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Bill James, Sabermetrics, and You, or At Least Me

I was a nerdy kid.

I suppose that isn’t much of a surprise, given how I turned out. But in those pre-computer days, I was nerdy about math and baseball. I was the kind of kid that kept a daily log of my batting statistics in the recess kickball games.

So you can imagine my surprise and happiness when this image appeared in Sports Illustrated, in May 1981. I was ten:

Bill James in Sports Illustrated

The man in the foreground is Bill James, who would soon go on to be one of the most influential baseball writers of the last thirty years. At the time, though, he was self-publishing his baseball book to a small but fiercely loyal group of fans, one of whom actually wrote the SI article.

In the background, on the scoreboard, was one of James’ inventions – a formula called Runs Created that purported to be the most accurate way to measure a baseball player’s contributions.

Okay, I’m getting carried away. The relevant point is that I was dazzled enough by the original article to start looking for James’ annual book once he started getting published and distributed nationally. As I said, I was young, and the books cost like seven dollars of my own money, so this was kind of a big deal.

I got lucky in my choice of baseball writers. Not only was James iconoclastic and funny, but he was very good at explaining his methods. And I don’t mean that he was good at explaining the math – James is the first to admit that he is no mathematician (admittedly joking, he once described the “standard deviation” of batting average as “about what your standard deviant would hit”). James’ skill was in explaining why he did his experiments in a particular way. In a very real way, the most important things I learned about how science works were from reading Bill James.

In, I think, the first book of James’ that I read, he responds to criticism of earlier work:

“Journalists start with the answer… [Sabermetrics] starts with the question”

Sabermetrics, by the way, was the word that James coined for the search for objective knowledge about baseball – “saber” from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research".

In other words, where a journalist would start with “Derek Jeter should be in the Hall of Fame”, James would start with “Should Derek Jeter be in the Hall of Fame?”, and not in the lazy-local-news-headline way where you know from the question where the answer is. More likely, James would start with “What kind of player is in the Hall of Fame? Does Derek Jeter meet that standard?”

I suspect that this distinction is obvious to most of you reading this (though it’s easy to find places in our public discourse where nobody seems to understand it.) But it was a big deal to 12-year-old me.

Later, I remember an epic dismantling of the phrase “Pitching is 75% of Baseball”, starting with wondering what that even meant, and then going one by one through the things that would be implied of that statement was true, determining that none of them actually were, and eventually concluding that even the baseball traditionalists who were fondest of the claim didn’t act in any way consistent with actually believing it. I can still quote large chunks of that one.

Some quotes didn’t really become meaningful to me until I started writing myself:

“One of the operating assumptions of this book is that you either own McMillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia or don’t care what it has to say. In either case, you don’t need me to tell you what an outfielder’s assist totals are”

I’ve used some variant of that comment for every book I’ve written (though it didn’t always make into the final version). I’ve also used in when reviewing books. It’s a really useful way to think about your audience, to realize that you can assume knowledge of or disinterest in certain information.

Another quote that was big with me when I used to read academic papers all the time, but that I also keep in mind when I write.

“This isn’t a bull session, this is science. I only write like it’s a bull session because I don’t like how scientists write”

James is always been a little cranky on the subjects of professionalism and expertise, which he sees as often being used as nothing barriers to keep out the riff-raff.

“When you write something it is either true or false and being an expert or not being an expert has nothing to do with it”

What’s really stuck with me, though is the way James went about seeking more objective knowledge. The process was simple.

  • Ask a question.
  • Determine something that is observable that would be true if the answer to the question is true.
  • Use small, empirical measurements. James is the king of quick-and-dirty measurements that favor ease of calculation and understanding over multi-digit precision.
  • Compare similar items that differ in one aspect. In the mid 80-s James was more excited about a method to measure how similar two players were than almost anything else, because it allowed him to create controlled studies.
  • Follow the data. You probably won’t learn what you expect. Respect the data and respect its limitations.

If you are interested in James’ baseball work, the best introduction right now is probably the Historical Baseball Abstract, which is an overview of both his statistical methods and his historical interests. A more biographical look at his effects can be found in Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, which is about how the Oakland A’s applied James-style methods to actually win games. It’s a great non-fiction narrative, and Lewis is, as far as I can tell, unusually factually accurate.

James’ most recent book is Popular Crime, which is not about baseball, but rather a historical overview of crime stories that become pop-culture touchstones, and also the books that have been written about them. It’s cranky, scattershot, obsessive, and hard to put down.

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2 responses to “Bill James, Sabermetrics, and You, or At Least Me

  1. Elliot September 15, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Neat. Is that what got you into writing too?

  2. noelrap September 15, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Not as such, but he’s one of four or five non-fiction writers whose style I think about when I write. Him, David Foster Wallace, Michael Lewis, Scott McCloud, and in a totally different way, Woody Allen, and Dave Barry.

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