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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Not all of James' analyses are lucid. He has come up with a system for grading a player's offensive ability that he feels is a good yardstick for measuring the relative contributions of the speedster who walks and steals a lot, the high-average singles hitter and the low-average slugger. More or less on a pragmatic basis (it works, he argues), he devised a rating called Runs Created, the formula for which is:


Got that? Translated, it means that Runs Created equals hits plus walks minus times caught stealing multiplied by total bases added to seven-tenths of bases stolen divided by the sum of at bats plus walks plus times caught stealing. The formula's elements—why .7 stolen bases? Why caught stealing both above and below the line?—seem hopelessly arbitrary, but James says that if you apply the formula to any team's season statistics for the last 20 years your answer will likely be within 3% and virtually always within 4% of the actual number of runs the team scored that season. It didn't work with the 1980 Red Sox, who were 7% below the number of runs the formula said they should have scored, but James blames that on the Red Sox ("No lefties, no speed, what's a bunt?")

Otherwise, Runs Created seems to work. Apply the formula to the records of individual batters and you can evaluate a player's true offensive worth to his team. James is proud of Runs Created, and his devotees love it. They also like his VI-RBI, or Victory Important Runs Batted In, his VAM, or Value Approximation Method, his EV, or Established Value, and his HOFPS, or Hall of Fame Prediction System.

Less technical-minded readers get their kicks from James' judgments. On ball parks, for instance. Everyone knows that some stadiums are said to be "hitters' parks" and others "pitchers' parks." James goes a step further and says the differences between parks are so important that "unless you play for Boston, Minnesota, Kansas City or Detroit, you have very little chance of leading the American League in hitting; unless you pitch in Baltimore, New York, California or Oakland, you have very little chance of leading the league in ERA." What surprises him is that club managements don't seem to catch on to such things. "Shea Stadium is a horrible hitters' park," he says. "All new hitters in Shea see their averages drop. Yet the Mets trade off promising youngsters because they don't hit as well as they were expected to." Invariably, the youngsters live up to their earlier expectations after they depart Shea (Amos Otis and Ken Singleton are two notable examples). And it isn't just Shea. In 1978 when Ron Fairly, coming off a .279 year in Toronto, was traded to the Angels, James wrote that Fairly would be lucky to bat .220 in Anaheim. He hit .217.

He made a similar remarkable projection last year for Pitcher Tom Underwood, acquired by the Yankees from Toronto. The lefthanded Underwood had been only 9-16 with the Blue Jays in 1979, but the Yankee front office was hoping he might blossom into a star in Yankee Stadium. James surmised that the combination of Yankee Stadium and Yankee defense, coupled with the better run support he could expect, would improve Underwood's record to 15-11, four games over .500. Underwood finished with a 13-9 record, four games over .500.

This season James relishes the textbook cases he expects will develop from the big Boston-California switches of the past winter, when players shuttled between the best hitters' park in the league (Fenway) and the third-worst (Anaheim). "One is tempted to say," he writes, "that when you put Carney Lansford in Fenway he will inherit Fred Lynn's statistics, and when you put Lynn in the Big A, he will pick up those left behind. That could very possibly happen, and I've hung myself on cruder scaffolds."

James then made the following bold declarations:

•Lynn, over a period of years, will not even approach in California the offensive production he had in Fenway. If he hit .300 two-thirds of the time in Fenway, it might be one-third of the time in California. James admits that Lynn is unpredictable, but he estimates that in the long run he will be a .285 hitter in Anaheim, with 18 to 24 home runs a year.

•Third Baseman Lansford, a .261 hitter in Anaheim with 15 homers last year, is pegged for a .310 season in Boston with 25 home runs, but, says James, "that doesn't represent the upper boundary of his ability."

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