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Bill James, Economist

I’ve always been interested in Sabermetrics, the application of statistics to baseball.  Bill James has been the modern pioneer in this area.  He has a tremendous level of intellectual curiousity and integrity.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was an economics major in college as most of his work is fundamentally about hypothesis testing and trying to figure out how the world works.  Statistics in baseball play a similar role to statistics in economics.  Sometimes, they are used carelessly to advance a foolish theory and sometimes they are used to illuminate something hidden.  My favorite simple statistic in baseball is on base percentage.  Drawing a walk isn’t glorious and outside of Barry Bonds, few fans have any idea simply from watching a bunch of games who walks a lot and who walks infrequently.  Yet getting on base via a walk is very valuable and underrated by the casual or even serious fan until on base percentage came along and got noticed.

Here is a very thoughtful interview with James taken from the Sons of Sam Horn web site.  A few highlights:

James T:  What’s your opinion of the comportment of fans today as compared to throughout baseball history?

Bill James:  Well, what do I know about manners?   I’m pretty much an unreformed lout, myself.   
        There were a couple of books published in the late 90s, one by
Robert Bork and one by a prissy woman named Gertrude something,
bitching and moaning about the degeneration of civility in our culture.
I read the books, but the thesis doesn’t ring true to me. These books
create the impression that our culture is in rapid decay. But they
create that impression by (a) selective editing of the facts—for
example, pointing to “exploding” crime rates, when in fact crime rates
have declined throughout most of the last century, were declining at
the time the books were published and are declining now—and (b) simply
ignoring most of the ways in which things are getting better. Forty
years ago, tolerance for racism and violence was at levels it is hard
to imagine today. Thirty years ago, comedians made jokes about rape.
Twenty years ago, you went to a baseball game, people would drink
themselves silly and fights would break out all over the park.
        At the same time, we have problems now that we didn’t have 30
years ago. Public vulgarity is rampant; that’s not a good thing,
because for one thing it takes all the fun out of private vulgarity. In
some ways people are ruder and less considerate than they used to be, I
think. I don’t know how to sum up the gains and the losses, honestly,
but I’m an optimist by nature. Things always seem better to me.


James T: I remember announcers saying, for years, that in Tiger Stadium
the Tigers were letting the infield grass grow very high.  Can teams
really do that with impunity, create hay fields to protect their
groundball staffs?

Bill James: I think so. . .there may be some MLB policy regulating the
length of grass, but I’m not aware of it. Honestly, major league
baseball—and all sports—would be far better off if they would permit
teams to do more to make one park distinctive from another—even so far
as making the bases 85 feet apart in one park and 95 in another.
Standardization is an evil idea. Let’s pound everybody flat, so that
nobody has any unfair advantage. Diversity enriches us, almost without
exception. Who would want to live in a world in which all women looked
the same, or all restaurants were the same, or all TV shows used the
same format?
        People forget that into the 1960s, NBA basketball courts were
not all the same size–and the NBA would be a far better game today if
they had never standardized the courts. What has happened to the NBA
is, the players have gotten too large for the court. If they hadn’t
standardized the courts, they would have eventually noticed that a
larger court makes a better game—a more open, active game. And the same
in baseball. We would have a better game, ultimately, if the teams were
more free to experiment with different options.
        The only reason baseball didn’t standardize its park
dimensions, honestly, is that at the time that standardization was a
dominant idea, they just couldn’t. Because of Fenway and a few other
parks, baseball couldn’t standardize its field dimensions in the
1960s—and thus dodged a mistake that they would otherwise quite
certainly have made.
         Standardization destroys the ability to adapt. Take the high
mounds of the 1960s. We “standardized” that by enforcing the rules, and
I’m in favor of enforcing the rules, but suppose that the rules allowed
some reasonable variation in the height of the pitching mound? What
would have happened then would have been that, in the mid-1990s, when
the hitting numbers began to explode, teams would have begun to push
their pitching mounds up higher in order to offset the hitting
explosion. The game would have adapted naturally to prevent the home
run hitters from entirely having their own way. Standardization leads
to rigidity, and rigidity causes things to break.


James T:  Does your general approach to these issues come from your economics training in college?

Bill James: My economics training was very useful, yes. It had
tremendous impact on me, but I have difficulty explaining how.
        Economics is fundamentally concerned with value—what is the
value of a wingding, what is the value of a plate of chicken fingers,
what is the value to society of clean air? And my work is fundamentally
concerned with value—what is the value of defense as opposed to the
value of offense, what is the value of a walk as opposed to a hit, what
is the value of a 23-year-old star as opposed to the value of a 28-year
player of the same caliber? So the ways of thinking about problems are
often very much the same.

James T: Was the way of thinking taught to you in your KU economics
courses so different from the way you thought entering school?

Bill James: Long before I entered college, I was thinking about the
problems that I still think about today. What the economists did was to
show me new options for working through those problems. You understand
that these are numbers pulled out of the air, but I might say that, if
I was worrying about quantifying the impact of first base defense, then
before I went to college I might have been able to figure out five ways
to think about the problem, and after I went to college I might have
been able to figure out 105 ways to think about the problem. Of those
other 100 ways to think about the problem, maybe 20 were shown to me by
statistics or math professors, and maybe 15 were shown to me by
psychologists, and maybe 15 were shown to me by historians, but
probably 50 were explained to me by economists. So. . .yes, my way of
thinking about the problems was very, very different after I finished
school than before I started it, point a, and, point b, the economics
classes had a great deal to do with that.