The Mind of Bill James
How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball
By Scott Gray
OK, I have to admit that I like to read books. Most of the time, the books are not about baseball. However, when I spotted this book, I felt like I needed to broaden my horizons and give Sabermetrics a chance.
As a former player, I never really got into the intellectual side of the game. I was focused on getting better and trying to extend the amount of time that I’d be able to play. In the years since that dream fizzled out, I’ve stuck to my own style of analysis. It’s not scientific, it’s simply a way of looking at the traits and talents that I wished that I had or hated to play against. I confess that a lot of it relied on looking at the “glamour stats” and at how good the player looked on the field.
The opening quote of this book says:
“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” -Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Consider me hooked. This book was a really good mixture of Bill’s background and some of the highlights from his many books. He’s an interesting guy, and has done quite a bit in his life, but it would be tough to spend 227 pages on his story alone. I did not know that Bill was a Kansas guy (Holton, KS). He grew up rooting for the Kansas City A’s. One thing that sparked his baseball curiosity early on was to wonder why the A’s were so bad every year. He was aware of the not-so-secret arrangement that the A’s had with the New York Yankees. Such began a lifelong hatred of the Yankees, which would lead to James being employed by the Boston Red Sox and collecting a World Series ring.
While Bill’s story is interesting, I really enjoyed reading the snippets from the annual Baseball Abstracts and other publications. The essays are smart and cleverly written. They are funny and witty. They are brilliant and insightful.
They made me want to figure out how I could get my hands on some of them.
What would be the point of going back & reading those old books, which pertain to events that were current to that time? Well, if you stick to one of the many Royals stories that are included in this book, you can see that even though the names change, some of those stories stay the same.
In the 1992 Baseball Book, Bill wrote that the Kansas City Royals needed to face the fact that after four years of “rebuilding”, they had nothing to show for it & needed to start over. Really, it’s something that could have been written just about every year of the 1990’s & into the 2000’s.
There was an interesting passage about how the team promised to be heading towards a youth movement every year, but could never commit, and never won. They finally hit on a few good trades, and wound up being successful in the mid to late ’70s and early ’80s. James attributes some of those moves to luck, not just skill in the front office. This is quite typical of James’ attitude and general approach to analysis of the game.
At one point, the author compares the Grady Little/Pedro Martinez debacle in the 2004 ALCS to a similar situation involving the Royals in the 1985 World Series. Charlie Leibrandt and Dick Howser played the starring roles in Bill’s analysis of Game Two. He said that everyone in the stadium was wondering why Howser didn’t put Dan Quisenberry in the game & used that scenario to discuss exactly what qualifies as a managerial blunder.
It really is a book about how the man’s mind works – how it is just a bit askew from everyone else. The book talks a lot about how Bill James’ influence crept into the mainstream & was adopted by different people in Major League Baseball. The book Moneyball by Michael Lewis best documents how Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s brought James’ theories into the spotlight. (another baseball book I’ve read)
Bill James has been successful in changing the way that baseball fans analyze the game. There used to be a simple set of statistics which told you who the best players were. Batting Average, RBI, Home Runs for hitters, Number of Wins & ERA for pitchers. Because one man dared to think differently, now we’ve got a whole new set of ways to help determine who the best is.
I would recommend this book to any Sabermetrics doubters who have not taken the time to learn about its roots, or what it’s all about. While I may not totally be on board after reading about it, I’m definitely more open to learning more. After all, according to Dickens, it’s the evidence we’re after.
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