Covering the Bases: Making Sense of Bill James’ Statistical Nonsense by Travis Walsh and Thomas McFall

It takes a lot to challenge an established way of thinking – first to be able to see shortcomings in something, then having the ability to address and correct those shortcomings, and then having the courage to stand up and call attention to what you think is an error in the current approach to an issue.

Such is the case with Covering the Bases. If you have followed baseball statistics, you are undoubtedly aware of the term sabermetrics, which was coined by Bill James as he developed a new way of looking at the numbers to determine who the best players are.

The movement has become almost cultlike – James’ books sell a good number of copies, and people look to him for guidance as to what is good for the game and particular teams. When he signed on to become an advisor to the Red Sox in 2002 and they won the World Series in 2004, the sabermetric movement reached a new level.

However, as Walsh and McFall make the argument, James and his methods of statistics had nothing to do with the Red Sox winning the series – in fact, had they gotten their way, they probably wouldn’t have won. To Walsh and McFall, it was being the beneficiaries of their own poor planning, along with the outstanding performances of some players that James didn’t want on the team in the first place that propelled Boston to victory.

It is that argument that gave me back some hope in this book. The first half is mired by an anti-James attitude that is so strong, it clouds the reader’s ability to see that these guys actually might have something to say. They spend so much energy attacking Bill James, that the purpose of the book – to disprove James’ points – gets overshadowed.

I kept finding myself asking “okay guys, I get that you don’t like Bill James – but what do you propose?” I was ready to put the book down so many times because they never hinted that the answer to that question would be coming. However, as you will find out, they do end up sharing some new ways to look at statistics that do give a new insight as to which players are out there helping their teams try to win.

It’s a shame that the valid points that Walsh and McFall have to make are so far towards the back of the book. I was about ready to give up this one, given all the mudslinging and name calling they use in order to make their point – it almost felt like an endless stream of election ads. If they would have flipped the first half and the last half of the book, I think I would have enjoyed it much more.

While I won’t say that this book will completely make me swear off Bill James, nor will it make me a believer of Walsh and McFall, it did open my eyes up more to the way I rely on statistics, and that I can’t go blindly accepting one person’s work as truth.

The reality with statistics is that you can never totally extract pure, infallible information from them, nor can you really rely on them to predict the future. They are simply a composite story of what has been done in the past with numerous points to argue about.

A lot of the author’s points in the first half of the book don’t resonate until you finish it, because the meat of their argument is at the end. Only then do you see that these guys do have a clue about what they’re talking about.

If you’ve read Bill James’ work and are open to the points that Walsh and McFall bring up, you should enjoy this book. However – be prepared to have to duck and cover when the mud starts flying.


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