The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball by Scott Gray

A few chapters into this book, I noticed that I was a bit disappointed. I quickly realized the problem – as a big fan of Bill James, I had simply built up too much internal hype. Additionally, I probably had more familiarity with the life of Bill James than the typical reader. I took a step back and took a slightly different approach when reading the rest of the book – and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Many of you are probably clueless as to who the heck Bill James is. Bill James is the father of sabermetrics. There you go – you have your answer.

OK, OK. Let’s go a bit deeper into Bill James and sabermetrics.

The story really begins with the history of how baseball teams evaluate talent. For decades, scouts (using the “eyeball test” for a decent portion of their analysis) have been a cornerstone of talent evaluation, aided by historical stats such as batting average (for hitters) and earned run average (for pitchers).

While working as a security guard at the Stokely Van Camp plant (guarding the Pork ‘n Beans) James began writing a series of essays that took a closer look at various aspects of baseball. Sometimes James would take viewpoints that were contrary to prevailing theories; other times he would focus on things that simply hadn’t been studied in any great detail before. James sold a few copies of his first book. Writer Daniel Okrent read a copy and helped push James toward the mainstream. Today, many in the baseball establishment bristle at his name, but James has a large legion of followers. Other writers have followed in his footsteps, and today sabermetrics is well respected in many baseball clubhouses.

James’ analysis exposed some of the traditional statistics as being poor judges of a player’s talent, or of the player’s value to the team. Fielding percentage had long been used to determine the defensive value of a player. However, a player’s range can be considerably more important, as a player with good range can take away a lot of hits – and hit minimization is the true defensive goal in baseball. James also showed that, many times, a player who steals a lot of bases can be counter-productive – if he gets caught a lot.

James also point out the importance on context with statistics. A ballpark can have a considerable impact on a player’s statistics. James also developed major league equivalent, a formula for taking a minor league player’s statistics, adjusting for park factors and level of competition, and determining what the player could have accomplished in the major leagues.

One of the more interesting concepts of James’ work is the “relief ace”. It is his belief than many teams make inefficient use of their best relief pitcher by using him to close out games in the 9th innings. James would prefer that teams use their best reliever (which he refers to as a “relief ace”) a bit earlier, in a critical point in the game. He notes that each run saved in a tie game has eight times the impact of a run saved in a game with a three run game. In spite of this, many teams keep their closer on the bench in the 7th inning of a tie game, but bring him into the 9th inning of the next game with a three run lead in order to close the game. The relief ace concept makes a lot of sense to me – but it doesn’t seem to be taking hold in Major League Baseball.

This book tells us more about Bill James – showing us the living, breathing human being behind the formulae – with anecdotes from family life, college, the army (as a college educated dog handler), and the Stokely plant. Interestingly, it also shows us that James isn’t a guy who believes that numbers are the complete solution. Instead, the gist of his philosophy seem to be in keeping an open mind to new ideas, as well as taking a fresh look at old ideas to determine if they are still relevant today (if, indeed, they were ever relevant).

The appendix has some of James’ research (scratching the surface a bit), and Gray mentions several of James’ books during the course of this book. This book won’t make you an expert sabermetrician, but it will give you a good understanding of the origins of sabermetrics. The book is essentially one part Bill James biography and one part sabermetrics primer. The book has a good flow and is an easy read.

Scott Gray
The Mind of Bill James