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Spring Training

Still batting around those 'Abstract' ideas

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / March 12, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Bill James can, and will, tell you lots of things about baseball that you don't know. That it doesn't pay, for example, for the Tampa Bay Rays to shift their defense against David Ortiz so that it looks like "a town meeting in right field." That Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez hit just one ground-ball single through the right side all last season. Or that the White Sox had the worst record in the major leagues (13-44) in games in which they didn't hit a home run.

He'll tell you Brad Hawpe of the Rockies was the majors' best clutch hitter last season, that Matt Cain of the Giants may have been the game's unluckiest pitcher, and that Vladimir Guerrero of the Angels, the

king of the bad-ball hitters, swung at 604 pitches out of the strike zone last season, almost double the number of nonstrikes he swung at in 2005.

But ask James what impact he has had on the Red Sox, and he'll answer with a riddle.

"The things Jason Varitek does other than to hit are very difficult to measure," James said. "The impact of the things that I do are like seven generations further removed from the field than the things Jason does. It's like taking a bucket of water from the sea and asking, 'What was the impact of this bucket of water?' "

His response makes sense, taken in the context of his short-lived experience as a player. James says that when he was on his high school baseball team in Mayetta, Kan., his coach explained the role of each player on the team, but neglected to mention James, who was left to ask what he was supposed to do.

"He said, 'As long as you behave yourself, you can sit on the bench,' " James said dryly. "That was my role. That was as much as I was hoping for."

But if that's as far as it went, Bill James, of course, wouldn't be in the big leagues. Morley Safer wouldn't be here with a "60 Minutes" crew to talk to him, Time magazine would not have placed him on its list of the 100 most influential Americans, the Kansas Baseball Hall of Fame would not have made space for him. And Red Sox owner John W. Henry would not have sought him out on the field after the Sox won the World Series in 2004, poked him repeatedly in the chest, and said, "You're a world champion."

Audience interaction
James, who has held the title of senior adviser/baseball operations for the Sox going on six years, remains a singular voice in the game, the man who spawned an entire generation of statistical analysts playing a prominent role in player evaluations. His system of analysis came to be known as sabermetrics, defined by his biographer, Scott Gray, as "the search for new knowledge about baseball; the systematic study of baseball questions."

"If you believe that a select few non-players belong in the Hall of Fame, then Bill James certainly belongs," said Jed Hoyer, the Sox assistant general manager. "The last 25 years of baseball would look a lot different if Bill James had not come around. His fingerprints are all over today's game."

And for the legion of fans who grew up reading James's "Baseball Abstracts," in which he turned the sport on its head with the inventive ways he challenged long-held beliefs, the most exciting news is that the 58-year-old James, whose flair extends to words as much as numbers, is writing again. "The Bill James Gold Mine 2008," a collection of essays peppered with numbers you can't find anywhere else, recently has been published, and James also has started his own website (billjamesonline.net).

"When I started writing in the '70s," said James, "it was my notion that I would have a very active interaction with my audience. It's a lot easier to do that now, which is why I decided to go back to that idea where I and readers could virtually congregate and discuss things we've been developing the last two or three years.

"For several years when I started to do this a long, long time ago, huge numbers of people would tell me there was no kind of market for this. I always knew they were wrong, that there were an economic number of people who were interested in the subject.

"I derive benefits every day in 2008 from that commitment I made in 1977, that those people were wrong. My market is simply the intersection of baseball fans with people who like to think about problems in a certain way."

James said he spends most of his time with the Red Sox dealing with practical questions ("We've got a player we're trying to move, these are the available players we're trying to move him for."). James participates in the process of helping general manager Theo Epstein assign a value to every player in the game, but it is a mistake, he said, to place him at the vortex of decision-making.

"I don't make any decisions," he said. "Theo makes decisions. Larry [Lucchino] makes decisions. John Henry makes decisions. I just have opinions. If they ask me for opinions, I give them. They're getting opinions from other people, too."

Yes, he offered an opinion during the Johan Santana trade talks, though he won't disclose which side of the argument he came down on.

"Santana is a great pitcher," he said. "People are concerned about whether he will remain a great pitcher. There's every indication he will.

"On the other hand, it's absolutely possible to overpay for a great player. Sometimes people imagine that if you are a well-off organization, you can buy whoever you want, but the reality is if you're a well-off organization, it's still important to spend each dollar as wisely as you can spend it. And there is a point at which for Johan Santana, as well as anyone else, that it's no longer advisable to pay."

Research philosophy
When he is not involved in the more pragmatic aspects of his job, James said he spends his time, like the characters in the IBM ad, "ideating."

"I don't know if it's much use for the Red Sox or anyone else," he says.

But the fun is in the ideating. James came up with what he calls the Dave Kingman Award, named after the brooding one-dimensional slugger of the '70s and '80s and given to the player who best exemplifies the idea of hitting home runs without doing anything else as a hitter. The Kingman Award winner in 2007 was Reds catcher Dave Ross. "Batting just 311 times," James writes, "Ross struck out 92 times, dropped 17 bombs, but averaged just .203 with no triples or stolen bases, thus creating only 27 runs."

Then there's the "Herbie," a system James created to rank pitchers by how many home runs and walks they gave up. "The main things that a pitcher really gives up are home runs and walks," he writes. "The rest of it depends on the defense, right? I call it Herbie for 'HR BB.' The formula was walks plus hit batsmen plus 4 times home runs per nine innings. This is SUCH a simple concept that somebody must have done this before."

For pitchers who threw at least 180 innings in a season from 1950 to 2006, Greg Maddux had the four best Herbie scores. "Herbie is just a fun thing to play around with," James writes, but he adds: "You can never be sure what is a serious sabermetric tool and what is just something to mess around with, because many times the things you think you're messing around with turn out to be extremely useful when you're studying something."

The title of the first essay in James's new book is "I Dunno." He agrees that is a reasonable way to describe his approach.

"All research," he says, "begins with ignorance. The ability to focus on what it is that you do not know is critical to doing research. I'm absolutely convinced that none of us understands the world.

"I'm not a person that the world irritates, to quote Bill Buckley, but you turn on the radio and in any debate, you've got people who are convinced they know. Liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims, people who think Terry Francona is a genius, those that think he's an idiot. They're all convinced they've got this figured out.

"None of them has it figured out. We do not understand the world; the world is billions of times more complicated than our minds.

"You can make a useful contribution to a discussion if you can figure out specifically what it is you don't understand and try to work on it. If you try to start from the other end - 'I've got the world figured out and I'm going to explain it to everybody' - maybe there are a lot of people who succeed in doing that, but it doesn't work for me."

Gordon Edes can be reached at edes@globe.com

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