The Royals aren't putting on much of a show for their guest, dropping the first game and trailing in the second. A rain delay between the two has thinned the already sparse weekday crowd.
After almost eight hours of ballpark beers, many of the rooters near the visiting team's dugout are alarmingly inebriated. Most of them have taken to repeatedly yelling the name of the Indians' Coco Crisp. Younger fans, following their example, swarm the barrier between the stands and the field every other half-inning, serenading the incoming outfielder with cries of "Mr. Crisp! Mr. Crisp!"
James was initially amused by Crisp, but he's moved on to other name games.
In the second inning of the first game, James added Crisp and teammate Milton Bradley to his running list of corporate-friendly monikers, where they joined former Pittsburgh Pirate R.J. Reynolds.
This triggered a spin-off discussion about players who use initials, including current Royal D.J. Carasco and former KC shortstop U.L. Washington.
After exhausting that topic, James moved on to assigning descriptive acronyms to players' surnames. Joe Randa: "Runs average, nice defensive asset." Jason Grimsley, who always seems to end up with a losing record: "Good reliever in many situations, loses every year." Sean Lowe gets the windup-descriptive "Leads off with elbow." Raul Ibañez: "Individual batting average never establishes zip."
Batting average, long considered the most important indicator of a baseball player's offensive prowess, means little unless it's combined with on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In 2003, that's common knowledge. But 26 years ago, when James published the first edition of his esoteric little Baseball Abstract, the theory was thrillingly blasphemous. It wasn't just controversial; it was incontrovertible. James was puzzled when baseball insiders didn't immediately rush to embrace his findings.
"I thought that if I proved convincingly that X was a stupid thing to do, that people would stop doing X," he says. "I was wrong. People would just keep saying X."
This frustration would build over twelve more years and twelve more Abstracts, finally reaching its peak in James' final installment in 1988. In an essay titled "Breakin' the Wand," he explained all of the reasons why he wasn't going to publish any more Abstracts. Fans were stupid, teams were stupider, and everyone was perverting the meaning of his numbers.
"It's a wonderful thing to know that you are right and the world is wrong," he wrote.
Lately, though, the world has started to come around. James' work has changed the way baseball is discussed, written about, managed and played. He has written sixteen books, including several best sellers. Some of his former assistants have become respected baseball experts, and some of his most savvy followers now run major league teams.
Last November, after years of acting as baseball's most brilliant outsider, James landed a front-office job with a major league team -- but not his beloved Royals. James is now the senior baseball operations advisor to the Boston Red Sox, despite the fact that he still lives in Kansas -- just an hour's drive from the large, yellow-block school where he first dared to tell a baseball team it was acting inefficiently.
The James family's roots in Kansas stretch back several generations. The family cemetery was the first in Jackson County, Kansas, where the earliest graves are marked from the 1830s. "It's likely that [the earliest] marker was put there to commemorate someone who had died years earlier in another place," James says, demonstrating his willingness to question even evidence etched in stone. "Our general understanding is that my family came here from Kentucky to get out of the way of the Civil War."
James grew up in Mayetta, Kansas, 14 miles north of Topeka, current population 312. He lived two blocks from the schoolhouse, where he first made enemies using numbers. When he was in sixth grade, he decided, without prompting or encouragement from his teachers, to keep statistics for his grade school's softball team. After six games, he discovered that the freakishly large eighth-grader who hit cleanup and pitched was batting a pitiful .143, just 3 hits in 21 at bats. "As I recall," James says now, "he did not appreciate receiving this information."
For James, a passion for the game and a love for the numbers that serve as its language flourished simultaneously. "I loved to play baseball, but I had no ability," he recalls. "The playing came first, then the fan's perception. I was playing for about three years before I had any real understanding that there were people who did this really well for money."
In the spring of 1960, Post Cereal began printing baseball cards on the back of its boxes of Alpha-bits, Crispy Critters, Rice Krinkles and Sugar-Coated Corn Flakes. James was instantly captivated. An obsessive fan of the game in general and the Kansas City A's in particular, James followed his hometown team closely. Then, in October 1967, not long after he had moved to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas, the A's left for Oakland.
"That created a certain emotional distance between myself and my team," James says. "I transferred my interest in baseball from a team to the game itself and more or less misused my education to learn to analyze baseball.... Ordinary fandom diverged into analytical craziness."
James, majoring in English and economics, graduated from KU in 1971, adding an education degree in 1974. "I do not say this with pride, but my obsession with baseball -- not baseball statistics but baseball -- always took precedence over my education," he says.
Then he languished at a number of odd jobs. He taught classes at the Kansas State Prison in Lansing, worked as a boiler attendant, clerked at a 7-11, dropped fries at a fast-food joint and finally ended up as the night watchman at a Stokely Van Camp cannery.
Between graveyard shifts, James pondered atypical baseball quandaries, such as whether more fans came to ballparks on the nights that star pitchers started. Using the resources available -- which at the time were mostly newspaper box scores -- James assembled thorough answers to questions no one was asking.
In 1977, James published his findings -- photocopying and stapling them into a slim, 68-page volume he called Baseball Abstract. It's not the riveting read that later editions would become; large stretches of statistics dwarfed his explanatory paragraphs. But even in small doses, James displayed an infectious disdain for baseball's sacred numbers.
"The difference between a .275 hitter and a .300 hitter is one hit every two weeks," he wrote. It's an effective attack on the validity of batting average as an absolute indicator of offensive ability, but James used it in an extended anecdote that pointed out the folly of fielding statistics. He established that the difference between good and average fielders, like the difference between good and average hitters, was "simply not visible" and that the error -- the statistic used to rate defensive players -- was a ridiculous "record of opinions." So he concocted the "range factor," which measured the number of successful plays a fielder made in each game. The fielding essay cemented the formula for James' best work: a convincing indictment of current measures followed by a well-reasoned proposal for a radical overhaul, with intriguing, off-topic asides to reward those who were willing to read between the lines.
James placed a 1-inch ad for his initial Abstract in The Sporting News and devised a title long enough to fill the space: The book's full name became 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can't Find Anywhere Else. Seventy-five people were intrigued enough to send a check to his Lawrence address. The 1978 installment, titled The 2nd Annual Edition of Baseball's Most Informative and Imaginative Review, sold 250 copies. By 1979, writing the Abstract had become his full-time job.
One of James' first disciples was Sports Illustrated writer Dan Okrent, who bought a 1977 Abstract and pitched a story about James to his publication. The feature died in the fact-checking phase when James' assertions, though backed by hard evidence, were red-penned one by one. A year later, the piece was resurrected, and James' exposure increased exponentially. James had never tried to sell his writing to a publisher, but in 1982 a representative from Ballantine Books approached him about buying the Baseball Abstract. He consented, and the book became a best seller.
This was a mixed blessing. James' fanbase, once small but intellectually ambitious, swelled to include novices and fantasy-baseball players who snatched up the Abstract each year to prepare for their simulated seasons. Both groups diluted the level of discourse. At the same time, the people who ran major league teams finally noticed his work. But instead of contacting him with job offers, they fumed about his findings.
Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson called him "a little fat guy with a beard who knows nothing about nothing." Sportswriters damned him with titles he found even less flattering. Referring to Anderson's comment in his Historical Baseball Abstract (a thoroughly revised version of which came out this spring), James deadpanned that "it sure beats being described as the guru of baseball statistics." Ever the stickler for detail, he also pointed out that Anderson was 7 inches shorter than he.
But the personal tone and shoddy content of some of the criticism rattled James. In the 1982 Abstract, the fed-up writer lashed out at opponents of his range factor, brutally dissecting complaint letters.
"Most of [the letters] are useful mostly to illustrate what a horrible intellectual stew men can serve up and swallow when they decide not to let careful analysis intrude of their prejudices," he wrote. "They dress up their prejudices with asinine analogies and irrelevant objections and then expect me to ignore these things so that we can have a dialogue as equals. And that is why I am being so harsh; I am just tired. I am tired of the intellectual standards of the field being what they are."
James was also tired of teams' maddening inability to embrace approaches that would increase their winning percentages. He began blasting the general managers he considered willfully incompetent.
"If the people who run the Cleveland Indians were in charge of foreign policy, I'd enroll in night school and start studying Slavic languages," he wrote in the 1984 Abstract. "There is something sad, something almost sinister about the ineptitude that guides the Minnesota Twins," he wrote in 1987.
He also criticized individual players and managers. But this, too, usually failed to start a significant discourse.
"I don't write to them, so I don't anticipate responses," James says now. "I rarely offer direct suggestions. If my studies are reported to managers, it is by some third party and I rarely hear any feedback. This might seem counterintuitive, but in baseball the professionals follow the fans. The fans and the media establish what people believe; the professionals follow. So, why do you worry about where the back end of the train is?"
It's hard to tell what James worries about. John Sickels, a baseball analyst who recently moved from writing the Minor League Scouting Notebook for STATS Inc. to self-publishing his own Baseball Prospect Book, worked as James' assistant from 1989 to 1993. He says it took some time before he was able to read James' emotions.
"As verbal as he is in a writing sense, he's not the most verbal person in terms of oral presentation," Sickels says. "He's a very generous and kind person, but he can also be gruff, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly. You have to be on your toes. If you say or do something that's intellectually sloppy, he'll call you on it."
For example, James is a baseball writer, not a statistician. The correct, James-coined term for an analyst of baseball statistics is sabermetrician. That's acceptable, but baseball writer is preferred. He has influenced and worked with a number of practicing statisticians, and his books contain an intimidating deluge of numbers, but he's not a statistician.
"A statistician is a person who maintains statistics," he says. "I have never done this and, in fact, I'm notoriously incompetent at it."
Nor is he a prognosticator. In fact, one of his hopes with the Abstract was to elevate the wild guessing that goes on in the glossy baseball preview magazines that appear on bookstore shelves each spring. "They're still just speculation and bullshit," he says. "In that respect, the Abstract was a total failure." It's only natural to expect that James, who, given a day, can answer even the most obscure baseball query, could predict a team's trends. Natural, and wrong.
"I am very poor at foretelling the future," he admits. "The worst question I have ever been asked by a reputable journalist -- I was asked this by Ted Koppel on Nightline in 1983 -- is, 'What surprises do you expect to see in the World Series?' Let's see, Ted, what surprises do I expect? How does that work?
"It's always surprising how many people confuse knowledge and predictability," he continues. "I used to say that weathermen and sportswriters are the only people who are expected to know what's going to happen next, but the explosion of television 'experts' has led to the popularity of people who are demonstrably unable to predict the future in a wide variety of fields."
Though he's not always thrilled with the questions, James has never declined an interview request, and he has always answered his fan mail. In fact, his willingness to respond to readers contributed significantly to the rapid growth of the Abstract readership. Fans discovered someone to whom they could pose their long-festering baseball questions. But questions came riddled with incorrect assumptions and blatant misinterpretations, which drove James crazy. He typically responded with caustic intelligence.
Cathartic as such "Dear Jackass" letters might have been, though, James never courted confrontation. In 1988's Abstract, he expressed frustration at the caliber of correspondence he had been receiving. "I hate to say it and I hope you're not one of them, but I am encountering more and more of my own readers that I don't even like, nitwits who glom onto something superficial in the book and misunderstand its underlying message."
With that, James stopped publishing the Abstract. But he didn't stop writing. In 1990, he introduced The Baseball Book, which focused on player profiles. With its uncharacteristic cover-teaser subtitle "How the Hall of Fame really works," 1994's Politics of Glory was his first full-length analysis of an institution. A Guide to Baseball Managers followed in 1997, and 2002's Win Shares exhaustively introduced a measure of player performance. The antidote to the dizzying numerical parade of Win Shares -- and, perhaps, the definitive proof that James is a great writer regardless of genre -- is 1989's This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones, a virtually stat-free collection of essays culled from the Abstracts (many of which have been long out of print).
Bones' centerpiece is the eighty-page "History of Being a Kansas City Baseball Fan," which ranges from his unconditional support of the unimaginably awful A's teams he followed as a child to the 1985 Royals, to whom he pays tribute with game-by-game mini-essays on that year's World Series. But the most compelling passages might be the ones that digress from the game entirely.
"By some bizarre trick of fate, this area has been chosen in the nation's consciousness to represent Nowhere -- an ugly, barren, empty square space from which people come but do not return," he writes. "In movies, people who come from nowhere come from Kansas. Through carelessness, callousness, indifference to the truth, these people adopt, repeat and perpetuate a set of images about small-time life that is nothing but a stack of filthy lies.
"Because of this treatment," he continues, "Kansas City is somewhat of a self-conscious city. This is to put it mildly. They are anxious to see how they will be reflected in the press attention. They are so anxious about this that they make fools of themselves. It is acutely embarrassing at times; visiting press people are shanghaied into television interviews to reveal their feelings about being in Kansas City.... The city's image would improve a lot if they would just accept themselves for what they are, and stop handing out malarkey about how many miles of boulevard they have."
Willing to debate any topic related even tangentially to baseball, James has described himself in print as an "argumentative cuss," but he shows little interest in marketing himself that way. Subtitles such as "The greatest teams of all time" and "A complete guide to the best, worst and most memorable players to ever grace the major leagues" might liven up his front covers -- if they didn't already adorn Baseball Dynasties and Big Book of Baseball Lineups, two books from former James assistant and current ESPN columnist Rob Neyer.
"Those subtitles were invented by my publishers and editors, but I didn't mind them," Neyer says. "People like to have a hook to grab. If I had Bill's name and his history in publishing, I wouldn't worry about such things. I don't, so I do worry about them. Baseball fans are just crazy about rankings and lists and arguments. When we published my all-time teams at ESPN.com, it generated an immense amount of attention. I heard from people all around the country that local sports-radio stations were talking about my teams in that city. There's no better way to get attention and sell books than to tell people you're going to pick the best of something or the worst of something."
Neyer's methods differ from his mentor's in other ways. He draws substantial traffic to his Web site, robneyer.com, on which he supplements his ESPN work with follow-up pieces on his books and a Royals-related commentary shared with Baseball Prospectus editor Rany Jazayerli. James has never created a Web site.
Whereas James releases his observations in the off season, ensuring that he has a 162-game sample from which to draw his statistics, Neyer comments at least twice a week on the Royals' activities. This gives an immediacy to his recommendations. "I'm angry because a pitcher with a 7.00 ERA [Chris George] has started 17 games for the Royals and is, by all indications, still in the rotation," Neyer wrote on July 6. "I'm angry because the Royals continue to employ a medical staff that's displayed absolutely zero ability to keep baseball players healthy. And I'm angry because the 'fans' in Kansas City don't seem to have noticed the standings lately."
Neyer's pace also gives him plenty of occasions to admit he's wrong, something James seldom has to do because he has all the facts by the time he writes his year-end player critiques. Months ago, Neyer called for pitcher Darrell May's release. Recently, he called the team's fifth starter "pretty damn impressive."
With two opinionated baseball experts sharing one Lawrence office for years, sparks could have flown, but Neyer says heated baseball disputes seldom occurred. When they did, James preferred to solve them with impromptu studies rather than passionate rhetoric.
"I remember when the Royals picked up Kevin McReynolds in a trade, and I thought this was one of the great moves ever for them because they needed a left fielder who could hit," Neyer says. "Bill was very skeptical. He disappeared into his office for the afternoon and came out with a giant printout of this study he'd done in that four-hour period that showed players like McReynolds don't age well and that at his age he shouldn't be expected to do much. That's exactly what he did -- not much."
Such studies could have helped the Royals avoid expensive mistakes. But the team's front office never wooed James -- a fan since the team's inception.
So James went to the Red Sox, the owner of which, John Henry, had read his work and was willing to try radical approaches. Henry, who was overseeing the Florida Marlins at the time, makes a cameo appearance in Michael Lewis' best seller Moneyball as a rare example of an enlightened owner. A self-made millionaire who created his fortune in the financial sector, Henry wrote a letter to Neyer in 2002, which Lewis excerpts, about the inefficiencies in baseball and the stock market.
"People in both fields operate with beliefs and biases," Henry wrote. "To the extent you can eliminate both and replace them with data, you gain a clear advantage."
Last fall, Henry attempted to make Billy Beane, the stat-savvy Oakland A's general manager on whom Moneyball is centered, the highest-paid GM in the history of the game. Beane rejected the offer, so Henry hired Theo Epstein, a 28-year-old Yale graduate who was also receptive to James' work. Over the winter, the Henry/Epstein/James brain trust acted on such unorthodox concepts as a "bullpen by committee," which follows the principles James outlines in a Historical Baseball Abstract section titled "Valuing Relievers." James concludes that relievers are most valuable pitching in a tied game in the eighth or ninth, when allowing a run is most costly. "The traditional construction of bullpens in recent years has been focused on protecting the lead, when the most important situation a bullpen faces is a tie game," James writes.
The reasoning is sound, but the execution has been lackluster. Boston's relievers are 15-18; its starters are 33-17. "That's not a credit, that's an allegation bordering on slander," James says now of his ties to the concept. Several media outlets seem to revel in the experiment's failure, with SportsCenter anchors solemnly intoning "bullpen by committee" every time the Sox blow a late-inning lead. "New ideas have an audience, and they have resistance," James says. "It's just part of the cycle."
For their part, the Royals have their own high percentage of failed experiments. In Moneyball's chapter about baseball's amateur draft, the Kansas City team selects high school pitcher Zack Greinke. Earlier in the book, Beane had fired Oakland's head of scouting for selecting a high school pitcher, Jeremy Bonderman, in the first round in 2001. Studies show that high school pitchers are half as likely as college pitchers to make the big leagues, which makes them an expensive gamble given the signing bonuses demanded by top picks. The Royals, Lewis implies, are among the clueless old-guard teams who are blinded by raw potential and high-velocity fastballs; the A's lead the new breed by selecting college players based on standout statistics.
Later, a game between the Royals and A's overlaps across several chapters. The A's, playing the Royals last September, were attempting to win their twentieth game in a row. Oakland blasted off to an 11-0 lead, but Kansas City scratched back to tie at 11-11 before falling in the bottom of the ninth. It was an amazing, epic game, especially considering the stakes, and there's no blatant criticism of the Royals in the account. But the names that surface will make Kansas City fans cringe: Neifi Perez, Luis Alicea, Luis Ordaz. Beane calls Mike Sweeney "the best hitter in the league," and Lewis has some kind words for Jason Grimsley, but overall the team seems overmatched and poorly assembled.
Obviously, the Royals have rebounded quickly, balancing old-fashioned, gut-instinct scouting with statistical analysis. Allard Baird has an extensive scouting history, with Johnny Damon among his finds. When making decisions on draft picks and other transactions, he consults Muzzy Jackson, the assistant general manager who oversees the Royals' minor-league system and coordinates its scouting staff; and Jin Wong, the team's manager of baseball operations and a former scouting operations manager who now provides statistical analysis.
Wong moved to the Royals in 2000 from the Atlanta Braves, where he was the group sales manager for the franchise's minor-league team in Richmond, Virginia. A Division III All-American in baseball in 1996, he was a business major in college who became increasingly interested in the analytical side of the game. He hasn't read much of James' work, but he follows Neyer's columns regularly.
"I was always interested in crunching numbers," Wong says. "And Allard's background is as a scout, so we have a guy who has a history of evaluating players so he can make comparisons. Then we factor in the new-world way of thinking as well."
Like James and Beane, the Royals organization now cherishes walks. "We're changing the mindset of our players, teaching them to be selectively aggressive," Wong says. "Walk totals are a part of that, but it's controlling the strike zone and getting good pitches to hit."
At the same time, the team's willingness to break Beane's rules and disregard statistics has paid dividends in several cases.
Despite Jose Lima's atrocious numbers in recent years, the Royals sent scouts to assess his work in an independent league. What they saw was encouraging. "His velocity was back," Wong says. "Last year, there wasn't much separation between his fastball and his change-up, but this year he's throwing in the upper 80s, which makes his change-up devastating. And he had dominating stats." Lima has been just as forceful in the majors, going 4-0 with a 3.06 ERA.
And Greinke, the Royals' high school pick, has been even more impressive in the minors, with a 1.17 ERA. Jazayerli calls him "the Royals' best pitching prospect in the past twenty years."
Despite all of this, there's still a national perception of the Royals as clueless bumblers, easy prey for Beane and his ilk. In a Sports Illustrated article about Moneyball, Daniel J. Habib writes, "Getting value, though, requires matching Beane's skills; GMs such as the Royals' Allard Baird, who in separate deals handed Beane Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye in return for second-tier players, are still apt to get snookered." This despite the fact that slugging shortstop Angel Berroa is hitting .286 while Damon, for whom he was acquired, is hitting .262 with less power. Dye, meanwhile, is mired at .160.
"We're a small-market town, and we haven't had success in the recent past, so we get overlooked," Wong says. "Once success starts happening, we'll get a lot more credit. Winning cures everything."
Winning even won back Bill James. Late last year, James became so perplexed by some of the Royals' roster moves, particularly the team's decision to keep high-priced, weak-hitting catcher Brent Mayne, that he told Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski he'd given up on the team.
Though he says he still gets depressed every time he sees Mayne in the lineup, James finds much to like on the current Royals roster. And he has never criticized the team's inexplicable failure to tender him a front-office spot, mostly because he never approached the team to offer his services and doesn't expect to be pursued. The bulk of his time is devoted to the Red Sox now, but he'll occasionally slip and say "our" when discussing the Royals' pitching staff.
Monday, June 30, Royals vs. Indians with Isaac and Andrew Miller," James writes in a fresh green notebook when he settles into his seat.
Isaac is his older son, a lanky fifteen-year-old who plays first and third base for a summer-league team in Lawrence. He's a last-minute addition to the lineup, having asked to attend just hours earlier. "I couldn't come up with a good reason to say no," James says.
Isaac shares James' inexhaustible interest in new approaches (he suggests a radically revamped version of the game that makes the catcher's position running-intensive), but he has not yet developed a withering sense of sarcasm to rival his father's. ("That might be your dumbest idea yet," Bill tells the kid warmly.) Though the Coco Crisp-obsessed yahoos provide ample ammunition for insults, Isaac says nothing negative about any players or fans. He does, however, respond when things go right, praising the speediest fastballs and marveling at excellent fielding. The 2003 version of the Historical Baseball Abstract is dedicated: "To Isaac, whose love of life renews me every morning."
Early in the game, Royals center fielder Carlos Beltran tracks down a difficult-to-reach line drive, a play that few of his peers could have made. James immediately tries to determine exactly how few, scrawling a list of five or six likely suspects in his notebook. This leads to a comparison of the player-by-player merits of the 2003 Royals and the 1985 world champs. The current team fares surprisingly well, but James makes a few seemingly odd choices, dismissing right fielder Michael Tucker and lauding rookie first baseman Ken Harvey.
Tucker leads the Royals in home runs and makes the team's top five in nearly every offensive category. He excels in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, two of James' favorite measures. All that and fashion, too: In a Sports Illustrated players' poll, Tucker ranked among the game's best-dressed. Yet he remains a leading target for fan abuse.
"It's his whining," James explains. "Tucker has to glare at the umpire as if he had been viciously insulted at least once every game."
On the other hand, Harvey is a fan favorite for obvious reasons. He hustles, he's likeable, and he's hit some memorable late-inning home runs at heavily attended weekend games. But his walk-to-strikeout ratio is atrocious, which should raise red flags with any baseball analyst, and his power numbers aren't especially impressive. This is the type of player a regular James reader would expect him to shred.
"There is a common tension between the players I like to watch and the players I would recommend," he admits. "The players I would most recommend are often not fun to watch, and the players I like to watch are often not players I could recommend. Probably the two best examples of the latter were Ozzie Guillen and Alfredo Griffin -- perhaps the two most fun players to watch of the past twenty years."
James' emotionally based assessments of Tucker and Harvey establish one of the most underappreciated elements of his work: He's a fan first and foremost. Like a film-school-educated critic with a weakness for action flicks, James knows better. That he reacts instinctively anyway proves he deserves much better than his number-cruncher caricature. James allows subjective factors to enter his lists, and they're the better for it. "I think you should have to be a fan to write about sports," he says.
There's plenty of downtime at baseball games, especially doubleheaders.
So you start to wonder. For example, it seems that numbers might mean more in baseball because the margin of victory, even between the best and worst teams, can be so small. (A 3-2 Yankees victory over the Tigers, for example, would not be surprising.) Put another way, KU's football team probably couldn't stay within 30 points of Nebraska's, but an exceptionally well-prepared, if overmatched, baseball team might pull out a few extra one-run victories in a season. Right?
"The significance of what is gained bears a natural relationship to the scope of the battle," James replies. "What matters is how far the knowledge gained moves the team gaining the knowledge relative to the goal of ultimate victory. It might gain more games in baseball, but that is because it takes more games to win the ultimate victory. If football were played 162 games a year, then a system would develop in which each individual contest was relatively more in doubt. A victory over Nebraska would be an unlikely gain because it would be a huge gain. A victory over Nebraska should not be likened to a single game in baseball but to a half-dozen or more."
OK, what about when WHB 810 radio host Kevin Keitzman recently mentioned that Carlos Beltran might be overrated because of what Keitzman called a "statistics trap." Ken Harvey, he argued, is more valuable to the Royals than Beltran because of his late-inning heroics.
"No one has a penchant for game-winning RBIs," James counters. "There is no such ability. If Harvey were to go to arbitration next year, certainly he would introduce his clutch performance record on his behalf, and probably this would be granted a certain amount of weight. But if you generalize the argument from performance to ability and argue that Ken Harvey has an ability to produce in game situations, then I would think it was unlikely that anybody would pay attention to you. The arbitrator, in other words, tends to be more skeptical and more sophisticated than the typical talk-show host."
Another sports-talk-show staple is the theory that a baseball team is easier to manage than a basketball or football team because it calls for fewer in-game strategic decisions.
"There are a million facets to the job and, on this one facet, less is demanded in baseball," James says. "But baseball managers are probably more second-guessed than any other coaches or managers, for related reasons. Rather than a lot of decisions, each of which really doesn't affect more than a few possessions, the baseball manager has a relative few decisions, which are tremendously important. Is that easier or harder?"
All of this would make great fodder for a new Abstract, but James, who was free to take the Sox job in part because he had no publishing deadline, has filled his table. He and Neyer are collaborating on a book about pitchers' arsenals (what they threw, how fast, etc.), and he is devising a way to use play-by-play analysis to rate players' defensive skills.
Then there are his Red Sox duties, which include submitting his observations in report form regularly and making occasional trips to Boston to meet with the rest of the brain trust.
"I have never been busier," James says. "I am just running myself ragged."
But he's running himself ragged at his own pace, from his own home. James says he's not sure if he would have taken the Boston job if it had required him to move away from Kansas.
"I designed the current system, where I work in Kansas and report to Boston, and they accepted the design. If they had insisted I move to Boston, that would have created a hard decision for me. I have children. They have lives, too. They have friends and family here, and we place a value on stability."
That, and the world finally knowing you are right.