Monthly Archives: November 2006

The Mind of Bill James – by Scott Gray

Having someone write a book about you means you’re pretty special to that person — sometimes for good things, sometimes for not so good things. For Scott Gray, writing The Mind of Bill James was his way of showcasing the good things that he thinks James has contributed to baseball over the last 25 years.

The first question to ask is who is this Bill James? It’s hard to pin it down – but in his own words, he is “an eccentric” who “count(s) all kinds of stuff people are sort of interested in, but nobody in his right mind would actually bother to count” in an attempt to “explain how things in baseball are connected to one another.”

You may know James as a statistician, or a sabermetrician, or the guy the Red Sox hired to look at numbers the year they won the World Series. After reading Gray’s book, he’s all of those things yet not just those things — he is the guy who asks questions, looks at numbers, and tries to explain what causes certain things to happen, all in the context of baseball.

The book is clearly biased to show Bill James as an amazing contributor to the thinking about baseball — so much so as to compare him to Galileo arguing that Earth is not the center of the solar system centuries ago. Tall comparison? I would say so, but that’s not to knock the work that James has done and how he has influenced the way thinking about baseball has changed over the last two decades. He has shown through intense analysis of statistics and uncommon thinking that certain trends do exist, while others aren’t as prevalent as most people think.

But enough about James — let’s look at the book about James. I read it with a great amount of interest, as I think James has been one of the most influential contributors to modern baseball thought. But so what? Why does that make me want to read about him, and what do I want to learn about him? It’s that tough question that I’m not sure I can answer.

I find biographies are either incredibly fascinating or painstakingly boring – if they are not, they fall into the “so what” category, which isn’t much better than the latter of the two options. While I read it with a great amount of enthusiasm, trying to sum it up left me a bit flat. The best part of the book came at the end, where Gray publishes some of James’ key thoughts on baseball, which will be an invaluable help to readers new to James in getting to know his approach to baseball.

While I appreciate the work that Bill James has contributed to baseball, I wouldn’t say I’m a disciple of his, nor would I go so far as to say I am a fan. He is an incredibly sharp guy with a great mind for numbers and analysis, but other than dwelling on that, the book doesn’t seem to go much further, and I’m not really sure it could go much further.

If you want to learn more about Bill James, I suggest reading his books and articles. I think you’ll find a lot more substance in those than you will in The Mind of Bill James.

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The Wages of Wins – by David J. Berri, Martin B. Schmidt and Stacey L. Brook

In the midst of off-season free agent talks and signings, the ongoing debate about how much ballplayers should be paid finds new fuel for its fire. Adding to this blaze is The Wages of Wins, a new book that applies the principles of economic analysis in an attempt to determine a player’s actual value, as opposed to the value that the market has dictated.

The authors use the past twenty or so years of the NBA as the primary framework for their analysis. In what amounts to determining values for each statistic a player can achieve, the team of authors create equations for how performance in those statistical categories translate into wins for that player’s team, and then creates grounds for comparisions among players at different positions. It would be a disservice to their work if I tried to summarize the authors’ methodology any further — you’ll have to read the book for that.

While rooted in the NBA, the book does use baseball for a number of examples, and the principles explained in the book are completely applicable to pretty much every sport. They also spend a chapter on NFL quarterbacks, which help show how their approach is applicable in different sports.

The biggest thing I found myself taking away from the book was a renewed approach to thinking critically about what causes statistics to end up in certain ways — and how we as fans view those statistics. For instance – in basketball, we generally look at who scores the most points as being the best player on the team. But to score those points, a player has to take more shots that the other guys on the floor, thus reducing their chance to be productive. The same can be applied to baseball — while a player may have more hits or a higher batting average than another, he had to take more swings, and more likely than not caused more outs than say a player who took a lot of walks and got on base. If one of the key objectives to baseball is not getting out, than even though Player B had the lower batting average, he may have been a better contributor to his team. You’ll be challenged not just to think in terms of accumulation – the number of hits a player gets, but also in terms of efficiency — batting average for instance. Beyond both of those, you’ll constantly be asked “so what?” — a challenge to translate numbers into wins, and then into how much a player is worth based on how many wins he helps create.

If you come from an economic background, you should find the approach appealing and easy to relate to. If you don’t, you’ll have to come with an open mind and the willingness to re-read certain parts of the book, as it’s easy to miss a step and lose track of the argument.

One warning — unless you have an understanding of numbers and economic ways of approaching a situation, make sure to read this wide awake. It challenges you to think critically about the subject, and follow along with a train of thought that can take a couple of pages to fully explain. This isn’t one of those books to read after a long day at work – it simply requires too much brain power.

While The Wages of Wins doesn’t fall into my list of must-reads, I do give it a lot of credit for sharing an economic model of evaluating talent that helped sharpen my critical thinking skills and makes me that much more inclined to look at the “so what” factor of a problem. But as with every book I’ve read on talent evaluation, it still can’t predict the future, only analyze the past in hopes of providing a better guess as to how tomorrow will turn out.

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