March 28, 2011
At this point, Bill James has reached an undeniable status of an elder statesman in baseball. He's justly celebrated for his work in baseball analysis, turning countless myths on their head and helping to bring together a like-minded community of intelligent and skeptical baseball fans to which many of us now belong. But his most important work in the public sphere has probably already been done, as his most cutting-edge work is protected by his current employers, the Boston Red Sox.
So it should go without saying that what James writes for public consumption nowadays is more breezy than definitive. His new book, "Solid Fool's Gold," is mostly a collection of essays from his website, billjamesonline.net. It is not, however, a bad thing that they collected it in print form — James' site really is a shame with wonderful material badly marred by poor presentation and a horrible search function. James partly acknowledges that the site isn't entirely reader-friendly, and apparently an update is forthcoming. It's certainly long-overdue.
As James writes in the introduction:
We charge $3 a month for access to the online, and we're not all that good at marketing the site, so ... not an awful lot of people read them.
This book is inessential fun. It's mostly about baseball, but there are a few pieces about other topics, like red light cameras, the TSA, and tipping — which James believes will soon be illegal, for reasons he explains. Most of the baseball pieces are based on lists that James has generated from some set of idiosyncratic criteria. For example, in order to determine the truly worst franchises in baseball history, he developed a cumulative year-over-year Loser Index that gave points for games under .500 and consecutive losing seasons, and docked points for games over .500 and winning the World Series. He develops other schemes to rank the 10 best pitcher's duels of the 1980s, or the 33 best starting rotations of all time. That's the structure of the book: there are a lot of lists with entertaining comments from him about the findings, interspersed with numberless think-pieces that frequently have little to do with baseball.
If you have any familiarity with Bill James, you know that's how his methodology works. It's trial-and-error based, not remotely theory-based. And he frequently admits as much: "I have been doing a lot of 'let us say' math here, but the exact numbers aren't the point." In his career, he has often bristled at being called a statistician or mathematician, and rightfully so: James's analysis really isn't the way mathematical analysis analysis works.
He prefers a different analogy:
You know what a surveyor does? He puts a post in the ground and measures everything from where the post was. At some point people forget that the starting point of the measurement was entirely arbitrary, and begin to accept the relative nature of the measurements.
In many ways, the best parts of the book are the asides. He has great style as a sportswriter -- authoritative, digressive, logical and humorous in equal measure. When writing about the 1920 New York Giants rotation, he tells stories about all of them: one was Bill James's cousin, another was a drunken gambler who testified in the Black Sox trial, another joined the army to escape being prosecuted for taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. His best think-piece is a proposal for the minor leagues to be organized as a pyramid, with more teams at the bottom than the top, and strict rules to prevent major league clubs from overly interfering with the minor league teams' seasons by limiting in-season demotion and promotion. A justification for such austerity is another of his digressions: "If you go to a game in the Gulf Coast League or some of the other low-level leagues, you will notice that there is nobody there ... those teams have no fan base whatsoever."
James has been influential because he has a knack for asking interesting questions, and because he's an engaging, entertaining writer with a deep knowledge of baseball history and love for its minutiae. Despite his "let us say" math, he has frequently pointed the way to a more theoretically grounded understanding of baseball. In these essays, he retains his gift for asking an interesting question in an entertaining way, though the essays themselves aren't likely to influence the debate the way his old work did -- nor are they new, since they've all been published before. If you subscribe to his website, it's hard to recommend the book, even if, like me, you didn't read the articles at the time they were posted. But if you don't subscribe, the essays are a lot of fun, and well worth the time to read. Like the essays themselves, this book is inessential, but thoroughly enjoyable.