SI Vault
Daniel Okrent
May 25, 1981
The esoteric equation on the Royals' scoreboard in Kansas City is only one of the far-out findings of deep-thinking baseball statistician Bill James
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May 25, 1981

He Does It By The Numbers

The esoteric equation on the Royals' scoreboard in Kansas City is only one of the far-out findings of deep-thinking baseball statistician Bill James

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After the 1978 season, quite a few people argued that Ron Guidry should have won the American League's Most Valuable Player award instead of Jim Rice because Guidry's 25-3, 1.74-ERA season was far more remarkable than Rice's 46 homers, 139 RBIs and .315 batting average. James wrote a thoughtful, detailed analysis that convinced at least one reader (this one, who had felt otherwise) that Rice did indeed merit the award. James wrote, "The argument that what Guidry did is more unusual than what Rice did is specious.... It's an award for the most valuable performance, not the most unusual. The most unusual performance was turned in by Bob Stinson of Seattle, who reached base six times on catcher's interference."

And some of James' remarks are almost poetic. Musing on the appeal that statistics have for the baseball fan, he asks, "How is it that a chart of numbers that would put an actuary to sleep can be made to dance if you put it on one side of a card, and Bombo Rivera's picture on the other?"

Along with the fun of reading him and of relishing his odd or obvious discoveries, you'll find in James a pleasant antidote to the statistical precision that baseball holds to be sacred. In a note to his readers, he cautions, "If you check my work against the spotty statistics available in other guides and the league stats, I'm sure you'll find some discrepancies. It seems fair to assume that, in the majority of these cases, I'm wrong. I make mistakes but I'm certainly not trying to kid anybody that, doing all the things I do, I can maintain the same levels of accuracy that the Elias Sports Bureau or The Sporting News does. I figure that I sell two things, a novel way of looking at the statistics which brings out insights you can't get otherwise and the general truths which emerge from that. The general truth, for example, is that Fred Lynn hit vastly better at Fenway Park last year than on the road. If it is important to you that the difference is .342/.273 rather than .345/.270, or that games started by a certain pitcher may have had only 49 doubles rather than 50, then I suggest you do two things: ask for your money back, and count them yourself. And have fun."

James does most of the work on the Abstract in a tiny bedroom in one of the tiniest houses in Lawrence, squeezing his substantial frame (he's 6'4" and weighs 199) into the limited space bounded by bed, desk and filing cabinet. "I write the Abstract,' he says, "because selling it helps pay the cost of work I'm going to do anyway." The "work" is merely James' own variety of mental gymnastics: he mines information from data. And he is almost always delighted with what he discovers. Driving home one night with a friend from a Royals game in Kansas City, James stopped for a lonesome red light while delivering a brilliant soliloquy on the statistical evidence of Shortstop Freddie Patek's decay as an effective player. The traffic light changed to green, and then it changed back to red. It changed to green again, back to red and back to green again before James' disquisition ran its course and he returned to earth. "Oh, the light's changed," he said, and proceeded calmly down the road.

The first Abstract, in 1977, sold 75 copies, at $4 a copy. In 1978 sales edged up to all of 325 copies. Undaunted, James slogged ahead, checking the boilers, working on his numbers and producing new editions of the Abstract. Sales passed 600 copies in 1979 and 750 last year, but the readership, while small, is enthusiastic, and James has become something of a cult figure. Esquire magazine assigned him to do season previews, and he even received an order for the Abstract from Norman Mailer, which left James, a literary hero-worshiper, feeling both honored and abashed. He sent Mailer a copy but returned the writer's check. Mailer sent it right back with a note saying, "If ever an author earned his five dollars, you have." The price has climbed since then (to $13 for the 1981 edition), but James has yet to break the $10,000 income barrier. "It's been discouraging," he says, "but not as discouraging as having to get out of bed in the morning and go off to work."

Although James says, "Statistics exist primarily so people can argue about them" and "Information is not to be held accountable for every misleading claim that somebody can derive from it," he has developed at least one analytic procedure that has resolved an age-old baseball problem. He can evaluate fielding statistically, something that hitherto seemed impossible, because, as all fans know, traditional fielding averages are almost meaningless. "Everybody senses what a .312 hitter is," James says, "but no one knows what a .965 fielding average means. Brooks Robinson is known as a great fielding third baseman not because of the number of plays he made but because he looked so good making them. Hitters are judged on results; fielders on form."

A fan knows that a .300 hitter is a good hitter, a .275 hitter a mediocre one, but James defies anyone to tell the difference by watching both men hit. He points out that the actual, measurable difference between the two over the course of a season is about one hit every two weeks. How then, he asks, can you possibly judge fielders by just looking at them? The traditional fielding average (total chances fielded divided into total chances handled without error) is "an excellent measure of a player's ability to get out of the way of a potential error." On the other hand, what James calls Range Factor, or the total errorless chances per game that a fielder handles, is a more accurate measure of his true ability. After the Phillies acquired Pete Rose two seasons ago, they briefly talked of keeping him at third base, where he had played in Cincinnati, and moving Schmidt to second. James noted that in 1978 Rose had cleanly handled 2.39 chances per game at third base, Schmidt 3.01. Over, say, 150 games, that .62 difference translates to 93 balls Schmidt would handle that Rose wouldn't.

Frequently, our visual sense of the great fielders is surprisingly accurate: Brooks Robinson, Graig Nettles and Schmidt all have had high Range Factors. But the eye can deceive, too. The balloon James most enjoys bursting is that of Shortstop Larry Bowa, who has, he says, "the range of the Birdman of Alcatraz." During the past few seasons, according to James' figures, Bowa has gotten to and fielded cleanly substantially fewer batted balls than fellow National League shortstops Garry Templeton, Ozzie Smith, Ivan DeJesus, Dave Concepcion and Tim Foli. Bowa is a fielder "who looks good," James says, "on the balls he reaches." During the 1980 World Series, James charted every batted ball hit by the Phillies and Royals and found the locale of base hits by both sides to be virtually identical, except for balls hit through the middle. The Phils had six base hits between U.L. Washington and Frank White, the Kansas City shortstop and second baseman, while the Royals had twice as many—13—between Bowa and Phils Second Baseman Manny Trillo. The sample—six games—is small, but the result seems significant.

James has also produced a team fielding statistic that he calls Defensive Efficiency Record, which reveals what proportion of fair balls hit against a team are converted into outs and what proportion fall in for hits. Before the 1980 season began, he noted that Atlanta had acquired new players who, he said, would significantly improve the Braves' Defensive Efficiency rating. "The improved defense will cause the Braves to allow markedly fewer runs than they allowed in 1979," James wrote, "but the pitching will get the credit for it." The 1980 Braves in fact allowed 103 fewer runs than the 1979 club did and—yes—the pitching was praised.

As for pitching, James investigated the old adage that it is "75% of the game" and claims it's meaningless. If pitching in fact determines most of what happens, which would be the case if it were three-quarters of the game, then why, he asks, don't pitchers impose their tendencies on the situation and create extreme totals? "Yet," he says, "no pitcher allows home runs as often as Mike Schmidt hits them, or as rarely as Duane Kuiper. No pitcher allows opposition batters an average as high as George Brett's, or as low as the league's lowest average." In short, he argues, the offense sets the extremes and is the dominant force, not pitching. James is exaggerating a bit here—he admits there could be exceptions—but his point is inescapable: the attempt to measure pitching's part of the game is futile, because baseball is many things interacting simultaneously. To say pitching or defense is more important than offense, or vice versa, is like saying the head of a coin is more important than the tail.

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