|Thursday, November 8
Updated: November 15, 1:23 PM ET
An interview with Bill James
ESPN.com's Rob Neyer worked as Bill James' research assistant from 1989 through 1992. The following interview was conducted via e-mail from November 1 through November 6, 2001.
Rob Neyer: First of all, congratulations on the book. At this moment I'm on page 678 (about a third of the way through your list of the top 100 left fielders) and I hope to finish by the time we're done chatting here.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract consists of substantially new material, especially so in Part 2, which includes comments on your top 100 players at each position. And it seems to me that while your primary goal in writing both the original HBA and the new edition was to give the reader a sense of what baseball was like at different points in history, the "center" of the book has changed somewhat. In the original HBA, we got that sense, for the most part, from the portion of the book labeled "The Game." But though "The Game" remains, it's really the players who take center stage in the new book, as we get hundreds of wonderful images of both the players and the conditions in which they played.
Was this change in the book's "center" -- assuming, of course, that you agree with me that the center has changed -- something you consciously set out to accomplish, or did it just sort of happen in the process of writing the new book?
Bill James: Well, regardless of what answer I may want to give you, the certainly accurate answer is that it just happened. I know that that has to be the answer, because there was a line in the first edition of the book about the first section of the book being the bulk of it or something. When I edited that section for the new edition I didn't alert on that line, so it almost made it into the final version of the book. I was reading the book this summer, and I realized that I was making an obviously false statement about the relative weight of the sections.
The first section of the book is expanded, revised, re-edited ... but recognizably the same. The second section of the book is almost 100 percent new.
Rob: That second section is titled "Player Ratings and Comments," and so I suspect that many people, skimming through and just seeing that heading, will assume that Part 2 section is 600 pages of Bill James employing his geeky statistical methods to rank the players. But really, that's not what Part 2 is about. For the most part, the comments on the players are concerned with who the players were and what it was like to see them play, as opposed to how good they were. Just flipping through at random ... in your comment on Gus Suhr (a 1930s National League first baseman), you write, "Suhr was a tall, thin man with a thin face and an elongated jaw; it must have been four inches from the point of his chin to his perpetual smile." This is just a part of the comment, and you do discuss his characteristics as a player, but my point is that if someone comes in expecting dry analyses of the players, they're going to be surprised.
Bill: Let's hope. There are, of course, some comments that are devoted to reviewing the rankings, posing the question of "Why does this player rate where he rates?" Why does Arky Vaughan rate ahead of Ernie Banks?
You can debate the ranking of the top five players at each position, more or less; after that, people are going to lose interest in doing that. The goal for the other 95 comments, in general, was to create an image of the player.
My favorite thing that I found, in researching the book, was a comment by Bill Dinneen, who played a hundred years ago. When Joe DiMaggio came to the major leagues, Dinneen went on at some length about how strongly DiMaggio reminded him of Ed Delahanty. DiMaggio, according to Dinneen, looked like Delahanty at bat, looked like Delahanty at the plate, ran like him, threw like him, everything. I just loved that quote, because the average reader has an image of Joe DiMaggio, but no visual image of Delahanty. To say that Delahanty looked for all the world like DiMaggio creates an image of Delahanty on the field, which was my basic goal: to create an image of the player in the reader's mind.
Rob: You're right, nobody's really going to care if Gus Suhr is the 73rd-greatest first baseman ever, or the 87th-greatest. You obviously enjoy writing about the players, creating an image of them, and it seems to me that creating a list of the 100 best first basemen is, more than anything, simply a convenient way of creating a group of players to write about, of whittling the list down to something manageable ... And yes, I do have a question here. A decade or so ago, you worked on something called The Biographic Encyclopedia, which was published in the three editions of "The Baseball Book" that you authored. I contributed material to that project, and to this day, long-time Bill James fans approach me and ask, "So whatever happened to the Biographic Encyclopedia of Baseball?"
So I'll ask you, are the player comments in the new book your answer?
Bill: Well, I think that the issue of how the players rate is an interesting issue in itself, and I think I would have done the rankings even if I hadn't had any comments at all about the players. I could have just run lists of the top 100 players at each position ... the lists themselves would be kind of interesting. Or I could have written comments about the top 50, and just listed the second 50, but a lot of times the most interesting people are the people who weren't perennial All-Stars.
There is no direct connection between the player comments and the Biographic Encyclopedia, except that they come from the same internal impulse. I am curious to know who these people were, what their stories were. I tried to pose those questions in that form (The Biographic Encyclopedia) and I enjoyed doing it, but I didn't know where to go with it or how to sustain the effort. This is a different package with a lot of the same material inside, and also, there is no point in doing bios of Ted Williams and Ty Cobb, because people already know who those guys were, so in those cases I would spin off in some other direction.
Rob: Bill, I'm just dying to ask you about the Negro Leaguers, in fact I've been dying to ask you about them for months, ever since I found out that you were including them in your rankings. But it's probably better to start off with some background ... The ratings in the book are based, in large part, on a new invention of yours called Win Shares. I know that it's not something you can fully explain in 200 words or less, but could you give us a quick sketch of the method, and the philosophy behind it?
Bill: Win Shares is a system of crediting the accomplishments of teams to individual players -- in essence, a way of saying how many games have been "won" by each individual player. Every thing that a player does may be seen as being a piece of a win; if he gets a hit, if he steals a base, that's a small piece of a win. If he pitches an inning, that's a small piece of a win; if he pitches a shutout, that's a big piece of a win. If he turns a double play, that's a piece of a win. Win Shares is a way of adding up a player's small pieces of wins into his share of the team's success. It's like Runs Created, only it is, in essence, Wins Created.
There is an absolute 3-to-1 ratio between Win Shares and Wins. If a team wins 100 games, their players have 300 Win Shares, absolutely and without exception.
For many years, I assumed that it would be impossible to figure a player's contribution to his team's wins in this way without giving an unfair advantage to a player on a good team. When I realized that this was untrue -- that one could figure Win Shares in such a way that a player on a bad team would rate just the same as the same player on a good team -- then I began working through the system, figuring Win Shares for every player in major league history.
Rob: There's more to your player rankings than Win Shares, but they are certainly the foundation upon which the rankings are built. A few years ago, I devoted a couple of months' worth of columns to ranking the best players at each position, and I wound up with Arky Vaughan as my No. 5 shortstop. This was higher than you'll see him ranked nearly anywhere else and so a number of readers asked, "Arky who?" Well, you've got Vaughan as the second-greatest shortstop of all time, behind only Honus Wagner. Do you think this is the single biggest surprise among your rankings? And what made Vaughan such a great player, yet so underrated since?
Bill: Vaughan was a great offensive player, a competent, workmanlike shortstop. What made him a great player was .320 to .385 batting averages, with a lot of walks, with terrific speed, with some power, playing short.
A series of things have happened since 1941 to obscure his reputation. First, he left baseball during World War II before reaching 3,000 hits and the other "career" numbers that would create an easy identity for him in the minds of people who didn't see him play. Second, he died young, in a boating accident, so that he was never "around" to be a source of stories. Third, when people think of great shortstops, they look first for great defensive shortstops, which he wasn't. And fourth, although he is the second-greatest shortstop of all time, he is also the second-greatest shortstop in the history of his own team. As great as he was, he could never make people forget Honus Wagner.
A contrast would be Lou Boudreau, essentially a contemporary of Vaughan's. Boudreau was a great player, but Boudreau was slow while Vaughan was fast, and Arky hit 25 points higher and had more power. But Boudreau stayed around the game for years afterward as a broadcaster and public figure, so people my age remember him, even though we never saw him play.
As to who else would be a surprise in the rankings ... well, it all depends on who it would be a surprise to, doesn't it? Most of your readers, I suspect, have some idea how I think, because we often reason along the same lines. Are people surprised that Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker rate ahead of Billy Herman and Nellie Fox? I suppose some people are, yes. I rated Stan Hack ahead of Pie Traynor; that's certainly not a consensus pick. I rated Alan Trammell ahead of Pee Wee Reese, Jim Fregosi ahead of Maury Wills.
Somebody reviewed the book and was irritated that I had ranked Hank Greenberg only eighth at the position. He should talk to the George Sisler fans in St. Louis; Sisler was 24th. But you can't rate each player where his fans want him to be rated.
Rob: When I came up with my rankings, I wrote about the Negro League greats, "The problem is, where do they rank? Like it or not, the lingua franca of these discussions is statistics, and the statistics we have for the Negro Leaguers are essentially worthless. ... So while I freely acknowledge that some pre-Jackie Robinson players were quite possibly good enough to rank among the all-time greats, I can go no further than that."
In retrospect, I wish that I'd written that those pre-Jackie Robinson black players were quite certainly good enough. But I still wouldn't try to actually slot even the greatest players.
You have, though. You've got 12 black players born between 1867 and 1918 in your top 100, which strikes me as eminently reasonable. But do you have any confidence that Mule Suttles is the 43rd greatest player of all time -- as you have him listed -- rather than the 23rd or 63rd greatest? And if so, why?
Bill: Well, I tried to slot them in somewhat. I slotted them into the top 100 players of all time, without respect to position. But I didn't try to slot them in by position -- Biz Mackey next to Buck Ewing among the catchers -- because of exactly the problem you cite: there would be too much guesswork. Perhaps somebody who knows the Negro Leagues better than I do could do that; I couldn't.
When we attempt to rate the Negro League players, or if we were to attempt to rate players with no statistics whatsoever, we face exactly the same question we face with white players: How good a player was he? The question doesn't change; what changes is the quality of the evidence. And yes, the quality of the evidence regarding Negro League players is not nearly as good as the evidence about white players.
Still, about someone like Mule Suttles, you can ask the same subordinate questions you would ask about a white player. What did he do well? What did he do poorly? Who was he comparable to? For how long a period of time was he a great player? These are the same questions for Suttles as they are for Jim Rice or for Del Ennis. And we know enough about Mule Suttles, from the work of researchers like John Holway, James Riley and Phil Dixon, from the autobiographical works of people like Quincy Trouppe, Buck O'Neil, and Sol White, to have a reasonably good idea what the answers to those questions are.
Rob: Last week in a chat session, I somewhat rashly offered to take questions from my readers for you, and forward them along in the course of this interview. To that end, Scott Lemieux writes, "I would be interested in hearing more about why Bill ranks Mattingly several slots ahead of Hernandez. By the Win Shares methodology, it seems that Hernandez rates ahead (slightly behind in peak, well ahead in career). I'm guessing, then, that Mattingly rates ahead on subjective factors? I agree entirely with James that players should not be ranked by formula alone, but this seems odd to me. After all, Hernandez was a respected team leader on two World Championship teams; Mattingly was a respected leader on teams that won almost nothing. Is Hernandez downgraded because of his drug use or something? His ranking of Mattingly implies that DM is a HOFer, and I just don't see it. Incredible book, though ..."
Bill: I didn't downgrade Hernandez for any reason, and I certainly didn't give Hernandez a low subjective number. After all, Hernandez ranks ahead of four first basemen (Dan Brouthers, Norm Cash, Roger Connor and Jake Beckley) who had more career Win Shares than he did. I may have given Mattingly a fairly good subjective number; I certainly didn't give Keith a bad one.
Lemieux says that, by the Win Shares method, Hernandez rates ahead, but why? Mattingly's best seasons are 34, 32 and 29 Win Shares; Hernandez's are 33, 29 and 29. Mattingly's best five-year run is 146 Win Shares; Hernandez's is 136.
I read that as saying that, at their best, Mattingly was ahead by a notable margin. The fact that Hernandez hung on a little longer doesn't necessarily outweigh that. I think they are close enough together that the statistical method doesn't reliably distinguish between them, and that good arguments can be made for either man.
Rob: Here's another question, from Seth Bonime ... "Bill, I'm thoroughly enjoying the book, and so far I have one big question ... What happened to Peak Value and Career Value? This was one of the more interesting ideas in the original book, that these are two fundamentally different questions. The answer this time is, well, you take two parts Peak, one part Career, and average them. Why the change? Just because two rankings were too confusing?"
Bill: In the 1970s there was a U.S. Senator who had, as a part of his stump speech, a one-liner that became very famous. After a while he stopped using the line, but the line had become so famous that he was frequently asked why he no longer used it. "Everybody's heard it," he explained. "Only in politics, having made a joke a hundred times, are you expected to go on repeating it for the rest of your life."
I still made that distinction, between peak and career value, sometimes in this book, when it was relevant. But in the other book, the original version of this book, I was mainly concerned with ranking the players, and only occasionally with trying to say something else about the player. In this book, I was primarily concerned, or at least centrally concerned, with trying to evoke images of the players. I didn't want to spend more time than I had to explaining or elaborating on the rankings; I wanted to write about the players themselves. It would have been an awkward construction to deal with separate lists.
What would I have done? Listed the players by peak value, listed them by career value, then written comments about them on a combined list? Then I would have had three lists, plus I'd have had 150 players per position ... Jeez, I'd never have finished the book. It gives me chills just thinking about it. It was just something that didn't work for this book.
Rob: As Wayne Campbell would say, "Good answer, good answer ..."
You mentioned Win Shares earlier in the interview, and according to a note in your new book, they'll be explained in greater detail in another new book. Can you tell us what to expect in the Win Shares book, and when we can expect to see it?
Bill: Due out in March. The Win Shares book has a long, long explanation of the Win Shares system, a few dozen articles looking at various issues and player comparisons in different ways, and many long charts of Win Shares.
Rob: Thanks very much for doing this interview, Bill. I did finish reading your new book while we were doing this, and now I'm going back and rereading some of my favorite parts. Before we let you go, could you briefly tell us what Win Shares says about Barry Bonds' 2001 season? Again, thanks ...
Bill: Barry Bonds in 2001 had the greatest season by a hitter in the history of baseball. He is credited with 52.2 Win Shares for his work as a hitter -- three more than anybody else, ever.
Comparing him to Williams and Musial ... well, my approach to this is that, as long as Bonds is active, I rate him as low as he can reasonably be rated. I can always move him up; but if I overrate him now, it's hard to explain why he moved down the list.
Williams and Musial are such great players that, to achieve the status of being clearly better than they were is all but impossible. Bonds hasn't done it yet, although he is clearly in the same group. I think Musial and Williams still have more career Win Shares than Bonds does.
Bill James' latest book, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is now available in bookstores everywhere.