The James Gang

Two lengthy articles about Bill James are online, both worth checking out, especially if your home team is getting rained out. The first is from the July 14-21 issue of the New Yorker. After introducing his subject and recapping his history, writer Ben McGrath quickly gets to the crux of the Jamesian view of baseball:

… James treated his readers to an egghead’s theory of winning baseball, in which outs—the only finite resource—are to be avoided at all costs, and walks (which are outproof) are considered more than just acceptable. Walks are admirable, and on-base percentage, not batting average, is the bedrock of a productive offense.

Baseball insiders—people who played and coached baseball every day—had a tendency to view outs as a necessary by-product of scoring runs. Experience showed them that a sacrifice bunt, properly executed, could lead to a game-tying base hit. They could see it right in front of them. They also remembered instances when the count was three-and-oh and a wanna-be hero, rather than take the walk, delivered a bloop single on a junk pitch, driving the go-ahead run home from second. What they couldn’t see from the dugout—but what James tended to “see” without watching at all, from the boiler room, even—were the things that didn’t happen, or that might have happened, but for the bunt, or for the lunge at a pitch outside the strike zone: the rallies that could put the game out of reach if you’d let the batters hit away instead of handing your opponents an out in the service of a lone score; the batters who accepted a walk, and then came around themselves to score, without risking the lazy fly out that was perhaps five times as likely as the lucky Texas leaguer.

Turning its focus to the enlightened regime of the Boston Red Sox (led by owner John Henry and GM Theo Epstein) that hired James for their front office, McGrath’s piece offers a rare nuts-and-bolts view of James’ job. According to the article, James files a quarterly report, “like a mini-Abstract, with a controlled circulation.” The first 86-page report “demonstrat[ed] a ‘very striking phenomenon’… in which Red Sox teams, thanks to the asymmetries of Fenway Park, have historically tended to succeed in relation to the number of left-handed batters in their lineup. (The more the better—contrary to popular belief, which holds that the Green Monster, an oversized wall barely three hundred feet down the left-field line, makes Fenway a righty’s delight.)” What stathead wouldn’t love to get his hands on that?

The piece turns its focus to the Sox’ notorious “closer-by-committee” experiment (derived from James’ own writing) and the hysteria with which fans and writers greeted its early failure. In response, the author finds James sifting through some bullpen options (namely Bruce Chen and Rudy Seanez, neither of whom solved the Sox pen problems):

“We don’t have anything which suggests that one of these pitchers is going to break loose in Fenway,” he continued. “However, nonetheless it is true that in every baseball season you can identify forty pitchers who were pitching ineffectively, changed teams, and started pitching effectively.” James hopes to identify the conditions that may forecast such improvement in the future, and, for this and other studies, he has compiled a database—“a massive file, which I will send to the Red Sox with my next report, which has everybody in the major leagues, how hard they throw, what pitches they throw, and certain other information about them.”

Later on, the writer also notes James’ son Isaac catching his father stuffing the All-Star ballot box for the Sox. Even Bill James can’t be objective all the time.

The second piece on James is in The Pitch, Kansas City’s alternative weekly, and takes things from the angle of a Royals fan. Against the backdrop of a doubleheader in K.C. in which James amusingly engages in wordplay involving the players’ names, the article offers yet another lengthy history of the writer — a well-worn tale by this time, given how much press the man has gotten since his November hiring.

But the piece soon shifts to a local angle, moving onto James’ most famous disciple (and fellow Kansan) ESPN’s Rob Neyer before discussing the wealth of analytical talent the home team has missed out on. On the positive side, apparently the Royals are finally getting the picture, relying more on statistical anaysis than in the past thanks to a new-found interest in walks by K.C.’s manager of baseball operations, Jin Wong.

A quick check of the team’s batting stats reveals otherwise, at least at the major-league level; the team is walking once every 11.5 ABs this season, compared to once ever 10.6 last year. Among regulars, only Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran are walking more than once every 10 ABs. The Royals rank 9th in a 14-team league in walks. Hmmmmm…

Still, the Pitch piece is another engaging look at the master, from a different angle than is usually offered. As the years go by, it will be interesting to see how James fares with the Sox, and whether the Royals make a play to woo back the great baseball mind they let slip out of their own backyard.

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