Playing the numbers game
FOR Bill James, statistics are merely a means to an end. They prove or puncture those sweeping generalities baseball people love to make, like: Good teams are strong up the middle. You can't win the pennant without an excellent bullpen. The game is 75 percent pitching. ``I'm always making notes when people say things. Then I ask if what they say is true and how I can check it out,'' says Mr. James, author of ``The Bill James Baseball Abstract.''
Until this decade, the word ``abstract'' was seldom heard in baseball circles. Now this bearded intellect has made it a part of the game's lexicon.
The 1987 edition of James's abstract, the 11th of an annual series, is a 300-page large-format softcover packed with the usual collection of statistics-based analysis.
A kitchen-table author with no official ties to the game, James began compiling the abstracts in defiance of gloomy prophesies. ``People always told me you can't make a living playing around with baseball statistics. A lot they knew,'' says the former high school teacher.
Actually, numbers hold no special fascination for him. ``I'm impatient, sloppy, and easily bored with statistics,'' he says. In fact, he is more a baseball detective than a numbers fanatic, a leader in the young field of Sabermetrics - a fancy name for what members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) do.
James published his first abstract in 1977, a 68-page volume that sold 70 copies. He continued to handle the printing himself through 1981, when sales topped 2,000. Ballantine Books got into the act thereafter; and the publisher has now come out with a companion book carrying the James name: ``The Great American Baseball Stat Book.''
Not surprisingly, James has become something of a celebrity in the baseball research field as well as a clearinghouse for the inspirations of others. From his home in the ``unlisted town'' of Winchester, Kansas, he takes a ``birds-eye view'' of the game, coming up with such goodies as:
A formula for determining baseball's fastest baserunner without using a stopwatch. (Vince Coleman, St. Louis Cardinals.)
An explanation of why the Pittsburgh Pirates are the team most likely to improve in '87.
A discussion and evaluation of some of the all-time great outfields. (He chooses the 1920s Yankee trio of Babe Ruth, Earle Combs, and Bob Meusel as the best.)
The depth and variety of analysis may seem overpowering to the casual fan. James, however, says it's not overkill. ``Baseball exists to be enjoyed, and people do this [research] because they enjoy it.''
The 1987 Baseball Encyclopedia Update, (Collier Books, $7.95 in paperback) provides the complete career records of every player who competed in '86.
The Sports Encyclopedia, Baseball, (St. Martin's Press, 608 pp., hard and soft cover), an exhaustive, doorstop-size work, presents short written summaries of each season since 1901.
The 1987 Elias Baseball Analyst (Collier Books, $12.95) is another heavyweight that attempts to turn the game inside out, tracking performance in great detail. For example, how did a batter hit in May? On artificial turf? Or in late-inning pressure situations?
The Great American Baseball Stat Book (Ballantine Books, $12.95) is the joint effort of a number of scorekeeping fan-researchers who share their vast statistical handiwork in brief scouting reports on players.