September 2, 2012

Review: The Mind of Bill James By Scott Gray

Scott Gray published The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball in 2006. I finally read it last week.

It is not structured as a standard biography. While it does include a bunch of information on James's background - he did cooperate, if only by email - the book reads more like a lengthy magazine article.

Which is not a big criticism, but I do wish the book had been a bit meatier. There are plenty of quotes from James, from the Abstracts and interviews, and his emails to Gray. But I was left wanting more. I wanted a better feel for the times in which James prepared his first Abstracts (the late '70s) and how revolutionary they were (and still are, in many respects).

But the main reason for this post is to share a bunch of James's quotes from the book.

***

Given an option, all men prefer to reject information.

The subject is baseball. The numbers bear a relationship to that subject and to us which is much like the relationship of tools to a machine and to the mechanic who uses them. The mechanic does not begin with a monkey wrench; basically, he is not even interested in the damn monkey wrench. All he wants from the monkey wrench is that it do its job and not give him any trouble.

To understand baseball without reference to its statistics is an absurdity, like understanding American politics without reference to elections. The only choices are - use the statistics carefully, or use them loosely.

Cliches are the soldiers of ignorance, and an army of sentries encircles the game, guarding every situation from which a glimmer of truth might be allowed to escape.

Nature abhors a vacuum. People have to have an explanation, and if the only one available is a bad one ... "Well, it's the best we got." The same thing happens in baseball. Somebody says something that makes intuitive sense. If there's no clear, quick refutation to it, it becomes accepted truth.

When people are arguing about some baseball-related issue, one might think that they would be very anxious to know what the evidence is trying to tell them, and a few people are. But baseball is an insular world in which there is a great deal of thinly veiled anti-intellectualism.

The point at which I departed from traditional sportswriting was in trying to apply the standard of clear and convincing evidence to baseball questions. What I have always thought about most was the question of "How do you find better evidence about the issue?" ... The "community of experts" resented this, because it implicitly undermined their authority. ... In the sciences ... it is understood that opinions have little or no value. ... What counts is evidence, not the authority of the person making the claim.

We've gone from a cup of knowledge to a barrel, but we're drawing it out of an ocean. The knowledge is useful, but it doesn't eliminate the need for a broader understanding.

I'm not trying to get people to think like me ... [W]hat I've tried to do is create knowledge that can be used whether you have an understanding of sabermetric methods or not.

A lot of people interpret major league baseball as an extension of their experience in playing baseball. They think speed is tremendously important because, in the lower levels of play - high school ball, etc. - speed is tremendously important. They assume the pitcher controls when a walk occurs because, in the lower levels, the pitcher's control is so weak you feel relieved when he can just get the damn ball over. People think aggressiveness pays, because, at lower levels, it does pay. A lot of things that are true in amateur ball are not true in pro ball, and you have to really study the game to straighten those things out.

Re end-of-season statistical summaries that list teams in order of batting average: It should be obvious that the purpose of an offense is not to compile a high team batting average.

The great difficulty about clutch performance, it seems to me, is that it separates what a player is from what he does. A lot of people have the same trouble with fielding. This new guy has hit well for us, they will say, but he is a bad fielder, and he can't hit in the clutch. Get it? A subtle linguistic shift, from has done to is; batting is simply performance, clutch hitting is character. But I don't see it that way, perhaps because statistics are so clumsy at measuring character.

As a small child, I thought that trees pushed the wind. Momentum is one of those superficial concepts that is hard to resist if you don't think it through, but hard to conceive of if you follow it through and try to resolve the problems it creates.

On the one hand you have the barroom experts, the traditional sportswriters, the couch potatoes, and the call-in show regulars, all of whom believe that batting orders are important. And then, on the other hand, you have a few of us who have actually studied the issue, and who have been forced to draw the conclusion that it doesn't make much difference what order you put the hitters in, they're going to score just as many runs one way as another. You can believe whoever you want; it's up to you.

Talking of comparing players across different eras: One way to put it would be that if a suit cost a dollar in 1900 and a gallon of milk cost $1.45 in 1986, that doesn't mean that the suits of 1900 were poorly made or the milk of 1986 is especially delicious. It just means that the cost has changed.

One of the unwritten laws of economics is that it is impossible, truly impossible, to prevent the values of society from manifesting themselves in dollars and cents. This is, ultimately, why we pay athletes so much money: that it is very important to us to be represented by winning teams. The standard example is cancer research; letters pop up all the time saying that it is absurd for baseball players to make twenty times as much money as cancer researchers. But the hard, unavoidable fact is that we are, as a nation, far more interested in having good baseball teams than we are in finding a cure for cancer. ... Dollars and cents are an incarnation of our values. Economic realities represent not what we should believe, not what we like to say that we believe, not what we might choose to believe in a more perfect world, but what our beliefs really are. However much we complain about it, nobody can stop that truth from manifesting itself.

As we age we get more narrow. I see the same thing with my writing career. ... The same thing happens to a baseball player. When he's twenty years old, he has a very broad range of unfinished skills. As he matures as a player, some of these skills are enhanced, but others drop off, and his skills narrow. It's a perfect image of the process - it happens to writers, it happens to managers, it happens to everyone. We rarely pick up new attributes. We develop some of the ones we have, the ones we don't develop atrophy, and we become more narrow. The better part of wisdom is to fight your own narrowing, to try to stay open to ideas that you don't understand and don't agree with. When you embrace your own ideas too warmly, you accelerate the process of becoming irrelevant.

***

Then there are some quotes that might surprise you, if all you know about James comes from the mainstream sports media, which has a vested interest in distorting his work and opinions:

James rails strongly against "statistical idiocy ... the assertion that nothing is real except that which is measured in statistics".

He trashes "the moronic conception [that] a baseball team is made up of interchangeable parts no more complex than lines of statistics."

He does not think it's possible to determine the best play in any game situation strictly by the numbers. "There are, in every real-life situation, thousands of variables, many of which can't be measured reliably. ... Real baseball games remain vastly more complex than our statistical models of them."

And he does not believe - and has never believed - in a team using a closer-by-committee.
I'm a little skeptical about group bullpens in principle. ... For one thing, if you're counting on three or four relief pitchers, then you have to get work for all of them. That means taking the ball away from the starter whenever he gets into trouble, and I don't like that. ... For another, if you don't have a bullpen ace, things can get awfully confused sometimes; one pitcher gets into a slump and then another and another, and you don't really know who it is that is supposed to get you out of this.
***

Finally, from a 2004 conversation between Gray and James about James's obsession with crime books:
Gray: Is there a creepier English phrase than "crawl space"?

James: How about "donor infection"? Or "protruding bone fragment"?

Gray: "Flesh-eating bacteria"?

James: "Pinstripe dynasty".

12 comments:

johngoldfine said...

That's a wonderful bouquet of James' quotations. It always amazes me that such a formidable mind, such intelligence and clarity and originality, should all be focused on a mere game--not that his ideas don't have wider application and implication.

And you choose the final quotation so nicely--that's truly funny and does soothe the troubled heart in this season of misery....

laura k said...

Thanks so much for this! It's great.

People have to have an explanation, and if the only one available is a bad one ... "Well, it's the best we got." The same thing happens in baseball. Somebody says something that makes intuitive sense. If there's no clear, quick refutation to it, it becomes accepted truth.

An improved version of something I say all the time. It's nice to have that affirmation.

laura k said...

Ooooo... I just learned that Bill James doesn't care about batting order. I'm going to remember that! :)

Jim said...

Thanks for these, allan. Gold. I couldn't help but think--"I wonder what James thinks of Nick Cafardo?".

Jere said...

Those were some really good quotes. I especially like the stuff about thinking things at lower levels are important in the bigs. But about the batting order line--

"it doesn't make much difference what order you put the hitters in, they're going to score just as many runs one way as another."

Wouldn't there be almost no sample size at all of lineups where the guy with no power hits cleanup, the lumbering catcher leads off, etc.? Wouldn't the 2001 Giants have scored way fewer runs if Bonds batted 7th or 8th with the pitcher right behind him? And whether we like it or not, a 40-home run guy who just signed a big contract and then was told he'd be batting 9th all year would probably get pissed and that might affect him negatively.

I mean if you had the all-time OBP leader and the all-time HR leader, and you put the HR ahead of the OBP guy, wouldn't that be counterintuitive?

Or maybe there was more to that quote? Or maybe I'm misunderstanding it? Or maybe I'm...too blinded by years or seeing things a certain way and assuming it's the best way? I'm not even usually too concerned with batting order either, but it seems like there are some things you need to be doing when setting it up.

johngoldfine said...

Jere--I don't know the context or the explanation or the answers to your questions. The only way I could make the batting order remark make sense was to imagine that over the course of a full season, the total number of runs might possibly not change very much whatever the batting order. Not that that could or would ever be falsified or verified by observation.

Maybe the statement makes more sense if you only consider the middle of the order and as a separate issue the bottom of the order--maybe in those cases it really makes little difference over the long course who bats where.

Though that still is somewhat counterintuitive....

Jim said...

"Counter-intuitive" for sure. I wouldn't want to spend a season watching the manager of my team try to prove that the batting order didn't make much difference.

allan said...

No one is ever going to put out a lineup all season with Iglesias hitting 3rd and Ortiz batting 9th (or whatever), so there is no actual hard evidence. But by running simulations with guys in different spots, you can see that over a season, it makes little difference to the total runs scored.

I have used Baseball Musings' Lineup Analysis tool to see what the best lineups would be for a group of nine guys and the difference between the best and worst (which no manager would ever use) is pretty minimal. The difference between the best and the usual lineups is very small. It's far more important to make sure the best nine guys are playing - not what order they are in.

allan said...

I looked at possible lineups before the 2011 season (also here). The best lineup was at 5.88 R/G and the absolute worst was 5.51 R/G. That's a drop of 60 runs over a 162-game season, a difference of about six wins. But, again, that is between the best and worst - and no manager will use either of those. All of his will be in the middle somewhere, more good than bad.

allan said...

That second link is probably better at showing what I mean.

allan said...

I really like James's comments about computers and stats as only tools. Like a hammer or a saw. Merely a tool for a bigger project, not an end in itself.

laura k said...

The reason I pointed out the batting order quote is because IMO some people make too much of it. Obsess on it. It's a factor but I don't think it warrants the attention it gets.