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A Couple Items on Bill James in the mid-'80s

A while ago I looked up some old news articles on sabermetrics in the first half of the '80s because I wanted to see how it emerged into the mainstream and how journalists received it at first. Here's a couple final scraps from that effort. I thought people might find them interesting. First Glenn Dickey of the San Francisco Chronicle, talking about Bill James in 1985:

IF YOU want to make a traditional baseball man angry - nay, furious - just mention the name Bill James to him. . . .

James will make his first speaking appearance in this area next month, at a Sabremetrics convention at the Hyatt Regency July 12-14. A's president Roy Eisenhardt, an engaging mix of traditionalist and innovator, will be the keynote speaker on Saturday night of the convention. . . .

James' throwaway comments are provocative. This year, for instance, he observed that a good-hitting shortstop is a stronger offensive factor than a player at another position, because a first baseman, for instance, is expected to be a good hitter, but a shortstop is not.

James was the first, to my knowledge, to come up with the "Billy Burnout'' theory on Billy Martin's handling of pitchers, which we became all too familiar with when Martin managed the A's.

This year, James expounded on his theory that you can predict how minor leaguers will do in the majors, but only if you take into consideration the league, city and park in which they play.

That explains the unexpected decline of the Dodgers. The Dodgers' Triple-A club is in Albuquerque, where balls fly out of the park. For years, they were able to trade prospects on the basis of their inflated Albuquerque statistics. When they had to use these players themselves, they were in trouble.

AS A counterpart to James' work, Seymour Siwoff, Steve Hirdt and Peter Hirdt came out this year with "The Elias Baseball Analyst.'' . . .

The book has drawn extravagant raves, more than it deserves, because of the Bill James backlash. It is traditional statistics, the kind that bring comfort to most old baseball fans, and the authors themselves are traditionalists. They specifically note, ``You will find in this book no arcane formulas with strange-sounding acronymic names. You will not find what somebody thinks George Brett would have hit in 1914.''

THIS BYPLAY is amusing. Personally, I'm thankful that James and his Sabremetricians have sparked this kind of controversy, because we have more information and more lively opinion than we've ever had in baseball.


And finally, Dickey talking about James in 1987:

He has used his statistics to measure true fielding ability. He uses them to measure speed, concluding that Vince Coleman is now the fastest man in baseball. He has shown how a good-hitting shortstop, such as Cal Ripken now or Robin Yount before his injuries, is far more valuable than a good-hitting first baseman.

James ' success has rankled many in the baseball establishment. (But not all - the Giants' Al Rosen and the A's Roy Eisenhardt and Sandy Alderson enjoy James' stuff.)

Employees in league offices are told not to give James any statistics, a meaningless directive because James doesn't ask for any. He works with statistics printed in newspapers and follows games both in person (usually in Kansas City, near his home) and on television.

The Elias Bureau, which does the official statistics for baseball, publishes its own "Statistical Analyst," and the Elias writers continually snipe at James, which is silly. Both books are invaluable, with the Elias people more conservative in their approach and James more unorthodox. Taken together, they give fans, and writers, more information than ever before.

In person, James seems an unlikely man to cause such strong reactions. He dresses and talks like an English Lit professor at a small private school. No sparks fly; you get the essence of Bill James from his books, not from his presence.
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