Saturday, April 22, 2006

Bill James in a Box

What is it about Bill James? The man who coined the term "sabermetrics", his name is the icon of the movement towards a more rigorous analysis of baseball through statistics. And he provokes a binary reaction: you either love him (Rob Neyer) or hate him (Joe Morgan). Why? The book, The Mind of Bill James, by Scott Gray, purportedly seeks to answer this question.

I was drawn to this book by the preview from The Baseball Crank, who noted that the book might be a disappointment to those who had grown up with Bill James and already read all of his stuff, given than it is largely a collection of excerpts from his 30 years of writings on baseball. That description appealed to me because I had not already devoured Bill James' work, which is, upon reflection, weird. It is a puzzle befitting James's analytical style because, by all the objective evidence, I should have been a James fanatic. I first tried to create a dice-based simulation in 1976, when I was 8, using the stats in the 1976 World Almanac. I played every conceivable baseball board game. I was a Baseball Digest and Sporting News subscriber from 1978 through 1983. My second-hand copies of the 1978 MacMillan's Baseball Encyclopedia and Neft & Cohen's Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball were worn in like my baseball mitt. I was even aware of the Baseball Abstracts when they arrived in the early 1980s, but for reasons lost in the fog I never bought one. So I come to this new work on James neither as a devoted follower nor an irritated skeptic. But it is very hard not to find James' writing, and the mind that produces it, irresistible.

James presents a rare combination of three important intellectual skills: (1) a deep, analytical mind capable of assimilating a vast array of facts on multiple levels of judgment and interpretation; (2) the ability to communicate complex ideas not only with clarity, but with a fierce brightness that is often unforgettable; and (3) the courage (perhaps it's just callousness) to express conclusions that often cast a cold, harsh light on the subject. There are several people who possess one or even two of these traits -- having all three puts James on the far right of the talent curve.

His appeal (or irritation) begins with the fact that he is a true wise-ass. His humor runs right along, and often sneaks under, the border of tastefulness. Consider this remark:
[I]f there is anyone in the Western Hemisphere who knows less about the Kansas City Royals than Sparky Anderson does, I don't know who it would be -- Karen Ann Quinlan, perhaps.
If you, like me, laughed out loud at that one, you will probably enjoy Bill James. It also helps explains his near-universal reverence in the caustic, sarcastic, ironic baseball blogosphere.

Next comes his use of analogies -- absolutely proper and effective, in that he employs them to illuminate, not prove. Take how he explains the effort to measure fielding:

Hitting is solid, pitching is liquid, defense is gaseous.

Hitting is firm, well-defined, easy to measure.

Pitching is liquid ... it assumes the shape of whatever form it is poured into. A 15-10 pitcher with a 3.80 ERA on one team is 10-15 with a 5.00 ERA on another team.

Defense is gaseous. It is damned hard to capture, formless, hard to see.
Also appealing his is his ability to make fresh observations about old issues, even one like racism, which probably has the highest noise to signal, heat to light ratio of any topic:
If there is anything in the world that can safely be said about racists, it is that they are mediocre. Nothing characterizes a racist like his mediocrity. Racists are people who can find no rational or apparent basis for believing in their own superiority, and so seek to identify themselves with a superior thing, with a badge that won't come off. The baseball world is not an exception to that. ... If you are looking for racism in baseball, start in the middle of the standings and read down.
The Phillies, my former team, had one of the worst records in the 50s and 60s of recruiting and hiring black players, and to call them mediocre back then is essentially a compliment.

But to me, what is most impressive about James is his tireless quest to illuminate the objective reality about baseball, even though he knows that it is not possible to complete such a quest:
Baseball is an infinite puzzle. You can never really understand why teams win and why they lose. You can understand a little bit more, and a little bit more, but you can never exhaust the subject.
And he understands that essential to this quest is the clear-eyed understanding of the paradox that "We shouldn't be too confident about the things we think we know." With this approach, James continues the tradition of Socrates, about whom the Oracle at Delphi said "No man is wiser than Socrates", which Socrates explained by noting that he knows that he doesn't know anything.

James's irreverent, sarcastic, and refreshingly shocking quest for the truth also reminds me of my favorite author, Flannery O'Connor (James was a literature major in college, which helps explain his writing talent). O'Connor would not compromise her goal to explain things as they are, rather than how her readers wanted them to be, and to do so with bracing wit. Her story A Good Man is Hard to Find ends with a escaped psychopath murdering a kindly grandmother in a ditch at the side of a road. One of O'Connor's readers complained about this ending, to which she replied, "Did you want me to keep writing until the police arrived?" I think that answer would make James smile.

Then there is just the simple pleasure of reading Bill James make a point. It resembles the joy of watching Ozzie Smith field a tough grounder -- he does it with such ease and grace you think it is uncomplicated. But when you actually try to do the same thing, you realize quickly how many unanticipated decisions you must make in a suddenly miniscule amount of time and space, and even if you manage to accomplish the same goal, your effort will be clumsy, wasteful and unremarkable.

Reading Scott Gray's exposition of Bill James's mind, unfortunately, is not as pleasing. As the Baseball Crank notes, the book is a bit of a mess, with very little organization or structure (e.g., he does not cite the source for many excerpts, which is frustrating, at least to an uptight lawyer like myself). It feels like you've just done a Google search for "Bill James", and somewhat randomly clicked through to page after page of excerpts -- enjoyable, to be sure, but not presented in a fashion conducive to getting a picture of the man. Some important things are given short shrift, like James's clashes with Seymour Siwoff of Elias Sports Bureau, MLB's official statisticians. Gray foreshadows his meandering style in the Preface, quoting New Yorker author Malcolm Gladwell's praise that Bill James has "mastered the tangent" -- the ability to depart from the expected path yet ultimately remain on point and not confuse or annoy the reader. One gets the sense that Gray has tried his hand at this feat, but he is more Royce Clayton than Ozzie Smith.

Also, some of the the best words in the book (other than James's) are not even from Gray, but from James's wife Susan McCarthy. A large part of the appeal of Bill James is his example of how Americans put the Enlightenment into practice. Without any baseball pedigree whatsoever, no link to McGraw or Mack or Rickey or Ruth or any of the nobility of the game, a lanky, bearded security guard from Kansas, by sheer dint of his intellect and powers of rational observation, managed to affect baseball in profound ways, and ultimately become part of the game with the 2004 World Champion Red Sox. McCarthy describes how she had to drag James onto the field at Busch Stadium to celebrate with the Red Sox. It is one of the rare moments in the book where we glimpse how James feels about his career and accomplishments. James is notoriously difficult to work with, so Gray's roundabout approach may be the only one any author could take in such a book.

In the end, it's hard not to recommend this book, especially if you have not read much Bill James; it is an introduction to his work, and right now the only one I know of. If you've already read a lot of his work, this collection will probably frustrate you, and you might be better revisiting some of those old books directly. In either case, if you're a fan of baseball, reading more Bill James will make you laugh, ponder and enjoy this great game.


At 5:07 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Very nice review, DM. You may have pushed The Mind of Bill James from wait until the library has it to grabbing it for my next vacation.

At 10:34 PM, Blogger Basil said...

I'm with Brian. The BJ bobblehead scares me, but I'm much more likely to get into this book now.

I've read nearly every word the guy has published, but that's not a problem, since I regularly reread his stuff anyway.

Good review, DM.


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