Bill James

This article is about Bill James, the writer about baseball and sabermetrics. For other individuals with the same name, see below.


Bill James (b. 1949) is possibly the most influential baseball writer in the sport's history. Since 1977, James has written over two dozen books devoted to baseball history and statistics. His approach, which he termed sabermetrics, attempts to use scientific data collection and interpretation methods to explain why teams win and lose.

Biography

The Bill James Baseball Abstract

James, an aspiring writer and obsessive fan, began writing baseball articles after leaving the United States Army in his mid-twenties. Unlike most writers, his pieces didn't re-enact games in epic terms, or offer insights gleaned from interviews with players. A typical James piece posed a question (e.g., "Which pitchers and catchers allow runners to steal the most bases?") and then presented data and statistics that answered the question in his understated prose style.

Editors considered James's pieces so unusual that few believed them suitable for their readers. In an effort to reach a wider audience, James self-published an annual he titled the Bill James Baseball Abstract in 1977. The first edition presented 80 pages of in-depth statistics compiled from James's study of box scores from the preceding season.

Over the next three years, James's work began to win respect. New editions added essays on teams and players, written in increasingly lively and engaging prose. By 1982, sales had increased tenfold, and a media conglomerate agreed to publish and distribute future editions. These books made the bestseller lists.

While writers had published books about statistics before (most notably Earnshaw Cook's Percentage Baseball, in the 1960s), none had ever reached a mass audience. Attempts to imitate James' work spawned a flood of books and articles that continue to this day.

In 1988, James ceased writing the Abstract, citing workload-related burnout and concern about the volume of statistics on the market. He has continued to publish hardcover books about baseball history, which have sold well and received admiring reviews. (The best are the two editions of The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.)

On two occasions, James has published a series of new annuals; neither duplicated the impact of his earlier work. The Baseball Book was a loosely-organized collection of commentary, profiles, historical articles and occasional pieces of research. The Player Ratings Book offered statistics and 50-word profiles aimed at the fantasy baseball enthusiast.

STATS, Inc.

In an essay published in the 1984 Abstract, James vented his frustration about Major League Baseball's refusal to publish play-by-play accounts of every game. James proposed the creation of a network of fans that would work together to collect and distribute this information.

While the resulting non-profit organization never functioned smoothly, it worked well enough to collect accounts of every game from 1984 through 1991. James's publisher agreed to distribute two annuals of essays and data - the 1987 and 1988 editions of Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Statbook (though only the first features writing by James).

The organization was eventually disbanded, but many of its members went on to form for-profit companies with similar goals and structure. STATS, Inc, the company James joined, provided data and analysis to every major media outlet before being acquired by Fox Sports in 2001.

Acceptance in Mainstream Baseball

For most of his career, James's ideas have either been ignored or rejected by professional baseball teams. James' sabermetrics rejects much of the "conventional wisdom" that has been passed down by players, executives and writers over decades. Most teams, managers and players prefer to continue to follow maxims that were developed decades ago.

In recent years, James's ideas have begun to gain official acceptance. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane began applying sabermetric principles to running his low-budget team in the late 1990s, to great effect (as chronicled in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball), and sabermetricians have penetrated other organizations since then.

In 2003, James was hired by a former reader - John Henry, the new owner of the Boston Red Sox. The move generated some controversy, but after 25 years James had finally gained an official position within Major League Baseball. New Red Sox GM Theo Epstein also turned out to have a sabermetric bent.

One point of controversy was in handling the Red Sox' relief pitching. James had previously published several analyses of the use of the "closer" in baseball, and had concluded that the traditional use of the closer both overrated the abilities of that individual, and used him in suboptimal circumstances. Reportedly, James influenced a reorganization of the Boston bullpen, with several moderately talented relievers and no clear closer. When Boston lost a number of games due to bullpen failures, they were forced to acquire a traditional closer (Byung-Hyun Kim) in order to address the issue. Many writers considered this to be a rejection of James' ideas, and the signing of ace reliever Keith Foulke following the season further suggests this. Others, however, argue that the Boston pen was simply not very talented and that the outcome doesn't necessarily undermine James' arguments.

Despite this, James is still (late 2003) employed by the Red Sox, having published two new sabermetric books in the preceding 3 years.

Bibliography


Two 1910s pitchers also shared the Bill James name, and both were part of famous World Series teams. As they pitched at around the same time, both required nicknames to be told apart:

Big Bill James was an American League pitcher for several second division teams and was one of the clean members on the 1919 Chicago White Sox which was made famous by the Black Sox scandal, as several members of the team allegedly threw the World Series.

Seattle Bill James pitched mostly in the National League, and in his only full season, went 26-7 on the 1914 Boston Braves championship team. This team is known as the "Miracle Braves" because they made a dramatic comeback from last place in midseason to win the pennant. James was 2-0 in the World Series as the Braves recorded the first sweep in Series history.


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