Thanks to Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball and the 2011 feature film based on it, the early 2000s Oakland Athletics is the Major League franchise most associated with the advanced statistical study of baseball known as sabermetrics, and general manager Billy Beane is its most prominent prophet. But the team hasn't won a World Series since 1989. The 2004 Boston Red Sox, meanwhile, used sabermetrics to help it win the franchise's first Series since 1918, thanks in part to its own “moneyball” guru: Bill James.
James, 64, is a gnomic Midwesterner who began writing about baseball while working the night shift at a pork-and-beans factory in Kansas. He published his first annual Baseball Abstract in 1977, and by 1981 received a major Sports Illustrated profile by Daniel Okrent hailing him as a quirky genius. Today, a wide array of journalists and experts credit him as the founder of sabermetrics (a term he coined in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research).
James still consults for the Red Sox—“I tell them what I think, and sometimes they’re good enough to listen”—and so when I called him up Friday, he hesitated to pass in-depth judgments on competitors. Still, in honor of Opening Day—and also in honor of the emergence of a new lightning-rod for those who believe that salvation lies with stats versus those who believe empiricism has its limits—James shared his thoughts on what baseball experts still don’t know, who his favorite players are, and, yes, why political pundits are so stupid.
Marc Tracy: It’s the tenth anniversary of the season when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. Do you think it’s fair to think of them as the first analytically advanced championship ballclub?
Bill James: A lot of people underestimate how sophisticated many teams were prior to 2004. But the Red Sox were more public about it.
MT: In the past decade, all the teams and many fans have become more proficient in these analytics. In terms of insights and market inefficiencies, do you think all the low-hanging fruit is gone?
BJ: Not at all. There’s still very large market inefficiencies that can be exploited by a team. There are some areas where I can’t go into it, because I work for one team and I owe them my best insight. And there are some areas where someone could gain a big advantage, but I’m not going to tell you what they are—I don’t want to see baseball go in that direction. All innovation changes the game, but not all innovation changes the game for the better. To give an example from the past: In the 1970s, hitters began to realize that there was nothing to stop them from stepping out of the box between pitches to gather their thoughts and resettle and take a second to think through the pitching plans. They changed the game a lot, but not for the better. And each player was doing what was in their best interests. It helped them, it didn’t help the game. I think there are things like that, that are in the selfish interests of players or teams, but that I wouldn’t really talk about.
MT: I would contrast Major League Baseball with the National Basketball Association here. The NBA, maybe to a fault, strikes me as rigorously interested in stamping out such potential for selfishness and instead gaming the rules to maximize fan interest. For example: Fans love scoring, so there’s no zone defense, and they got rid of hand-checks. Do you think Major League Baseball is more inclined to let innovation do what it will?
BJ: I definitely think Major League Baseball is more inclined to let innovation do what it will, yes. And I don’t necessarily know that’s a good thing. I don’t think the NBA’s ban on zone defenses—or former ban on zone defenses; they call it something else now, but it basically bans zones; they no longer admit it—is good policy. But I also think that just allowing the game to evolve in whichever direction it wants to sometimes delivers wonderful results, but sometimes doesn’t.
To get back to an earlier part of your question: We are hung up on bat speed, as an industry. All scouts look for bat speed, and if the ball doesn’t jump off your bat, it’s very, very hard to get drafted. This has excluded from the majors now a type of player that I think of as a Nellie Fox-type player. Such an old reference—we might call it a Brett Butler-type player or a Tony Gwynn-type player. Very slow bats. I believe there’s a big potential payoff for an organization that says, "Okay, well we don’t care if the ball jumps off your bat or not. We’re looking for guys who make solid contact all the time." But the reason I can tell you about this is the Red Sox can’t do something like this, and the reason the Red Sox can’t do something like this is that we can win playing by the rules everybody else is playing by. So the team that gets to [disregard bat speed] is the team that doesn’t have the resources to go head-to-head with the Red Sox and the Dodgers and the Yankees and come out on top.
MT: I saw a report that it’s become more difficult to buy wins than it was in the 1970s, when free agency began. Probably because young players are getting better but are cheap because of rookie contracts, and also because—and we just saw this with the Miguel Cabrera deal—veterans are getting paid huge sums past their productive years. Do you think that’s true?
BJ: No, I don’t. Money always finds a way toward a solution. It’s the nature of money. College sports are the perfect illustration of this. If you ban money from coming in the front door, it goes in the back door. It may be a little more complicated how you buy a win now. But it’s always been the case that the teams that had the most resources were most likely to win, and I don’t anticipate that’s ever not going to be the case. If you can’t go to the talent market and buy talent, you can invest a lot more money in your scouting and development programs and training for minor leaguers. You’ll find some way.
MT: What do you make of the much-ballyhooed scouts/stats divide, versus where we were ten years ago?
BJ: I never personally witnessed such a divide. I think it was an easy way to tell the story ten years ago, but I don’t know that it was ever really true. There’s actually a lot of similarity between the way I look at the game and the way the scouts look at the game.
MT: As a fan, are there a few players you really enjoy right now?
BJ: Ben Zobrist [a Tampa Bay Rays second baseman and outfielder] is a favorite of mine. And I’m not always sure why. But now I understand why, because he’s become a player people in my group love. But I will tell you, the first time I saw him, he was like a skinny 19-year-old minor league shortstop, and I said something about that kid that’s fun to watch. [Philadelphia Phillies second baseman] Chase Utley would be another example of a guy who’s always—there’s a very high level of competence on a lot of small issues, that just makes him a fun guy to follow. Always my least favorite player to watch in baseball is [Chicago White Sox first baseman and designated hitter] Adam Dunn. Adam Dunn has been a phenomenal player, but he’s never been fun to watch. There’s no real energy about him. The [Kansas City] Royals are the team near me, they have two guys who are tremendous fun to watch, in that Ben Zobrist class. One is Alcides Escobar. He just bounces around at shortstop. The other is [catcher] Salvador Perez.
MT: What do you think is the biggest challenge for analytics in baseball over the next few years?
BJ: What we try to do is create organized ways of thinking about problems. When I listen to people talk about baseball, as much if not more than 20 years ago, I hear places where there could be a structure of thought, but there isn’t. We don’t actually know what the talent relationship is between Japanese baseball and American baseball. Between college baseball—the best college programs, the smaller college programs—and low-A [minor league baseball]. We don’t know how all those fit together. The reason we don’t know is we lack structured ways of thinking about the problem.
MT: What would be an example of a field where the knowledge wasn’t particularly well structured, but then it got better structured?
BJ: Thinking about economics is greatly better organized now than it was 60 years ago. We all know—well, there’s a large segment of the public that doesn’t know anything—but there are millions of Americans who have a very sophisticated understanding of how the banking system works, how an economy works. Our thinking about technology is still primitive, but is far, far ahead of where it was even when I was a young man. In politics, on the other hand, we’ve made no progress at all. People who are perceived as learned experts go on television and say stupid shit, and nobody says, "Boy, that’s really stupid." Don’t you find that to be true?
MT: Well, yes.
BJ: I don’t mean conservatives or liberals.
MT: I know exactly what you mean, and it’s funny, because this sentiment has been much discussed recently because another person—a friend of yours—says much the same thing, and just launched a new website. Have you been following the discussion surrounding Nate Silver?
MT: Why is that? The stakes seem, if anything, higher in politics.
BJ: Because people think they know things. The greatest barrier to understanding things is the conviction that you already understand them. People are so convinced that they understand politics. It creates huge barriers to understanding.
MT: But weren’t people convinced they knew things in baseball as well?
BJ: Not as convinced. And—this is a point I stole from Nate: Baseball teams play 162 games a year. In politics, you have a couple elections. [In baseball all the games] act as a self-correcting method. In baseball, if you’re a great team, you lose 65 games a year. It teaches you constantly that you don’t understand things and you’re still working on it. In politics, you have great infrequency of elections, allowing extremely sloppy analysis to flourish, because the correction cycle is so slow.
MT: Do you ever hear about an instance where it’s a different field than baseball, they’re applying roughly your method or paradigm, and you think it’s a step too far or you wouldn’t use that method in that field?
BJ: I won’t tell you specifics, because I don’t want to be criticizing people without all the facts in front of me. But very often I see misapplications of my ideas, similar ideas, where there’s an obvious reason why it can’t be done and there’s a risk of doing more harm than good.
MT: What are you focused on in your non-baseball activities?
BJ: I wrote a book about crime. I'm writing a book now about a murderer who lived 100 years ago. We do not know his name. 100 years ago, there was a person who traveled around the country on a train, committing absolutely horrible crimes. He was never found. You could recognize his crimes, because they had a long series of things in common. But the country at that time was so isolated, he committed a crime and committed a similar crime two months later five states away, but they didn't realize it. With modern research methods and computers, you could connect the dots. But they didn’t have those.
This interview has been edited and condensed.