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January 16, 2007

Prospectus Q&A

Bill James

by David Laurila

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Bill James is the author of many books, including The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, and Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame. He has been called "the Mozart of baseball statistics" and "the most influential baseball writer in the sport's history." James is currently a Senior Baseball Operations Adviser for the Boston Red Sox. David Laurila sat down with James for BP to talk about this year's Hall of Fame voting, the value of defense, and Jose Canseco.

David Laurila: What are your thoughts on this year's Hall of Fame voting?

Bill James: Well, Gwynn and Ripken are obvious Hall of Famers. I was disappointed that the story coming out of the vote was "Mark McGwire gets shut down." In part this came from the votes being so obvious that there was nothing to say about them, but at the same time, it illustrates how badly the Hall of Fame has mismanaged their franchise, that the selections themselves were overshadowed by a side issue. If the Hall of Fame had limited their elections to one player a year, which would have been a reasonable number, this would never happen; the story would always be "this year's selection is..." Even if they had said "we're going to select three players every year, one by this committee, one by that group, one by this other method" the selection would always be the story. But they let it get away from them.

DL: The Hall of Fame's voting guidelines state that both "playing ability" and "playing record" should be considered. As one could argue that what a player accomplished is ultimately more important than what he "could have accomplished," to what extent do you feel park factors should be considered in the voting?

BJ: I don't think what a player could have accomplished has anything to do with anything. Playing ability covers, for example, Satchel Paige. He had great ability; he just doesn't have to have a record to prove it. One doesn't need to talk about what he could have accomplished to make him a Hall of Famer. Saying that you vote on the record implies that you have some understanding of what the record means. Park factors are a part of the record, just like other environmental factors. Fifty home runs now is not like fifty home runs in 1950. Forty home runs in Arizona is a lot different from forty homers in San Diego. Twenty wins for the Oakland A's is different from twenty wins for the Pirates. I think this is implied whenever you reference the record.

DL: Mel Ott hit 511 home runs to Goose Goslin's 248. Had they switched uniforms, there's a decent chance their career totals would be relatively close. Similar to the previous question, how different is the perception and reality of their careers?

BJ: Well, OK, but... Mel Ott is not an overrated player, and Goose Goslin, as great as he was, was nowhere near the same player as Mel Ott. Ott played in a home run park, but a park whose other hitting characteristics were very poor. Had he played in Forbes Field he would have hit 325 homers in his career, but he would have hit .330 with 700 doubles. What their perceptions were, I can't really speak to, and anyway I may have written things that helped cause the problem by focusing on the home runs and ignoring the other parts of Ott's game. I'd hate to leave the impression either that Ott was overrated or that Goslin was substantially as good as Ott. Goslin was certainly a legitimate Hall of Famer, though.

DL: What is your opinion of how defense is valued by Hall of Fame voters? Do middle infielders (especially) get undervalued?

BJ: No. Forty years ago there was a shortage of second basemen in the Hall of Fame, and I think some people believe that's still true. The truth is exactly the opposite. We've been electing second basemen to the Hall of Fame at a high rate for a long time now, and we're kind of 20 years past overkill on that, I think.

DL: Looking at their overall value, how would you compare the careers of Alan Trammell and Brooks Robinson?

BJ: Well, Trammell was quite a bit better than Brooks as a hitter. But Robinson not only was a far superior defensive player, but also Robinson played for a team--Baltimore in the 1960s and 1970s--that was much more dependant on their defense for their success than Trammell's teams. One tends to assume that a shortstop is carrying a larger defensive role than a third baseman, but that's not universally true, and it's not true in this case. The Orioles won by defense, more than any other team post-World War II. Robinson played 6,000 more innings on defense than Trammell. Robinson's defensive impact, I think, is a long measure ahead of Trammell's. I would evaluate Trammell's 1987 season, when he didn't win the MVP Award, as being clearly better than any of Brooks's seasons, including 1964, when he did win the MVP Award. But their top seasons are generally in the same range of value, in my opinion, and Brooks has more of those truly valuable seasons than Trammell does, by a count of eight or nine to six. So I would have to say that Robinson had a better career.

DL: Pete Palmer has rated Bobby Grich ahead of both Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew. What is your opinion of that?

BJ: Grich was an underrated player at a very high level, a kind of hidden superstar. We all have a lot of affection for him in that role. We all kind of like "discovering" the underrated players, the hidden stars. Grich, because he is very underrated as a hitter AND brilliant defensively, is one of few hidden stars who can plausibly be asserted to be better than many of the Hall of Famers. He's a favorite of mine and of yours, I suspect, and of Pete and of many other people who like to study the game really intensely. But Grich was not the hitter that Carew was or Reggie...I guess Reggie was the greatest hitter of the three, but Carew is close and Grich is fairly close in a shorter career. It is then a question of "is his defensive benefit...the margin by which he is a better defensive player than Rod or Reggie...is that greater than the margin by which they outshine him as hitters?" And the truth is, none of us really knows. There is no terribly compelling logic about that issue, I don't think. Pete, based on what you say, apparently thinks that his defense is good enough to make up the difference, or more. I don't think I could agree. I think I would have to rate them: 1. Reggie, 2. Carew, 3. Grich. But I don't know that I could convince a skeptic that the weight that I am placing on defense is the right amount, any more than Pete could convince a skeptic. He has his logic, I have mine. I'm sure that the students of the game in the next generation will have a clearer view of the issue than we have now.

DL: One of the top prospects in the Kansas City Royals organization is Billy Butler, who has a very good bat and a questionable glove. When you look at his future, and that of similar players, what do you see?

BJ: An inability to play defense puts a narrow foundation under a player's career.

DL: In future generations, there's a pretty good chance that baseball fans hearing the name Jose Canseco will think "steroids." What should they think?

BJ: Jerk with steroids.

DL: Would you rather be the Commissioner of baseball or the President of the United States?

BJ: I'd rather be Commissioner because I could do less damage.

DL: One of the biggest baseball mysteries in recent memory is "Why did Grady leave Pedro in the game." What is your favorite baseball mystery?

BJ: No, Grady explained that. He said it was "because Pedro is our guy." Whatever the hell that means. My favorite baseball mystery is: "why didn't Ed Sanicki get to play?"

DL: Your favorite mystery writer, Ed McBain, wrote under a pseudonym. If you were a mystery writer, what might your pseudonym be?

BJ: Cornelius McGillicuddy? Alyosius Szymanski? J. M. Paveskovich? Alfred Manuel Pesano? These seem like good names.

DL: Is Moby Dick a good analogy for the Chicago Cubs?

BJ: If it works for you, run with it. Or swim with it... whatever. I thought maybe I should explain my remark about Canseco. Canseco was a terrific player for a few years, and if you want to remember him for that, be my guest. If you want to remember him as the hot dog who Charlie Browned a ball with the Red Sox and hurt his arm pitching, you're free to remember him that way.

But Canseco occupies the same chair with respect to the mess we're in now that Cap Anson does in regard to segregation in baseball. Everybody in that era played a segregated game; everybody lived segregated lives. But Cap Anson carries much of the moral responsibility for segregation in baseball, because of the role that he played in driving blacks out of the game. The same for Canseco. We're all living in the steroid era, and a lot of players used or are using PEDs. But Canseco carries much of the moral responsibility for it because of the role that he played in making baseball less than it should be.

DL: You grew up in an era where kids collected baseball cards and went on to read National Lampoon and Rolling Stone. What was your favorite baseball card when you were 12 years old, and did people like P.J. O'Rourke influence you as much as the sportswriters?

BJ: I don't know that P.J. influenced me at all...he's more my generation. I just enjoy reading him. I remember there was a Tommie Aaron card which says that the Braves hope that he attains the same stardom as his brother. He was a rookie first baseman who had hit .231 with 8 homers in 141 games. I remember when I saw that thinking, "Wow. How can you even write something like that?"

DL: Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce?

BJ: Hemingway for shortstop, Joyce for left field.

DL: Basketball bonus question: Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell?

BJ: Well, Bill Russell was a tremendous player, and you can compare him to Joe Morgan in baseball, in that both were not only very skilled players but players for whom it was natural to do the things that lead to wins. I don't know that there is a match for Wilt in baseball--a player with more ability than anybody, with more accomplishments than anybody, but who left some questions hanging over him at the end of his career and the end of his life. He's like Nolan Ryan, but more so. I don't know to what extent Wilt is accountable for that, honestly. I would hate to hold Wilt personally responsible for the fact that he didn't get to play for Red Auerbach. Cousy, Russell and Jones may be basketball's answer to Tinker, Evers and Chance: individually maybe they weren't that impressive, but when you put them together they won a lot of games. I just don't know enough about it to pass judgment.

DL: You've been interviewed many times, but never get to ask the questions. What would you ask Bill James?

BJ: I'd like to be asked more questions to which I actually know the answers, like "Where can I buy some chewing gum?" and "Who was Mira Sorvino's father?" Veteran television actor Paul Sorvino, and at the convenience store on the corner.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of "Interviews from Red Sox Nation" which was published in 2006 by Maple Street Press. He can be reached here.

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