THINK TANK WITH BEN WATTENBERG
#1322 Bill James, Beyond Baseball
FEED DATE: JULY 28, 2005
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Hello I’m Ben Wattenberg...
In the last few years, the success of teams like the LA
Dodgers, the Oakland A’s, and of course the miraculous
Boston Red Sox has been credited to a new scientific
way of looking at baseball. It’s called Sabermetrics, and
It is changing the way we look at baseball and
professional sports. How does it work? And are
there wider implications beyond the world of sports?
To Find Out, Think Tank is joined by...
Bill James, Senior Baseball Operations Advisor with the
Boston Red Sox and author of many books including
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract and
The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers.
The Topic Before the House: Beyond Baseball, This
Week on Think Tank
WATTENBERG: Bill James, welcome to Think Tank.
JAMES: Thank you for having me.
WATTENBERG: Delighted to have – to have you. Tell me
first a little bit about your life...where you were born,
when you wrote your books and so on.
JAMES: I come from Kansas. I grew up in a
small town in Kansas, went to the University of Kansas and
I started writing, I guess, in the mid 1970s just because I
didn’t know it was impossible.
JAMES: And the – I wrote the first Baseball
Abstract in 1977 and realized I hadn’t done a very good job
with that one so I decided I’d try it again and after these
– this many years I’m still trying to get it right.
WATTENBERG: How many books have you written so far?
JAMES: About 20.
WATTENBERG: About 20. Let me – let me first say that I
– the two that I read I really loved. I mean, it was like
meeting old friends sometimes ‘cause it goes back into the
past of baseball history and I’ve been sort of one of these
on again, off again baseball fans. I mean, I remember my
two favorite books as a kid were Jack London’s The Call of
the Wild and a book about the St. Louis Cardinals earlier –
of an earlier time called The Gas House Gang and I must
have read each of those books about fifty times. So it
really is a kind of sport that can challenge – can
challenge a kid and an adult, obviously.
JAMES: J.Roy Stockton’s the Gas House Gang. The –
he felt free to make of his characters larger than life
figures in a way that they maybe weren’t but he had no
reluctance about portraying them that way. I think that’s
a – I always wonder if we’re missing something in that we
are so careful now not to make people what they aren’t.
WATTENBERG: There’s so much myth-building in life and in
sports. I, as a future writer anyway, I remember in
growing up in New York one of the favorites was Jimmy
Cannon who was a wonderful – albeit I look back and he was
sort of very over-dramatic, but he used to write columns
about Joe DiMaggio that made it seem as if Joe DiMaggio
walked on water; was just the greatest man in the world.
And then a few years ago a book came out by Richard Ben
Kramer about DiMaggio and it made him out as an absolutely,
totally unpleasant man.
JAMES: That’s right. And you wonder, are we better
off for knowing or... I think everybody would choose to
know, but in some ways you wouldn’t.
WATTENBERG: It’s said that you have challenged the
conventional wisdom in baseball. I wonder, why don’t you
lay out for us what your thesis is about what we’ve been
getting wrong about looking at baseball?
JAMES: The – the first point is that I did not
start with any thesis and even to say that I have a thesis
is more somebody else’s perception than it is my own. I
suppose I do and I’ll get to that in a moment, but I
started by asking the question what is the connection
between these numbers and winning. People think that they
understand which numbers are...
WATTENBERG: These numbers being batting averages,
slugging percentages...all those statistical artifacts that
come with baseball.
JAMES: Right. And I – yes, I started with that
question rather than with the thesis. When you start with
that question, you say how important is speed to winning?
Unfortunately, you reach the conclusion that it’s not very
important at all. I mean, the best teams in the majors are
no faster than the – the worst teams; in fact they’re
slower. The – and some of the things that people have
believed about what makes a winning team, ninety-five
percent of them are true, no doubt. Five percent of them
are false, so I then become identified with the five
percent that I – of the traditional wisdom that I argue
with. What’s important? If I have a thesis it’s that – I
mean, you win games by scoring runs and preventing runs;
you score runs by getting people on base. I mean how many
runs a team scores is essentially a function of how many
people they have on base.
Other things count. Speed counts, running
counts, moving runners counts, power counts but essentially
how many runs you score and how many games you win comes
from how many people you have on base.
WATTENBERG: Therefore what? If we determine that the
trick is to get on base, then for example you’re not saying
that the homerun is a very important – people want to come
see homeruns but it’s not terribly important as you see it.
JAMES: Well, the whole – the power – power is very
valuable and I don’t mean to minimize that at all. The –
if you had to choose between power and speed, by all means
choose power. The – but you can – you can win without
power if you get enough people on base and the same way,
you can without speed if you get enough people base.
WATTENBERG: Okay. You wrote in one of the key quotes,
“a hitter should be measured by his success in that which
he is trying to do and that which he is trying to do is
create runs, not compile a high batting average.”
WATTENBERG: So you think that the batting average, which
is the first thing that normally comes to people’s mind who
follow this at all is, “Oh, he hit 326. He’s really good.”
That’s not the way you look at it.
JAMES: That’s right. If you hit 326 you are really
good. But there are people who hit 280 who are not good
players. If you hit 280 and you don’t walk and you don’t
have power and you don’t have speed, you won’t – your team
will not win. There are players who hit 230 who are good
players, so within that – I mean if you hit 180 you stink
no matter what. If you hit 325, you can play no matter
what. Within that medium range, batting average is
WATTENBERG: One of the great clichés is that pitching is
90% of baseball. Do you buy that?
JAMES: People will tell you that John McGraw said that
baseball’s 90% pitching. John McGraw ridiculed the idea
that baseball is 90% pitching and he explained very
carefully and very logically that baseball was about 30%
pitching, which was very – which is an accurate major at
the time that he did this which was 1906.
The – since 1906 pitching has become more
important than it was then and defense has been squeezed a
little bit. But still pitching is 35% of the game.
WATTENBERG: If you’ve got a guy, a pitcher, thrown in
smoke and you can’t – and getting the ball over the plate,
you can’t do the other things that you’ve talked about
which is get on base or it’s very hard.
JAMES: The perfection in any area of the game will
– will succeed. I mean, if you – if your whole offense is
built out of Henry Aarons who can hit a 97 mile an hour
fastball, then you don’t need pitching. If you have
perfect pitching you don’t need hitting. And it’s true
that any one element of the game can - can dominate the
others if taken to an extreme. But the extreme case is not
the typical case. In the typical case – in the typical
case over the course of a season, success comes from a
melding of all different types of abilities. The one most
important of those is hitting. The – because the hitter
has more control over the outcome of the event than anybody
WATTENBERG: You find that the ability of a batter to get
on base via the walk – four balls...
WATTENBERG...is the critical difference of that vast middle
ground. Is that right?
JAMES: That is correct.
WATTENBERG: You talk about so called clutch hitters and
if I understand it correctly, you find that these are all
professionals; they all do over a period of time about what
they’re expected to do.
JAMES: The problem with clutch hitting is that no
one can prove that such a scale exists at the major league
level. And it would seem intuitively that if it existed,
one would have to be able to prove that it existed. No one
can. The – if you take the guys who hit best in the clutch
in 2004 and look at how they hit in the clutch situations
in 2005, there’s no – there’s no real carryover. It’s –
other than the good hitters will be good, the bad hitters
will be bad, but there’s no – there’s no proven
predictability to being able to hit in clutch situations.
The – therefore, some people have rushed to say that clutch
hitting doesn’t exist. I don’t say it doesn’t exist. I
just don’t know. Maybe, you know – maybe I have a
Sasquatch breaking into my backyard at night.
WATTENBERG: So you would believe, for example, that Joe
DiMaggio’s famous fifty-six-game hitting streak was just a
series of statistical artifacts. It’s just he was a good –
good baseball player... a very good baseball player and the
just happened to fall that way.
JAMES: Well, I’m tempted to believe that but the
problem with that argument is that Joe DiMaggio, when he
was nineteen years old had a – a sixty-one-game hitting
streak in the very good minor league baseball. So that
damages the theory that this is just a – a random
statistical artifact. The – and there may have – well have
been something about DiMaggio’s nature that made it...
WATTENBERG: I mean players do talk... all the time in
WATTENBERG: That, “Boy, I’m really hot” or “I can’t buy
a base hit. It’s terrible.”
JAMES: Yes. Right.
WATTENBERG: I mean and – and so that would – conceivably
could have some – some effect.
JAMES: It could, but the guy – they – you can’t
prove a guy’s hot, either. I mean, the guys who are hot -
if you look at the guys who have been red hot over the last
week and look at how they hit tomorrow, they’re not going
to hit any better than their normal ability. So that again
appears to be a statistical artifact.
WATTENBERG: All these theories that we’ve begun to
explicate here has been called Sabermetrics.
WATTENBERG: Who are the outstanding sabermetricians?
JAMES: Craig Wright, Eddie Epstein, the – Ron
WATTENBERG: Now who - they are affiliated with teams or
just with their own websites or both or...
JAMES: Craig Wright has worked for teams and
consults with teams several consulting contracts for many
years. Eddie Epstein used to work with the Orioles and has
consulted with teams. Ron Chandler works with the
Cardinals. And there are many others.
WATTENBERG: Given all these notions, how would you
actually define Sabermetrics?
JAMES: I keep switching definitions because I don’t
like any of them. The best definition is the broadest one.
Sabermetrics is the search for objective knowledge about
baseball. We try to take the issues that baseball people
argue about and submit them to rigorous tests.
WATTENBERG: Statistics essentially.
JAMES: Yes. The same as – as a – a economist would
or a sociologist would or any other person of knowledge
WATTENBERG: The first of the baseball general managers
to put your Jamesian theories into work was Billy Bean. Is
that accurate and what did he actually do in I guess
scouting new players?
JAMES: Well, my knowledge of all this is second
hand or third hand because I don’t deal with them
personally, but I think that Billy Bean inherited the
practice – the sabermetric practices from Sandy Alderson,
who actually was the general manager of Oakland twenty
years ago and started using what we could call solid
WATTENBERG: And again, he looked at the record and
looked specifically for people who could get on base as
opposed to being the big slugger or whatever.
JAMES: That’s right. That’s right.
WATTENBERG: And he did very well.
JAMES: And they have done very well. Persistently.
WATTENBERG: How do the old timers, the scouts who cover
the country looking for raw talent for how strong they air
and how far they can hit the ball and all that kind of
stuff, what do they think about this – your theory of
Sabermetrics, or THE theory of Sabermetrics?
JAMES: The – I would think it’s probably safe to
say that a great many of them are very skeptical about the
– the whole idea.
WATTENBERG: They still like a guy who can run like the
blazes and throw the ball real hard?
JAMES: They do and there are good reasons to do
that and also sometimes they feel perhaps inappropriately
threatened by the alternative approach I think that...
WATTENBERG: That in other words they are being – they’re
sort of ludites there being replaced by a machine called
JAMES: Right. That’s right. Which actually is
WATTENBERG: It’s quite impossible?
JAMES: It’s quite impossible. There are too many
things you can’t measure.
WATTENBERG: Now, you were hired by another disciple of –
of Sabermetrics, who you work for now, Theo Epstein. What
is his actual job and what is your actual job?
JAMES: The – Theo is the general manager of the
Boston Red Sox and in theory I work for the leadership
group of the Boston Red Sox including the owner, John
Henry, and the president Larry Lucchino, as well as the
general manager, Theo, but in practice 95% of my work is
for Theo, so I work for Theo.
WATTENBERG: In 2004 the Red Sox made that incredible
comeback to break the so called curse of the bambino, what
did Epstein and you actually do to help the Red Sox?
JAMES: The – well, the players won it. I mean, the
– in terms of what we – what we did to help the players, I
mean we have a – we have a very good program of events
scouting in place; we have a good program in place, too.
We brought in players we thought would help and I think
they did help. But what it - you know, the players won –
won the World Series on their own.
WATTENBERG: What has happened over the years in all
sports, I guess, is the player’s salaries have been
enormous – have jumped enormously. Now, does your theory,
the Jamesian theory, Sabermetrics or whatever, does that
tend to diminish the difference between a wealthy franchise
and a poorer franchise?
JAMES: Not in itself, no. The – the book Moneyball
puts forward the idea that the...
WATTENBERG: Which is basically about you – your theory.
JAMES: Well, it’s basically about the Oakland A’s,
but it puts forward the idea that the A’s were able to
succeed by – by playing smart baseball with very little
money and that they used my theories along with other
things to do that. But knowledge favors people who have
knowledge; it favors neither the wealthy nor the poor, so I
don’t – I won’t – it’s not intrinsically true.
WATTENBERG: You were quoted recently in the New York
Times in a very refreshing way where you said that you had
been wrong in some of your theories.
WATTENBERG: And in fact in one of your books - in the
book about pitching with Mr. Neyer, there are constant
references to, “well, James thinks this but Neyer thinks
he’s wrong and Neyer thinks this but James thinks he’s
wrong.” These are all topics for argumentation I gather,
or many of them are.
JAMES: I would hope so. The Times piece focused on
the clutch hitting issue as well as other things, that we –
we were using a method that we thought should have detected
clutch hitters if they existed and I studied and concluded
that even if clutch hitters existed you wouldn’t find them
by using this method.
WATTENBERG: What were your emotions – I mean, there’s a
very parochial question here in Washington ‘cause so many
people are excited about the reemergence of a baseball club
in – in Washington. Did Washington deserve a team? Are
you glad it got it? I mean, it’s not in your league but
it’s – it’s a national league club; not an American league.
Was that sort of a great event for...
JAMES: I’m very pleased to see baseball back in
Washington. The – it’s my belief that baseball thrives by
providing baseball to every major league city. And I think
every major league city should have a major league team and
– and I – I don’t – I don’t think that we gain by creating
artificial surplus of cities.
WATTENBERG: Now, it’s said that baseball is America’s
pastime. Some writers, George Will, David Broder, others I
think sort of go overboard about the great poetry of the
diamond and the outfield and they go on and on. But is
that still so? I mean, how do the attendance figures and
in the television ratings, is it still valid?
JAMES: It – looking at baseball itself, baseball
has never been healthier. Attendance is fantastic; TV
ratings are very good; the income is great. Looking at
baseball compared to other sports, not so much. More – if
asked what is the national sport, more people will say
football than baseball. The – add their TV ratings for
baseball, while they’re good, are not necessarily as good
as basketball, the NCAA tournament or – or...
WATTENBERG: It’s – it’s said, and I once wrote a column
called “Snoreball” – it’s said that baseball is a boring
game because – I mean you could take all of the action in a
two-and-a-half-hour baseball game; the actual time the ball
is in play is probably two or three minutes, if I’m – if
I’m – if I’m guessing. Should or could the game be speeded
JAMES: It could - could be and it should be. You
could – you could - a game now lasts two-and-a-half hours
and they’re working hard to cut that down and they’ve made
some progress. But if you could get the unions out of the
way, the – you could – you could...
WATTENBERG: The player’s unions.
JAMES: The player’s union and the umpire’s union.
The – and the – and get the TV ads and that under control,
you could very easily play a nine inning baseball game in –
on average an hour and forty minutes and with just a few
rule – small rules changes; so small that if somebody
didn’t explain them to you, you couldn’t figure out what...
WATTENBERG: Which would inherently make it more
WATTENBERG: I find it very interesting. I – I – let me
start that again. I find it very interesting. I do a lot
of writing, and have done over the years, about data and it
is invariably so, and I mean invariably, that you can take
the same data or various people can take the same data and
interpret it in wholly different ways. And I mean, there’s
one – the so called poverty rate - you can take it and say
it’s how much cash do you earn and that’s the poverty
threshold and if you’re above it you’re not in poverty.
But you can also say well, you’ve got to count in food
stamps ‘because that’s as good as cash and you got to count
in rent supplements and you got to count in... and there’s
a whole other bunch of things. You got to count in
Medicaid. And then you get a much lower poverty rate.
On the other hand, people who want to show that
gee, America’s doing very poorly and they want to show the
poverty rate is higher, they have a whole – and the Census
Bureau publishes all of this stuff. But the length of
poverty is higher and a lot of other things and of course
you get into economics and it’s a zoo. I mean, there are
so many numbers out there you can just... So my long
question is, is data a good way of explaining life and the
things – these objective things that we see about – about
JAMES: The data is a limited way of explaining
life. The essential property of the data is that it’s not
real. It is an image of a reality that is always something
else and in the same way as one can define poverty in
different ways in the statistics, or anything in baseball,
what you have in essence is a picture and you could take a
picture of me from the front and a picture of me from the
left and a picture of me from the back and you’d have very,
very different pictures. The statistics are not – they’re
a real thing; they are just a picture of something else.
There is always a lot that’s left out of the picture and
the biggest mistake that people who try to study baseball
through the stats make is thinking that they – it’s
confusing them with the real event. There’s always a
tremendous amount that’s left out. What a lot of people
don’t understand is that there are also things that you can
see in the statistics that you can’t really see in any
other way. So you have - you just have to balance those.
WATTENBERG: Ok, on that note, Bill James thank you very
much for joining us on Think Tank. And thank you, please
remember to send us your comments via email; we think it
makes our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben
Opening Billboard: Funding for Think Tank is provided by...
(Pfizer) At Pfizer, we’re spending over five billion
dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and
health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our
Pfizer, life is our life’s work.
Additional funding is provided by the Bernard and Irene
Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Lynde
Friday, August 12, 2005
THINK TANK WITH BEN WATTENBERG