Q & A: Baseball Guru Bill James

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Keith Philpott for TIME

Portrait of baseball statistician Bill James holding 4 baseballs at a minor league field near his home in Lawrence, Kansas.

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Moneyball author Michael Lewis' examination of statistical driven team management started a craze throughout baseball, as teams hired more "numbers guys" to make player personnel decisions. What's the state of Moneyball in the game right now? Who's winning the battle between the statisticians and the scouts, who evaluate players more on physical ability than esoteric math, in baseball front offices?

I can only really speak to our organization; there is absolutely no such battle in our organization. I see the scouts, I sit with the scouts at the games, I did today, I will tomorrow. We're all trying to figure out the same things. In spring training, you see an endless parade of young kids. We're all trying to figure out which one of these kids is going to be a good player. They have their way of approaching it, and I have my way of approaching it. But I have tremendous respect for their skills, and in our organization at least, if they don't [respect me], they're polite enough to keep it to themselves. That kind of tension doesn't really exist.

To answer your question in a much broader context — the statistical analysts have permeated the game to a much greater extent than almost anyone realizes. I doubt that there's an organization anymore that totally ignores sophisticated statistical analysis. And in most organizations, people who do fairly sophisticated statistical analysis are listened to and respected. It certainly wasn't like that 10 years ago.

One of my other favorite nuggets in the book is about "closer fatigue." You write an essay about Mariano Rivera, proving that, yes, the more he has worked on previous days, the less effective he's likely to be. But most notably, you write that he looks like Henry Fonda. Really? I'm not seeing that.

You're not seeing that? Aw. You ought to rent The Grapes of Wrath, then watch a Yankees game. And I guarantee you will see it. Well, I can't guarantee you. You're actually the first person who has reacted that way. The reaction I've gotten from everybody else is, 'Yeah, that's right, I can't believe I haven't noticed that.'

If guess I haven't watched enough Henry Fonda movies. Moving on . . . If you were to be named commissioner of baseball tomorrow, what would be first change you make?

Well, the commissioner can't really make changes. He can organize the process leading to change. That's a petty answer. To give you the real answer, I'd try to do something about the game dragging in the late innings. We need to make the games snap along a little better, particularly in the late innings. There are more than six times as many pitching changes in a game now than there were two generations ago. That's a huge change in the game. And it's not a change for the better, in my view. Maybe it's a change for the better in terms of trying to win. But in terms of its impact on the fans, how the fans enjoy the game, I don't see that as a change for the better. So I'd probably try to organize some kind of move to see if we couldn't get an agreement to limit the number of pitching changes in the late innings.

This is the rule that I would adopt. I've thought about this for a long time, and I don't see why this doesn't work. One time per game, you get a free pitching change without restriction. Otherwise, when you put a pitcher on the mound to start an inning, he has to stay in the game until he's charged with a run allowed. In other words, you have a limit on how often you can put a pitcher out there, let him face one batter and "let's bring in somebody else."

Who's the team to beat in the National League?

I would have to say the two best teams in the National League are the [Philadelphia] Phillies and the [New York] Mets. And if you had one team to beat, it probably would be the Mets. [Pitcher Johan] Santana has added to what was already a very good team, plus you have Pedro [Martinez] probably coming back and being of significant value this year. Plus it's a team that's got a strong storyline. They have to try to recover from what happened to them last fall. So there are a lot of things going there.

Your archrivals in the American League East, the New York Yankees, have a new manager, and with George Steinbrenner's sons taking over the day-to-day operations, new owners running the show. What's your gut reaction to what they've done, and where you see them going this year?

Well, the Yankees are kind of moving on to the future. There's something I call Sam's Law — after Sam Rich, an attorney from Pittsburgh who has been a friend of mine for many years. Sam's Law is that young pitchers will break your heart. I think that when teams go into a pennant race depending on young pitching, it very often it takes a year or two for that young pitching to be as good as you thought it would be. The Yankees have that problem, and we have that problem — we're depending on [Jon] Lester and [Clay] Buchholz and some other guys to be useful to us. It's going to be interesting to see how many of those young pitchers live up to those expectations.

So what's the feeling in Red Sox camp right now?

Everybody reported in good shape. We have no contract issues. [Pitcher Curt] Schilling is probably lost to us for the first half of the season, and that's a serious loss. But there are a lot of players in very, very good shape. Our problem, in quotation marks, is that we have two centerfielders. So when your problem is that you have two of something, that's a lot better problem than having none of something. Do we foresee a third world championship? No. That might be considered cocky. But we have a good team, and we should have a decent year.

Do you think Roger Clemens used steroids?

I do not. I hope he did not. I don't know if this guy used anything. I don't find the evidence at all convincing. You know, I get kicked in the teeth a lot for being the guy who never believes that anyone is guilty. And that's fair enough. But I just think that he's entitled to the benefit of the issue as long as the evidence is inconclusive. I think it's really inconclusive.

Do you have any World Series predictions?

No, I used to do predictions, because I had to. But I haven't trapped myself in a position where I've had to in awhile. I'll give you one prediction. I'm not saying they're going to win the World Series, but the most improved team in baseball this year is Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay is a lot better than they have been since as long as they've been around. They finally have things put together, and they're going to be a .500 or better team this year.

Even in the American League East, where the Red Sox and Yankees have dominated for such a long time?

Yeah. That's why I question whether anyone in this division is going to be able to win 95, 96 games. We've had two teams from the AL East in the playoffs for years, and maybe we will again. But the AL East is so strong and competitive this year, with Toronto and Tampa Bay as good as they are, I don't know if that's going to happen.

Getting back to the book a bit — you know, many fans sitting in the sports bar look at Bill James, all this baseball math, this "sabermetrics," and probably think, 'Gosh, these guys have too much time on their hands. They're geeks.' What's your response to that type of thinking?

You've got me.

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