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Friday, March 19, 2004

Bill James Interview

One of the minor tragedies of recent years has been the silencing of Bill James' most excellent pen by the Boston Red Sox. Now that they have him all to themselves, his publishing has, to my knowledge, all but ceased. But that doesn't prevent him from giving an interview to Ian Browne. Even off-the-cuff, James has a way of tweaking your expectations:
What stats does James first look at when he evaluates players?

"Well, I think the more critical question is what do you look at second. I think the things I look at first are the same things everybody else does. Won-loss record and ERA for a pitcher and home runs, RBIs and batting average for a batter," said James. "Those are the first things you see and the first things you look at. The real question is what do you look at second."

Well, of course. And it's no surprise that he looks at the difference between OBP and average for hitters, and K/BB for pitchers. But those are things I now look at first, thanks to the work of Voros McCracken. A lot of ERA is really luck.

It's ironic to me that James is principally known as some kind of propellerhead über-accountant, when he's -- not incidentally -- one of the best writers about baseball since John Updike. DePodesta, in his infamous white paper, says he's interested in always asking "the naïve question". But Harvard damaged him materially. Listen to the unsonorous way he closes:

Thomas Kuhn wrote, "the proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research."
That clumsy, larded bit was worthy of quoting? Uh, Paul... about that book deal... Anyway, James, ever the prose stylist, summarizes his interview this way:
"There's a universe of unknowns and a little cigar box of information," James said. "We're so far away from reaching the end of the task that it's laughable. We don't know anything, really."
Night and day, really, isn't it? No management duckspeak for the MBAs in the audience -- concrete and comprehensible, with awe for the immense task before him thrown in for free. We miss you, Bill.

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