Under review: Solid Fool’s Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom by Bill James (2011, ACTA Publications, 224 pages)
Whenever I think of Bill James I think of the following Margaret Mead quote, which probably appeared on the walls of half my high school classrooms, the words arranged on a poster in front of a picture of a rising sun or a person summiting a mountain or something like that: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
While Mead was probably talking about something quite noble, like civil rights or brokering peace amongst warring nations, this quote applies so well to Bill James too—because James has entirely transformed the world of professional baseball with his thoughtful, committed work from his home office in suburban Kansas. More or less the entire statistical (or “sabermetric”) revolution in baseball—encapsulated for popular consumption as well as one could hope in the 2011 movie Moneyball—can be traced back to the theories and work that James produced from his home without any official access or credentials. What’s more, James was arguably just as revolutionary as an early self-publisher and nonfiction stylist.
James is a busy man these days, having earned both access and credentials since his days as a hand-binding self-publisher. As the Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox since 2003, it’s safe to assume that James has exerted a profound influence on each of Boston’s three World Series titles (earned in 2004, 2007, and 2013), the most by any baseball team in the 21st century. James has also figured a way to earn some additional income via his hobby of reading true crime books, publishing the massive Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence in 2011.
And somehow he also continues to find time to write and reflect on baseball for his website billjamesonline.com, analysis that is only accessible through a paywall. Fool’s Gold is a collection of the best of these online essays—and I expect that even this writing doesn’t reveal James’ most valuable insights and observations, which are of course kept as proprietary secrets by the Red Sox.
There remains a staunch contingent of decidedly “old-school” baseball players, managers, and pundits who—still—dismiss James’ work as numerical nonsense, and in Fool’s Gold James is the first to admit his lack of rigorous statistical knowledge:
I am not well trained in statistical methods. I think by analogy and work by intuition, with a sort of bumper-sticker understanding of scientific methods.
In another essay, James gives a description of what his role is and isn’t:
I have been identified countless times as a statistician, for reasons that I understand, but I have never, ever been self-identified as a statistician. […] I have always chosen to call myself a writer because, well, hell, anybody can call himself a writer.
James defines his decades-long oeuvre of baseball writing as a quest to “find questions about baseball that have objective answers.” James writes about statistics so much only because these sorts of objective answers tend to involve statistics, not because James loves statistics for the sake of statistics. He goes on:
The central question of analytical research in baseball is “why do teams win?” What are the actual characteristics of winning teams? The rest of baseball analysis consists mostly of breaking that question down into a thousand smaller questions.
James’ primary contributions to the game—not to mention the reason that the Red Sox have cut him a paycheck for a decade-plus and counting—are indeed statistical in nature, whether James is illuminating which statistics to value or ignore, or whether he is inventing entirely new statistics on his own. But you’ll notice that none of these excerpts so much as include a single number. While there are pages of Fool’s Gold that are awash in charts and stuffed with data, there are just as many pages that are not, that only contain these zen-like meta-reflections on the game of baseball.
This is an intentional feature of James’ writing. His greatest strength, as a writer, is his significant prowess as an explainer. James habitually distills the layered formulas behind a complex statistic into explanations that reflexively appeal to our common intuitions as baseball fans and armchair strategists.
And in doing so, in addition to thinking about baseball in ways that would ultimately prove to have tantamount value for real-life baseball teams, James inadvertently created a new genre of writing for his readers. When James began writing, in the seventies, the best and most popular sportswriting relied on creating a sepia-toned, masculine mythos that placed the rugged personalities of sports on a practically idolatrous pedestal. James—via his habits of analogy and intuition, quoted above—only wrote about the strategies involved in baseball, and in a tone that suggested an informal chat more than reverential worship.
This style includes a series of gleeful tangents that creates a lighthearted counterbalance to the potentially imposing raw data at the heart of each piece. See James’ lengthy screed on stoplight cameras, or his idea for an “Inches Per Hour” rain tracking system, or perhaps this aside about one of the losingest teams in baseball history: “…[T]hey now entered a period of failure so dark that they considered farts to be echo location. Sorry.”
James began his publishing career in 1977, when he stuffed his own envelopes with his own self-printed copies of the Baseball Abstract, an annual collection of essays reviewing the year in baseball, a project that he would continue for more than a decade. While James stopped these annual publications—even though they were eventually distributed by a proper publisher—the format of an annual review is stronger than ever in today’s sports-publishing world. Publications like Baseball Prospectus, Hockey Prospectus, and Football Outsiders all produce annual volumes that are both invaluable to fans of those sports, and sprinkled with wry witticisms that clearly bear James’ influence.
An increasing number of analysts have also followed James’ career path of hobbyist to professional writer to professional insider. John Hollinger’s stats-saturated basketball columns for ESPN demonstrated such original thinking that he is today the Vice President of Basketball Operations with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. Baseball Prospectus has been in particular a prolific pipeline of writers who join major league teams, with three former columnists—Mike Fast, Kevin Goldstein, and Colin Wyers—working for the Houston Astros alone.
So whether you’re watching baseball from inside a team’s office or from the bleachers, or even if you never watch baseball at all, remember that what you’re seeing is a game molded by the hands of Bill James, a writer—one of those thoughtful, committed citizens who have the power to change the world.