June 13, 2012
The Madness of King Bill
The really great thing about learning from one’s predecessors is that you can learn just as much from when they are wrong as when they are right, if you take care and are vigilant—which is to say, that you recognize that an error was made to begin with.
At its core, sabermetrics got its start because people were able to read things and then ask questions about what they read, rather than taking everything at face value. Does this make sense? Is this really true? And I think that any sabermetrics worthy of that name is as willing to question itself in this fashion as it is everyone else.
(To that end, I think a fair amount of self-doubt is healthy. Too much is crippling, but too little is freeing the same way that taking a life preserver from a drowning man is. Unfortunately, writing with confidence tends to be more interesting than writing with doubt. I think the very best kind of sabermetrics writing is the sort that can make doubt compelling, but it’s hard to do, and especially hard to do often.)
One of the most instructive failures we can look at is the madness of King James the Bill. In the most direct sense, I am referring to his Win Shares system, but I think the lesson we can learn goes well beyond that.
James’ work on Win Shares has long been the “King in Yellow” of sabermetrics, causing many who dare to examine it to grow mad from the very strain of the non-Euclidean geometry within. In my opinion, the best explanation of the system I’ve seen is Patriot’s Win Shares walkthrough. The short version is that Win Shares is an often baroque, sometimes brilliant, always complex system. What separates Win Shares from most modern win-based metrics is that, instead of trying to attribute wins above average or above replacement, James tries to allocate all the wins a team has, period. This leads to some rather unique features of Win Shares.
A great example (and I have stripped away the heavy math portions, so those interested should read the whole series) is the splitting of offensive and defensive wins: