Talkin' about baseball, and watching a game, with Bill James (cont.)
Bill then says he could come up with 10 unconventional questions right on the spot that a team like the Royals should at least ask themselves. What would happen -- for instance -- if the Royals decided that they would get rid of every pitcher in their system that threw 90 mph or faster? Ludicrous? Sure. But what would happen? Bill didn't claim to know what would happen, but he's quite certain that nobody else knows, either. Maybe the Royals would find that guys who top out at 83-mph cannot get out big league hitters. But maybe instead they would find a whole new way of scouting pitchers because they would have a virtual monopoly on those slower-throwing pitchers. They would be able to sign THE BEST 83-mph pitchers (rather than the 95-mph pitchers that other teams don't want). Maybe they would find all these pitchers with incredible command, pitchers with a wild assortment of pitches, pitchers who have figured out how to get hitters out because they could never rely on simply overpowering them.*
*A few days later -- after Paul Byrd shut out the Blue Jays on Sunday -- Bill sent along this e-mail: "Red Sox called Paul Byrd out of retirement to make a start this afternoon, and he was dynamite, throwing about 84. Had the Blue Jays hitting off the wrong foot all day."
Is Bill saying that the Royals or the Reds or the Pirates or the Nationals really should do such a thing? No. He's saying that they would never even THINK about doing such a thing because it would look unprofessional. People would laugh. And that potential laughter keeps teams like the Royals locked in their boxes, a permanent baseball underclass clinging to the ever-fading hope that (through luck and instinct and, yes, professionalism) they might collect enough good players to contend for a little while.
The Royals are on pace to lose 100 games for the fifth time in eight years. The Pirates have had a losing record every year since 1993. The Reds will have their ninth consecutive losing season this year. The Baltimore Orioles lost the American League Championship Series in 1997 and have not won 80 games in a season since.
To Bill: That's professionalism at work.
* * *
Kansas City's Miguel Olivo grounds into a double play, and I'm reminded that a day earlier Olivo had run off the field with two outs in an inning. It was the sixth or seventh time this season that I had seen a Royals player forget the number of outs -- I suspect the Royals lead the league -- though this one time was particularly funny because Olivo is a catcher ... and only two batters had come to the plate.
"You know," Bill says, "if I was a player, I'd forget the number of outs all the time. I'm amazed at how focused these athletes are over a long season."
This is a part of Bill that people can miss. He has come up with so many baseball concepts -- win shares, runs created, range factor, the Hall of Fame monitor, the Pythagorean win percentage, secondary average, similarity scores, on and on and on -- that people tend to think of him as a slide-rule-in-the-front-pocket nerd. And he has written so acerbically about players and managers (some of this embarrasses Bill) that people tend to think of him as a grump.
But Bill doesn't love baseball statistics. And he isn't cynical, either. No, it's just that Bill doesn't accept anything at face value. He believes every single thing should be questioned and then questioned again and then questioned again. The world is a big and complicated place. Baseball is a big and complicated game. We can't understand it all ... and what has driven Bill James for most of his life is just that, bursting the arrogance of anyone who thinks (even for a moment) that they have it all figured out.
Still ... he does love baseball. He loves the stuff that some people might not think he loves -- the smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, the nicknames, the chatter on the field, the way strangers talk to each other in the stands. He figures baseball statistics because he would like to get a little closer to the truth. And on occasion he can come across as harsh because he does not suffer fools, and he is allergic to the stuff my father always called "baloney."
But he still gets a thrill out of baseball games, even lousy ones like this game. He likes to observe different batting stances. He likes to think along with a pitcher. He likes the rhythm of a game that just goes along, slow drumbeat, and then suddenly crescendos with a fantastic moment.
"That was a great play," he says as he applauds the Royals throwing out Cleveland's Jamey Carroll at the plate. Kansas City's center fielder Mitch Maier had made a nice throw to shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt who had made a solid throw to catcher Olivo, who placed the tag on Carroll. You would mark it 8-6-2 in your score book, but that's the thing. Bill isn't keeping score.
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