "debunking" of the importance of stolen bases came from extended efforts to prove the importance of stolen bases, all of which failed. ...

Q: Has looking at the numbers prevented you from actually just enjoying a summer day at the ballpark? Have we all forgotten the randomness of human ballplayers? By reducing players to just their numbers can we lose sight of the intangibles such as teamwork, friendships, and desire.

A: Does looking at pretty women prevent one from experiencing love? Life is complicated. Your efforts to compartmentalize it are lame and useless.

33 comments:

redsock said...

Three more:

"People who think that they know when a manager should bunt and when a manager should pitch out and when a manager should make a pitching change are amateurs. People who have actually studied these issues know that the answer disappears in a cloud of untested variables."

"What we do, essentially, is to pick up things that people say and ask 'Is that true?' This can be done with regard to almost anything — any sport, including politics. The people who analyze politics on television say absolutely ridiculous things with a frequency that would make the laziest baseball announcer look like Socrates by comparison."

"I'm not interested in the numbers. Never was. That's your perception of what I do; it's not mine."

chief said...

Nice read.

Jack Marshall said...

James enhanced my respect for him when he finally recanted his oft-stated conclusion that clutch-hitting was an illusion, concluding that he had never found a way to measure (or even define) it properly.

Derek Vicino said...

A very interesting article and a great blog. I love reading both of those guy's work.

Any chance you could provide a link to my blog and I will do the same for you on my site "Inside the Monster"?

http://insidethemonster-vicino.blogspot.com/

It would be much appreciated.

Go Sox!

Amy said...

I did catch part of his 60 Minutes interview. It was quite interesting. I still can't remember what all those crazy abbreviations mean or how to evaluate them, but I am glad there are people here who can help. Like what is ERA+ and when is it good? Or OPS? What the heck does that mean? (I guessed 1000 in the contest for Manny having no idea what that means.)

I will look it all up. Just confessing my ignorance. I have looked them all up before, but then I forget anyway.

(I am not a total statistics fool---I do know ERA, BA, OBP, and other basics. But beyond that, it's all just numbers to me.)

Patrick said...

He sounds like Vader in some of the quotes: "Your efforts to dissuade me are lame and useless! I'm not interested in your numbers! You're part of the rebel alliance and a traitor! Take him away!"

sugarshane024 said...

As an avid fan of the Freakonomics book and a current reader of the Bill James Historical Abstract, I can appreciate a post like this.

I'm glad Bill James is on our side.

L-girl said...

This is great. I had been wondering when Freakonomics and Bill James would intersect.

The last question on the post is so typically stupid. It's good to see James' answer.

L-girl said...

Amy, you don't know what OPS is? That should be as basic to you as ERA and RBI. I bet you actually do know OPS.

Patriots Film said...

Amy, it's all a little vague at first, but after looking over the definitions for a bit and then hitting up baseball-reference.com, you'll be all set.

ERA+ is ERA normalized to league average for that year, including park effects. A quick-n-dirty accurate comparison.

OPS is OBP + SLG. OPS+ is OPS, with the same theory as ERA+.

Here's a great resource:
http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/glossary/

redsock said...

i meant to get to this earlier, but p-film is right.

OPS = On-base percentage plus slugging percentage. If Manny has a .400 onbase and slugs .600, he'd have a 1.000 OPS. Which would totally kick ass.

Like what is ERA+ and when is it good?

Since it's a percentage of the league ERA: 100 is average. A pitcher with a 100 ERA+ -- Tim Wakefield, last year -- is exactly league average. Beckett was at 145 last year, and 95 in his first year. Pedro's ERA+ in 2000 was 291. (A mere mortal should not be able to dominate like that.)

Two pitchers with a 140 ERA+ would be thought of as equal, relative to their peers, but one might have had a 2.10 ERA in 1968 (when pitchers dominated) and the other might have had a 3.90 ERA in 2000 (when hitters dominated).

Similarly, Yaz led the AL in batting average in 1968 at .301 and led the AL with an adjusted OPS+ of 193. Billy Terry hit .401 in 1930 but finished 4th in the NL in adjusted OPS+ at only 158. Yaz's 1968 was a much greater achievement than Terry's 1930.

redsock said...

I love this one:

Yaz led the 1968 AL with a .301 BA.

In 1930, the ENTIRE NL batted .303!

...

(The AL batted .230 in 1968.)

Jere said...

Hughes has given up less than 100 runs tonight--that, my friends, is grounds for a standing O.

2-0 Jays in the 6th.

Jere said...

Phil Hughes is pitching to a 3.00 ERA through 6. Fortunately the Yanks are Philling their Huggies at the plate, still 2-0 Team Canada.

Jere said...

and i've finally found a game-type-cast I can live with. At least for tonight. The ES Urine N one, go figure.

Jere said...

inanimAte Rod up with dicks on the pond, no out. Guy gets 2 strikes on him, then wild pitches the run home. And then gets the K. And HGHiambi gets a sac fly, but Abreu thrown out at third to end sixth. 2-2.

phrenile said...

Didn't Ty Cobb bat over .400 avg for his career if you exclude walks from at-bats (which they didn't do back then)?

I can't stand Freakonomics, aka Crappy Sociology by Assholes.

Jere said...

Very nice inning for Jays pitcher B. Wolfe, we go to the 8th, tied at a deuce.

Jere said...

"Yaz led the 1968 AL with a .301 BA."

Also was the worst dressed off the field.

Year of the Pitcher, '68, Denny McClain was 31 and 8, last to win 30. Very early memories of mine include people saying, "Tommy John, John Denny, Denny McClain...." I've tried to complete the circle for years but people just refuse to name their damn kids McClain. (Especially McClain Tommy.) I did come up with a "cycle" with two guys, thought: Tom Gorman and Gorman Thomas, assuming Tom Gorman's full name was Thomas. (just checked. it is. So... Thomas Gorman Thomas Gorman Thomas...and so on.)

Jere said...

Come on Stairs, take Joba deep!

Jere said...

Can someone please tell me how Abreu singled to center with Damon on second, and he didn't go to third? Either way, the runner from third scored, and it's 3-2 Yanks in the eighth. Of course, a Jays error made this bunt-fest, non-base-advancing -on-singles rally possible.

Jere said...

single off Mo to start 9th. Tying run on.

Jere said...

runner moved up! man on 2nd 1 out for Overbay

Jere said...

two and 0, mo losin' it!

Jere said...

runner moves to third on ground out. tying run on 3rd, 2 out. 9th inning. it's up to Aaron Hill

Jere said...

strikes out looking. Yanks with another BS win, which for them is just a regular win.

redsock said...

Didn't Ty Cobb bat over .400 avg for his career if you exclude walks from at-bats (which they didn't do back then)?

No. Walks were not part of AB during Cobb's era. (... And Cobb actually did have an ERA!)

Actually, Cobb's lifetime average has dropped since I was a kid. I grew up knowing it as .367, but more accurate research puts it at .366.

Jack Marshall said...

(I agree with phrenile on Freakanomics---a very over-rated and much-hyped book that has 20 sloppy conclusions for every illuminating one.)

But regarding the Jays-Yanks, which I watched in all three games...how does anyone pick the Jays to win anything? The line-up is filled with half-good players like Eckstein, Stairs, Zaun, Frank Thomas---none of these guys would ever be considered starters for the Sox OR the Yankees! Sure, Rolen would be good if he stayed healthy, but oops! he's back on the disabled list. Wells looks like he's declining fast. Overbay is an average AL first baseman, not a star. Rios and Hill are good, but even the Orioles have two good players in their line-up. The NY radio team kept raving about how tight the games had been and how this showed the depth of the AL---what garbage. It showed that the Yankees weren't playing very well, that's all.

Jere said...

And we thought Pete Rose broke his hit record when he got 4192, but he actually broke it at 4191.

L-girl said...

I can't stand Freakonomics, aka Crappy Sociology by Assholes.

Leaving aside whether we like or don't like Freakonomics, why are the authors assholes?

9casey said...

L-girl said...
I can't stand Freakonomics, aka Crappy Sociology by Assholes.

Leaving aside whether we like or don't like Freakonomics, why are the authors assholes?



Don't you know that anyone who doesn't agree with your way of thinking is an ASSHOLE, where have you been?...:)

L-girl said...

Don't you know that anyone who doesn't agree with your way of thinking is an ASSHOLE, where have you been?...:)

Well, I have been away... :)

But seriously, that doesn't seem very Phrenile-like. I figured he must know something I don't.

I personally like Freakonomics. I don't think it's the Answer To All Mysteries, just an interesting and different way of looking at certain questions, positing possible answers. I also find the writers personable, friendly and open-minded. Which leaves me wondering why they are assholes.

tim said...

Dunno if anyone's seen this but, hilarious!