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Gamer’s Bookshelf: Bill James Baseball Abstracts

August 21st, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Gamer's Bookshelf

I first became aware of Bill James through an article in Sport magazine about the stolen base. This was the early 80s when Whitey-ball and the exploits of Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson seemed as big news as the home run explosion has been in recent years. James was quoted as being skeptical of the stolen base unless the runner could guarantee success better than two-thirds of the time. There was a brief sidebar explaining who he was and I wasn’t quite impressed. Still young, I had more respect for the wisdom of the practitioner than the analyst and if Duke Snider (who did Expos color commentary at the time) thought the stolen base was an immensely powerful weapon, that was enough for me.

James is now known as the father of sabermetrics (the scientific analysis of baseball), a field he pioneered largely through his Baseball Abstracts. These annual books about the game questioned conventional wisdom and changed the dialogue of the sport he never played. His findings have been largely confirmed and are now establishment thinking in a lot of major league front offices. I own 1984 through 1988 – years that overlap my own most intense love of the game.

James’ insights into the game have become so commonplace that it is hard to recall a time when the effects of a ballpark weren’t seriously understood, or when the base on balls was seen as almost out of the batter’s control. James may not have been the first to deride the importance of batting average, but his critique of it has been most enduring. These are very important books.

James was very explicit in his reasoning and very simple in his conclusions. An early insight was that since wins are determined by scoring runs, runs must be the single best predictor of how well a team will do. From here he gets to his runs created formula which predicts how many runs a player contributes to a team. How does he know it works? Because the same formula almost perfectly predicts how many runs a team scores. Few other writers have been as instrumental in affecting how I write and think about questions of fact and evidence. By asking a simple question like “If this was so, what it would look like?”, the reader is taken with him on a pursuit of knowledge about the greatest sport.

Bill James never refers to himself as a sportswriter. He knows that there is a difference between what he writes and what Thomas Boswell writes. In his farewell essay, James is downright dismissive of sports journalism, writing that “Journalism, by its nature, must appeal to the lowest common denominator…It must not assume any knowledge.” James took the opposite approach, knowingly limiting his audience by assuming a high level of knowledge for his readers. They were flattered that they could “get it” and he could develop a strong relationship with his readership. The essay continues to explain that, in his opinion, sports books fail to sell well because of the lowest common denominator approach. “And the lowest common denominator doesn’t buy books.”

Some people have observed that most of what passes for game journalism targets a similar lowest common denominator. That game magazines and websites need to assume a very small pool of common knowledge and take very few chances with their audience. They don’t want analyses of game design or socially provocative articles. The most recent Computer Games Magazine has a letter from a writer irate that there was “filth” in the magazine, i.e., an article about sex. It’s best to avoid this sort of thing and give the readers previews, interviews and the occasional retro article.

Media outlets think that gamers like to be told things they already know, which can be the only explanation for G4 putting the Lucifer of gamers, Jack Thompson, on the air. There was no chance that the audience would agree with him, so there was no need to do the serious legwork involved in making a good case against Thompson. In my opinion, no one came well out of that encounter, least of the all the usually appealing G4 host Adam Sessler. All heat, no light, but no risk of making your audience think too hard.

James’ approach was to write what he wanted to write. He was surprised that there was as big an audience for his analysis as there was, but not surprised that people were genuinely interested in whether minor league stats bore any relation to big league performance or how you could calculate a player’s chance of getting 3000 hits. He started with small runs (the first home published abstract had 75 readers) but found fellow travellers. Obviously this can’t work for a larger publication. Having established itself as the middle brow final word, Gamespot can’t change course and become serious analysis and theory for gamers; it’s too successful doing what it does. But blogs nicely fit that “home publishing” model. A thousand flowers bloom and plant their seeds where they may.

Back to the Abstracts. Like the best works in any field of analysis, the Abstracts are chock-a-block with throwaway lines that amuse and illuminate. Here a few of my favorites.

1) From a 1985 discussion of the history of the beanball – “It is inevitable, you see, that men think of the way that things were when they were young as being the natural order of things.” (This is why new games will never be as good as old games.)

2) From a 1985 essay on why Jose Cruz is as good as Dale Murphy and Jim Rice – “…baseball statistics are not pure accomplishments of men against other men….They are the accomplishments of men in combination with their circumstances.

3) From 1984 on Spike Owen – “It seems like a shame to waste such a good baseball name on somebody who is going to be out of the league in two years.” (Of course, Owen hung in there for a lot longer. James wasn’t always right.)

4) From a 1987 introduction on baseball statistics – “If a baseball statistic is meaningless to you, that is simply because you don’t know what it means.

5) From a 1986 essay on astroturf – “But the fact that it was turf which brought speed back into the game doesn’t mean we have to keep the damn stuff.

6) To a letter writer in 1986 – “Your argument is intelligent and well thought through, but there just isn’t any reason to believe that it is true.

7) The entire 1988 farewell essay is quotable, but on the explosion of stats on baseball broadcasts – “I would like to pretend that…I really have nothing to do with it. It just happened. I know better. I didn’t create this mess, but I helped.

My personal favorite would apply to blogs as well: “A book can’t survive by being innocuous. To find a niche, a book has to exert a positive attraction to somebody.


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