There was a time in the ’80s when I was absolutely obsessed with Bill James’ vision of baseball and thought his creative statistical insights into the REAL game had the ring of TRUTH. His insights and persistence have finally seeped into the official basball world, as evidenced by Michael Lewis’ new book Moneyball about Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s GM.
In Slate, James Surowiecki calls James the “unsung hero” of the book, and interviews him:
- Over the past 25 years, James’ work on player evaluation, player development, and baseball strategy – which inaugurated the body of baseball research known as sabermetrics – has revolutionized baseball analysis and overturned decades’ worth of conventional wisdom. For most of his career, though, James was the archetypical prophet in the wilderness. He had a dedicated following of readers – many of whom went on to do groundbreaking statistical work of their own. But baseball owners and general managers essentially ignored him. In the past five years, though, all this has changed. The success of the A’s, thanks in no small part to Billy Beane’s clever application of sabermetric insights, brought James new attention, and this year a major league team (the Boston Red Sox) hired him as a senior adviser. For the first time in his life, Bill James is no longer a baseball outsider.
….Reliably projecting a player’s future is central to the success of any organization that can’t – or doesn’t want to – pay market rates for already established players. What are the most important attributes to look at in projecting a player’s future? Is the future of a young hitter more predictable than the future of a young pitcher?
Yes, hitters are far more predictable than pitchers. Putting it backwards, because backwards is how you could measure it, the “unpredictability” of a pitcher’s career is 200 percent to 300 percent greater than the unpredictability of a hitter’s career.
In projecting a pitcher, by far the largest consideration is his health. There are a hundred pitchers in the minor leagues today who are going to be superstars if they don’t hurt their arms. The problem is, 98 of them are going to hurt their arms. At least 98 of them. Pitchers are unpredictable because it is very difficult to know who is going to get hurt and when they are going to get hurt.
One of your most important insights is the idea that minor league batting statistics predict major league batting performance as reliably as major league statistics do. There have been certain players – think of 1980s players like Mike Stenhouse, Doug Frobel, Brad Komminsk – who seemed as though they would be terrific hitters but never really made it in the big leagues. Did they not get enough of a shot? Are they outliers? Or is there such a thing as a Four A (too good for Triple A, not good enough for the majors) hitter?
Well, no, there is no such thing as a Four A hitter. That idea, as I understand it, envisions a “gap” between the majors and Triple A, with some players who fall into the gap. There is no such gap. In fact, there is a very significant overlap between the major leagues and Triple A. Many of the players in Triple A are better than many of the players in the majors….
Bill is still fascinating.
See Aaron Haspel’s review of Moneyball here.