Baseball expert Bill James, online chat transcript


Phil Cauthon /

Lawrence-based baseball guru Bill James during the chat.

This chat occurred at 3 p.m., Thursday April 15 on

Nick from Sanford, NC: A provincial question. Going to KU in the mid-late 70s, I used to go to a place called the Ball Park. It featured a game involving World Series teams from 1920 on. It was sort of like APBA or Strat-o-Matic; it took into account lefty-righty matchups and park effects. Were you at all involved in the development of this game?

Bill James: I was not at all involved in the development of Ballpark. . .I would tell you the name of the guy who invented the game, but I'm blanking out on it. It was a fun game, though, and I used to go the Ballpark and play it sometimes. It was an odd idea--to build a restaurant around a local baseball simulation game. Very Lawrence.

Mark, Lawrence: Bill-
The historical anbstract is easily my favorite baseball book. In the edition I have, you don't rate Jeter and Nomar. Where would you put them now? Also, where will A-Rod end up rated among 3B?

Bill James: Thank you for the thought. I rate players at one position, but based on everything they have accomplished throughout their careers. Thus, the best bet would be that A-Rod will wind up either as the #2 shortstop or the #1 third baseman of all time, although he could pass Honus Wagner to be the #1 shortstop, I suppose. Nomar is a top ten shortstop.

Darren, Farmington: What have you learned from being on the inside of a baseball organization that you didn't know being on the outside?

Bill James: I knew in theory that, inside the organization, everything revolves around money. But I hadn't really appreciated the extent to which this was true. You have to try to spend every dollar effectively in order to win as many games as you can--a very interesting but very different challenge.

Danny from NYC: How come Baseball America hasnt been writing about David Wright in the Daily Dishes.... There is no better player in the Minors right now... It always seems like he is underrated

Bill James: You're ahead of me, Dan. I don't know nothin' about him.

Bear, Lawrence, KS: What do you think of the recent explosion in coverage of sabermetrics by the mainstream media (Sports Illustrated's Baseball Preview prominently featured articles about in-depth statistical analysis, as did ESPN the Magazine, among other publications)? Is sabermetrics getting its fair due, or will Joe Baseballfan only view sabermetrics as a passing fad?

Bill James: Everything goes in and out of fashion to some extent, including us. Our ability to become a lasting part of the discussion depends upon our ability to say things that are (a) true and (b) interesting. If we fail the test, we'll disappear.

Doug, Tulsa, OK: What's your opinion about steriods and baseball? If Barry Bonds does break Hank Aaron's career home run record and it is determined that Bonds did take steriods, do you think the record should be recognized, discounted or acknowledged in some way, similar to Maris' 61 homeruns was shown with an asterisk for many years?

Bill James: I honestly just don't know. My inclination is that he has done these things, one way or another; the first responsibility of the record book is to record what has done, rather than to make value judgments about it. But the discussion, going forward from here, will turn in ways that we just can't anticipate.

Michael, Kansas City: If you were still doing the Abstract, what sort of questions do you think you'd be interested in?

Bill James: Too deep a question to really answer here. The key to doing a book like that is to find good questions--find things to right about which are new and interesting. A bad article about an interesting question will have much more impact, in the long run, than a good article about a boring question. So it's too complicated a question to try to explain in a forum like this. . .

Fowler Jones, Overland Park, KS: You may have been the first analyst to suggest age 27 as a breakthrough age for major leaguers. Does that idea still hold true today in your opinion?

Bill James: I was, and it does. I was just doing some research yesterday on players born 1961-1965. They peaked at age 27.

Fowler Jones, Overland Park, KS: You once argued that having the pitcher in the lineup decreased strategic options rather than increased them. Do you still subscribe to that notion?

Bill James: Certainly. It's logically obvious, isn't it? Options are based on abilities. The more things a player can do, the more options you have when that player comes up. It's very difficult to see how using players of limited ability could increase strategic options.

Fowler Jones, Overland Park, KS: In terms of secondary average, who's the most overrated American League position player starting this year?

Bill James: Not sure. . .Jody Gerut? Probably one of those
Cleveland guys. . .a lot of the public hasn't picked up on them yet.

Joel, Lawrence, KS: Hello Mr. James. I was wondering what you thought of the possibilities of someone like myself getting a job as a general manager despite not playing baseball past low college ball. Would having a vast knowledge of sabermetrics help me out??

Bill James: Not TOO vast. Anything you know helps you in a job like that, but, if you want to be a GM, you need broad knowledge, rather than mastery of some one thing. You need to understand scouting, player development, negotiating, etc. All we have done in sabermetrics is add one more thing to the list of stuff you have to know.

Joel, Lawrence, KS: I was just wondering exactly what your responsibilities are as part of the Red Sox and how much your opinions influence what Mr. Epstein and the rest of the organization do. Thanks.

Bill James: I can't speak for Theo. I think people listen to what I have to say. If they don't, they're awfully polite about pretending to.

Mike from Somerset, NJ: Do you feel a strikeout is the least productive out in the game? Some at BP have suggested that it is no worse than any other other in the long run, if you factor in double plays.

Bill James: Well, the LEAST productive out is a ground ball double play. Strikeouts are MORE productive than other outs, on average, because the negative effects of ground ball double plays far outweigh the positive benefits of moving runners on outs--thus, undescribed outs tend to have negative value, not positive value. But strikeouts have less value than undescribed outs OTHER than ground ball double plays. Not a lot less, but less.

Mike from Somerset, NJ: Mr. James, how do you think Rocco Baldelli will fare in the season after his impressive rookie season? Thank you.

Bill James: I think he's very good, and going to get better. He's not Joe DiMaggio, but there is a lot of DiMaggio in him. I think he'll be a .300 hitter with power and a Gold Glove center fielder, in 2005 if not in2004.

Joel, Lawrence, KS: What do you do for hobbies away from the game of baseball and how often do you actually find extra time?

Bill James: Why would anybody care? Oh, sorry. . .well, I collect a couple of things. I collect figures that look like real people. I read crime books. I defend myself from attacks from my 200-pound son.

Cody, Hoxie: I was wondering what you're thoughts were on the Royals closer situation. I personally think Affeldt would not be a bad guy to have at the end of the game. MacDougal never impressed me that much last year in the closers role. It looks like his motion is too violent and he's to thin of a frame. What do you think about MacDougal and Affeldt?

Bill James: Well, I don't know why a guy would be too thin to be an effective closer, so I don't get that. He throws 98 and his fastball has fantastic movement, plus he can make really good hitters look stupid with his breaking pitch. But it's not enough if he doesn't throw strikes. Affeldt. .they're going to have to try something to get more out of him. They can't win getting nothing out of him, which is where they are now.

Mike from Somerset, NJ: Many have chastised the Yankees for having no lefties in their starting rotation. Do you think the lack of lefties is significant?

Bill James: Well, we don't have one either (the Red Sox), but somebody has to win the division. I think you're better off with a lefty in the rotation, but you don't design a team on paper and then construct it on the field. You work with what you have to work with.

Joel, Lawrence, KS: What do you think of Carlos Beltran as a player? Do you think he is one of the more valuable players in MLB today? Also, who do you think are the 5 most valuable players to have on a team in terms of the wins they create?

Bill James: Carlos is awfully good, but he's not top 5 on the basis of what he has proven before this season. Top 5. ..Bonds, A-Rod, Pujols are easy. Maybe Vladimir and Eric Chavez? Scott Rolen and Nomar? Soriano and Chipper Jones? Not sure about 4 and 5. . ..

Chris, Hutchinson: If Ken Griffey Jr.'s career were to end today, do you believe he would be a Hall of Famer?

Bill James: Yes.

Joel, Lawrence, KS: I saw you were a University of Kansas student back in the day in Moneyball, and I looked up your hometown in Kansas on the map and couldn't find it. Where exactly is it located and which MLB team did you root for as a kid?

Bill James: My hometown, Mayetta, is 20 miles north of Topeka. It's on an Indian reservation, so they now have a casino. . .a really good one, too, from what I hear. I rooted for the Kansas City A's as a kid. . .

John, Lawrence: Do you believe in The Curse of the Bambino?

Derek Jeter from the Bronx: You said Nomar's a top 10 shortstop - what about me?

Bill James: No.

My friend is from Kansas: Without consulting any notes, how many (current) players would you say you are familiar with (define that as you may)?

Bill James: Wel, the major league guys and a few minor league guys. In all candor, I have never been a guy who knew everything about all the players. I know a lot of people assume that that's what I do, but I just never did have that kind of a mind, that I could keep track of a million players.

Bear, Lawrence: Outside the Lines is doing a piece tonight on Sons of Sam Horn (a Red Sox message board Curt Schilling has been known to post on) and the role Internet message boards play among sports fans. What are your thoughts on the emergence of message boards as a tool for players and front office executives to keep tabs on what the fans think?

Bill James: I know that there are a lot of guys in the Red Sox office who skim through there a couple of times a day. I never do, though. . .just never have got the habit.

This may not QUITE be relevant, but I have always believed that fans ask much better questions than the media. Today, for example. . .a very wide range of interesting questions. Media guys very often will start asking you how you got interested in this field, and how you got started doing this, etc. etc. Who cares? Nobody really cares how I got started doing this stuff, and what difference does it make? Fans ask about and fans talk about what people are really interested in.

Joel, Lawrence, KS: Do you believe baseball should have a salary cap?? If so, what about an upper and lower limit on spending? Basically, what do you think should be done to solve baseball's competitive balance problem?

Bill James: I have a system I advocate, but I dont' know that I can explain it in 40 words or less. It involves a salary cap for 20 players on a roster, unconstrained spending on the other five. ..lot of other wrinkles. I guess I need to write up my plan and find some place to advocate it. . .

Mary from NY: What is your position now on the value of closers?

Bill James: Exactly the same as it was two years ago.

Fowler Jones, Overland Park, KS: What's the most mis-used or misunderstood stat cited in baseball analysis today?

Bill James: Batter vs. Pitcher matchups, I suppose. This guy is 4-for-11 against that guy, hitting .364 against him. Has the statistical significance of a watermelon.

Bear, Lawrence: Who would you say has the best "strike-zone eye" since Ted Williams? Is it Barry Bonds?

Bill James: Well, there's Rickey. . .he holds the walks record. But sure. . .Barry's phenomenal. And Kevin Youkilis, too.

Joel, Lawrence, KS: I know this has nothing to do with baseball, but are you still a fan of the University of Kansas as far as basketball or did you not get into that while you were here?

Bill James: Obsessive. Fanatical Jayhawk fan.

John Murphy, Raleigh, NC: Have you ever had a chance to take another look at Ezra Sutton, star third baseman who played at the beginning of professional baseball? I thought you had him ranked very low, though if you take into account the much shorter number of scheduled games during his time, he appears to have been, comfortably, the greatest at the position for the 19th century using WS (I don't consider Deacon White a third baseman because his greatest value was as a catcher and played a greater percentage of his team's scheduled games there).

By the way, the NBJHA was terrific!

Bill James: Thanks. Off the cuff, you may know more about Ezra Sutton than I do. But I'll look again.

Steve Jacob Lawrence: Odd queation. Yankees win 6 out of 8 World Series if A) Rivera can throw to second, and B) Wells doesn't get hurt. Would baseball be diferent if they did win those 2 series?

Bill James: How many do they win if that kid doesn't steal the series from Baltimore in. . .what was that, '96?

My friend is from Kansas: Allard Baird seems to have gotten a lot smarter in the last year or so. What's his secret, and were you ever tempted to send unsolicited advice?

Bill James: I am frequently tempted to send general managers unsolicited advice. But I never actually do.

Scott, San Francisco, CA: What do you think of Jay Goulds assertion that the talent level in MLB continues to get better and better, but the human body has a maxiuum talent limit, so the variance in skill is getting smaller and smaller, therfore no .400 hitter since Ted Williams.

Bill James: His theory is GENERALLY correct. When I first saw that theory in print, 20 years ago, I asked myself "If this were true, what other things would also be true?" All of the "peripheral effects" of his theory that I could think of were in fact in place--therefore, I had to conclude that the theory was probably true. But it doens't mean we won't have a .400 hitter next year. . .

S. Jenkins: What keeps you in Lawrence. KS? Especially now that you're working for Boston?

Bill James: Lawrence is a wonderful place to live.

Joel, Lawrence, KS: Do most executives in baseball want a salary cap and just can't get it passed with the MLBPA, or what is the problem?

Bill James: I can't speak for most executives. Certainly there are a lot of executives who would like that, and certainly there are some who would not. I can't really say what the balance is.

Mary from NY: If you were starting a baseball team today and could choose any player you wanted (excluding current Red Sox players), who would you select and why?

Bill James: I think it's obvious. Albert Pujols.

Mike Emeigh, Raleigh, NC: Hi Bill:

You mentioned earlier that major league teams have to try to spend every dollar effectively in order to win as many games as they can. In your opinion, what is the one area that ML teams can target for improvement in order to get the biggest bang for the buck?

Bill James: Shorter contracts. Not wasting money on the fourth and fifth year of a five-year contract. More money is wasted there than anywhere else.

dan montgomery, al: no question - just wanted to say thank you for 20 years of interesting writing!

Bill James: Thank you. What about my boring articles?

R.S, Atlanta, GA: What do you think about the 2004 Braves? Do you think they have enough starting pitching to contend in the East and beyond? (and do you agree that their offense hasn't suffered an enormous dropoff relative to the average MLB team's offensive production)?

Bill James: Well, every year there are 4,000 media guys who say that this is the year the Braves don't have enough any more. So far it's Bobby Cox, 44,000, Media 0. Or maybe it's 48,000 or 52,000. . .I've lost count. The point is, I have more faith in Bobby Cox's ability to put together a ballclub and make them win than I have in my own ability to figure out who is going to win.
So, until further notice, I'm betting on Bobby. . .

Chris, Hutchinson: Who do you think was the top player of the 1990's?

Bill James: Barry Bonds.

Steve Jacob Lawrence: Looking at your 1993 ratings book. The only miss I really read was the career of Vinny Castilla. "probally no future" Any big errors you made over the years?

Bill James: No, that was the only one.

Scott, San Francisco CA: So then if talent level is in fact increasing, when we compare players from different eras (Win Shares for instance) are we simply saying that Player A is #1 because he was x better than his contemporaries, or is it possible to make a more general claim that he is #1 because he had the most talent. Is this a distinction that you worry/care about?

Bill James: It is a distinction that I worry about, but I don't really know what the right balance is. I just assume that you have to dominate modern baseball by a wider margin than you dominated the 1920s to rate the same. But I don't really know how to offset the one against the other.

Andrew, Bryn Mawr, PA: You'd REALLY list A-Rod as the top 3rd baseman ever? Over Schmidt ad Brett?

Bill James: Not NOW, no. The question was where he might eventually rate.

Steve Jacob Lawrence: Whats the over/under line on Larry Bowa getting fired? I say monday

Bill James: What's the over/under on my getting fired by the Red Sox if I answer that?

Joel, Lawrence, KS: What did you think of Roy Williams leaving the University of Kansas and what do you think of Bill Self?

Bill James: Roy has a right to live his own life. I still root for him, and I think 85% of Jayhawk fans do, honestly. Bill Self was great this year, and I'm thrilled to have him.

Bill S.: The Red Sox are leading by 2 in the 9th of game 7 over San Francisco with nobody on and nobody out. Should they pitch to Bonds?

Bill James: Absolutely.

Bill James: Thank you all for your questions. . .I've enjoyed it. Go, Sox.


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