Three decades ago, Bill James would spend the skeleton shift at the Stokely-Van Camp bean factory in Lawrence, Kansas, pondering baseball’s imponderables. He’d pore over stat sheets, crunch numbers, and then circulate his findings like samizdat in his mimeographed Baseball Abstract. He was, in the words of Theo Epstein, “an outsider, self-publishing invisible truths about baseball.”
Now he’s an insider. When the current Red Sox ownership group took over five years ago, they sought every edge they could find to end our 86 years in the World Series wilderness. “Let’s get a Bill James type,” suggested one member of the Yawkey Way troika. “Let’s get Bill James,” said another. Two trophies later, that’s looking like a smart hire.
By the time James signed on as the team’s Senior Baseball Operations Advisor in 2003, his ideas — once unorthodox, if not heretical — had been embraced by most thinking people across the sport. On-base percentage is exalted. Steals and sacrifice bunts are indulged in more judiciously. Now, having fundamentally changed how the game is watched, coached, and played, he’s lauded as a hardball demigod. And, if there’s any justice in this world, he’ll someday be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
But if James is no longer on the fringes, secure in his role as éminence grise to the reigning champions, he’s lost not a whit of his infectious enthusiasm for exploring the sport’s hidden corners. “Isn’t that cool?” he writes in his new The Bill James Gold Mine 2008 (ACTA Sports), having reached the satisfying conclusion of a particular bit of arcane statistical inquiry. Gold Mine is meant as a paperback teaser for his new Web venture, Bill James Online — a site that, for a mere $3 per month, offers unfettered access to the vast array of James’s probing cogitations. Just when you think he may have figured out all there is to figure out, he brings new insight to another unconsidered aspect of the game.
Were you aware that David Ortiz was as valuable this past season hitting 35 home runs as he was in 2006, hitting 54 of ’em? Or that when he led off for the Sox, the team scored .78 runs per inning? Or that Julio Lugo drove in J.D. Drew just five times? Or that Hideki Okajima used his curveball against righties only 12 percent of the time? Or that the Red Sox were 25-0 when they scored 10 or more runs (good for the best in baseball), but 23-32 when they scored three to five runs (almost the worst)?
Bill James didn’t either. But he wondered, made some calculations, and then he did. Sometimes his discoveries are intriguing but inconsequential. Other times, they have profound implications for the game. As Sports Illustrated put it: “as with Babe Ruth, when James hits one it’s a beauty, and even when he strikes out it’s worth watching.” We reached the self-professed eccentric at home in Brookline this past week to talk baseball.
Years ago, when you were working as a night watchman in Kansas and doing this on your own, did you ever think stats would become so sexy?
I had no anticipation of anything that has happened. Everything that I expected to happen to me basically hasn’t happened. Instead, very good things have.
Were you surprised when you got offered a job by the Red Sox?
Yeah, certainly. I’d had the opportunity to work with other teams, but this was the better opportunity, and it was obvious it was. I’m surprised at all the good things that happen to me. I always have been. I always think that my run of luck must be about to end, but it’s been going on a long time.
It’s been amazing, the kind of sea change that’s happened with the Red Sox over the past five years. What is the team doing right?
It would take a book. Which I’m not writing. It’s just an organization with a lot of experienced people and a lot of very bright people who aren’t afraid to do things in a [new] way. We don’t look at problems and say, “Well, that’s not the way everybody else does it.” We tend to look at problems and say, “What’s the best way we could attack this?”
I know much of it is proprietary and can’t be discussed, but is there anything you can tell me about what you’re working on for the Red Sox right now?
Well, one, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the college players, on the off chance anyone wants my opinion about that. And the other is, it’s near the end of spring training, near the cut-down date. We’ve played some games, but we haven’t really cut down our roster yet. So I’m looking at some of the issues involved with that. I wish I could answer more.
Are you talking primarily about the bullpen?
Yeah, but y’know, uh . . . lemme find the right words here . . . [long pause] . . . we are dealing with some roster issues.