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Bill James
Bill James 2010.jpg
James in 2010
Born
George William James

October 5, 1949 (1949-10-05) (age 71)
Alma mater University of Kansas
Occupation Historian, statistician
Known for Sabermetrics

George William James (born October 5, 1949) is an American baseball writer, historian, and statistician whose work has been widely influential. Since 1977, James has written more than two dozen books devoted to baseball history and statistics. His approach, which he termed sabermetrics in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), scientifically analyzes and studies baseball, often through the use of statistical data, in an attempt to determine why teams win and lose.

In 2006, Time named him in the Time 100 as one of the most influential people in the world. In 2003, James was hired as senior advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox.

Early life

James was born in Holton, Kansas; his mother died in 1954 when he was five. His father was a janitor and a handyman. After four years at the University of Kansas (KU) residing at Stephenson Scholarship hall, James joined the Army in 1971. He was the last person in Kansas to be sent to fight in the Vietnam War, although he never saw action there. Instead, he spent two years stationed in South Korea, during which time he wrote to KU about taking his final class. He was told he actually had met all his graduation requirements, so he returned to Lawrence in 1973 with degrees in English and economics. He also finished an Education degree in 1975, likewise from the University of Kansas.

Career

The Bill James Baseball Abstracts

An aspiring writer and obsessive fan, James began writing baseball articles after leaving the United States Army in his mid-twenties. Many of his first baseball writings came while he was doing night shifts as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp's pork and beans cannery. Unlike most writers, his pieces did not recount games in epic terms or offer insights gleaned from interviews with players. A typical James piece posed a question (e.g., "Which pitchers and catchers allow runners to steal the most bases?"), and then presented data and analysis that offered an answer.

Editors considered James's pieces so unusual that few believed them suitable for their readers. In an effort to reach a wider audience, James began self-publishing an annual book titled The Bill James Baseball Abstract, beginning in 1977. The first edition, titled 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 categories of statistical information that you just can't find anywhere else, presented 68 pages of in-depth statistics compiled from James's study of box scores from the preceding season and was offered for sale through a small advertisement in The Sporting News. Seventy-five people purchased the booklet. The 1978 edition, subtitled The 2nd annual edition of baseball's most informative and imaginative review, sold 250 copies. Beginning in 1979, James wrote an annual preview of the baseball season for Esquire, and continued to do so through 1984.

The first three editions of the Baseball Abstract garnered respect for James's work, including a very favorable review by Daniel Okrent in Sports Illustrated. New annual editions added essays on teams and players. By 1982 sales had increased tenfold, and a media conglomerate agreed to publish and distribute future editions.

While writers had published books about baseball statistics before (most notably Earnshaw Cook's Percentage Baseball, in the 1960s), few had ever reached a mass audience. Attempts to imitate James's work spawned a flood of books and articles that continues to this day.

Post-Abstracts work

In 1988, James ceased writing the Abstract, citing workload-related burnout and concern about the volume of statistics on the market. He has continued to publish hardcover books about baseball history, which have sold well and received admiring reviews. These books include three editions of The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (1985, 1988, 2001, the last entitled The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract).

James has also written several series of new annuals:

  • The Baseball Book (1990–1992) was a loosely organized collection of commentary, profiles, historical articles, and occasional pieces of research. James's assistant Rob Neyer was responsible for much of the research, and wrote several short pieces. Neyer went on to become a featured baseball columnist at ESPN and SB Nation.
  • The Player Ratings Book (1993–95) offered statistics and 50-word profiles aimed at the fantasy baseball enthusiast.
  • Playing off the name of the earlier series, Solid Fool's Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom (2011) was a mixed collection of both baseball-related and miscellaneous pieces, culled from the Bill James Online archives (see below).

In 2008, James launched Bill James Online. Subscribers can read James's new, original writing and interact with one another —- as well as with James —- in a question-and-answer format. The web site also offers new "profiles" of teams and players full of facts and statistics that hope to one day map what James has termed "the lost island of baseball statistics."

STATS, Inc.

In an essay published in the 1984 Abstract, James vented his frustration about Major League Baseball's refusal to publish play-by-play accounts of every game. James proposed the creation of Project Scoresheet, a network of fans that would work together to collect and distribute this information.

While the resulting non-profit organization never functioned smoothly, it worked well enough to collect accounts of every game from 1984 through 1991. James's publisher agreed to distribute two annuals of essays and data – the 1987 and 1988 editions of Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Statbook (though only the first of these featured writing by James).

The organization was eventually disbanded, but many of its members went on to form for-profit companies with similar goals and structure. STATS, Inc., the company James joined, provided data and analysis to every major media outlet before being acquired by Fox Sports in 2001.

Innovations

Among the statistical innovations attributable to James are:

  • Runs created. A statistic intended to quantify a player's contribution to runs scored, as well as a team's expected number of runs scored. Runs created is calculated from other offensive statistics. James's first version of it was: Runs Created = (Total bases * (Hits + Walks))/(Plate Appearances). Applied to an entire team or league, the statistic correlates closely to that team's or league's actual runs scored. Since James first created the statistic, sabermetricians have refined it to make it more accurate, and it is now used in many different variations.
  • Range factor. A statistic that quantifies the defensive contribution of a player, calculated in its simplest form as RF = (Assists + Put Outs)/(Games Played). The statistic is premised on the notion that the total number of outs that a player participates in is more relevant in evaluating his defensive play than the percentage of cleanly handled chances as calculated by the conventional statistic Fielding percentage.
  • Defensive Efficiency Rating. A statistic that shows the percentage of balls in play a defense turns into an out. It is used to help determine a team's defensive ability. Calculated by: 1 – ((Opp. Hits + Reached on Error – Opp. Home runs) / (Plate appearances – Walks – Strikeouts – HitByPitch – Opp. Home runs)).
  • Win shares. A unifying statistic intended to allow the comparison of players at different positions, as well as players of different eras. Win Shares incorporates a variety of pitching, hitting and fielding statistics. One drawback of Win Shares is the difficulty of computing it.
  • Pythagorean Winning Percentage. A statistic explaining the relationship of wins and losses to runs scored and runs allowed. In its simplest form: Pythagorean Winning Percentage equals Runs squared divided by the square of Runs plus the square of Runs Allowed. The statistic correlates closely to a team's actual winning percentage.
  • Game Score is a metric to determine the strength of a pitcher in any particular baseball game.
  • Major League Equivalency. A metric that uses minor league statistics to predict how a player is likely to perform at the major league level.
  • The Brock2 System. A system for projecting a player's performance over the remainder of his career based on past performance and the aging process.
  • Similarity scores. Scoring a player's statistical similarity to other players, providing a frame of reference for players of the distant past. Examples: Lou Gehrig comparable to Don Mattingly; Joe Jackson to Tony Oliva.
  • Secondary average. A statistic that attempts to measure a player's contribution to an offense in ways not reflected in batting average. The formula is (Extra bases on hits+Walks+Stolen Bases)/At bats. Secondary averages tend to be similar to batting averages, but can vary widely, from less than .100 to more than .500 in extreme cases. Extra bases on hits is calculated with the formula (Doubles)+(Triplesx2)+(Homerunsx3) or more easily, (Total Bases)-(Hits).
  • Power/Speed Number. A statistic that attempts to consolidate the various "clubs" of players with impressive numbers of both home runs and stolen bases (e.g., the "30/30" club (Bobby Bonds was well known for being a member), the "40/40" club (Jose Canseco was the first to perform this feat), and even the "25/65" club (Joe Morgan in the '70s)). The formula: (2x(Home Runs)x(Stolen Bases))/(Home Runs + Stolen Bases).
  • Approximate Value. A system of cutoffs designed to estimate the value a player contributed to various category groups (including his team) to study broad questions such as "how do players age over time".
  • "Temperature gauge" to determine how "hot" a player is, based on recent performance. The gauge has been used in NESN Red Sox telecasts and has provoked mixed reactions from critics.

Although James may be best known as an inventor of statistical tools, he has often written on the limitations of statistics and urged humility concerning their place amid other kinds of information about baseball. To James, context is paramount: he was among the first to emphasize the importance of adjusting traditional statistics for park factors and to stress the role of luck in a pitcher's win-loss record. Many of his statistical innovations are arguably less important than the underlying ideas. When he introduced the notion of secondary average, it was as a vehicle for the then-counterintuitive concept that batting average represents only a fraction of a player's offensive contribution. (The runs-created statistic plays a similar role vis-à-vis the traditional RBI.) Some of his contributions to the language of baseball, like the idea of the "defensive spectrum", border on being entirely non-statistical.

Acceptance and employment in mainstream baseball

Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane began applying sabermetric principles to running his low-budget team in the early 2000s, to notable effect, as chronicled in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball.

In 2003, James was hired by a former reader, John Henry, the new owner of the Boston Red Sox.

One point of controversy was in handling the relief pitching of the Red Sox. James had previously published analysis of the use of the closer in baseball, and had concluded that the traditional use of the closer both overrated the abilities of that individual, and used him in suboptimal circumstances. He wrote that it is "far better to use your relief ace when the score is tied, even if that is the seventh inning, than in the ninth inning with a lead of two or more runs." The Red Sox in 2003 staffed their bullpen with several marginally talented relievers. Red Sox manager Grady Little was never fully comfortable with the setup, and designated unofficial closers and reshuffled roles after a bad outing. When Boston lost a number of games due to bullpen failures, Little reverted to a traditional closer approach and moved Byung-hyun Kim from being a starting pitcher to a closer. The Red Sox did not follow James's idea of a bullpen with no closer, but with consistent overall talent that would allow the responsibilities to be shared. Red Sox reliever Alan Embree thought the plan could have worked if the bullpen had not suffered injuries. During the 2004 regular season Keith Foulke was used primarily as a closer in the conventional model; however, Foulke's usage in the 2004 postseason was along the lines of a relief ace with multiple inning appearances at pivotal times of the game. Houston Astros manager Phil Garner also employed a relief ace model with his use of Brad Lidge in the 2004 postseason.

During his tenure with the Red Sox, James published several new sabermetric books (see #Bibliography below). Indeed, although James was typically tight-lipped about his activities on behalf of the Red Sox, he is credited with advocating some of the moves that led to the team's first World Series championship in 86 years, including the signing of non-tendered free agent David Ortiz, the trade for Mark Bellhorn, and the team's increased emphasis on on-base percentage.

After the Red Sox suffered through a disastrous 2012 season, Henry stated that James had fallen "out of favor [in the front office] over the last few years for reasons I really don't understand. We've gotten him more involved recently in the central process and that will help greatly."

On October 24, 2019, James announced his retirement from the Red Sox, saying that he had "fallen out of step with the organization" and added that he hadn’t earned his paycheck with the Red Sox for the last couple of years. During his time with the team, Bill James received four World Series rings for the team's 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2018 World Series titles.

In culture

Michael Lewis, in his 2003 book Moneyball, dedicates a chapter to James's career and sabermetrics as background for his portrayal of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics' unlikely success.

James was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals in 2007.

James was profiled on 60 Minutes on March 30, 2008, in his role as a sabermetric pioneer and Red Sox advisor. In 2010, he was inducted into the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame.

James made a guest appearance on The Simpsons 2010 episode "MoneyBART". He claimed "I've made baseball as fun as doing your taxes."

Steven Soderbergh's planned film adaptation of Moneyball would have featured an animated version of James as a "host". This script was discarded when director Bennett Miller and writer Aaron Sorkin succeeded Soderbergh on the project. Ultimately, the 2011 film mentions James several times. His bio is briefly recapped, and Billy Beane is depicted telling John Henry that Henry's hiring of James is the reason Beane is interested in the Red Sox general manager job.

Books about James

  • The Mind of Bill James (2006) ISBN
  • How Bill James Changed Our View of Baseball: by Colleagues, Critics, Competitors and Just Plain Fans (2007) ISBN: 978-0879463175
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