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".