Fire Brand interviews Bill James

I had the pleasure of asking Bill James a few questions the other day, and his answers are here for your pleasure…

In an interview with Slate Magazine in 2003, you say this: “Well, no, there is no such thing as a Four A hitter. That idea, as I understand it, envisions a “gap” between the majors and Triple A, with some players who fall into the gap. There is no such gap. In fact, there is a very significant overlap between the major leagues and Triple A. Many of the players in Triple A are better than many of the players in the majors.”

If many of the players in Triple-A are better than many in the majors, why don’t they get the shots that the weaker players do?

Does Devern deserve to be
in
the majors? – Eric Kilby

Suppose that two players come to the majors at the same time, one of them a .280 hitter and the other a .270 hitter. . .supposing for the purpose of illustration that all baseball skills may be expressed in batting average.   The .270 hitter may start out 14-for-40 (.350), earning him an extended opportunity to play.   The .280 hitter may start out 5-for-35 (.143), and may never get another clean shot at a job. 

Do you suppose that all of the best singers in the world have top dollar recording contracts, or do you suppose that some of them were just never in the right place at the right time?   Do you suppose that all of the best actors in the world are in the movies?   Same thing.   Being in the right place at the right time, having a few things break your way at a crucial moment. . .it’s huge.

You mentioned in that Slate issue and in an interview with the Hardball Times that you think  league-perspective decision making is the next frontier of sabermetrics. For Slate you mentioned the league supplying baseball bats; for Hardball Times you mentioned having four divisions instead of three with a wild card. What else could baseball stand to improve?

Well. . .I’m not sure how you got from league-perspective decision making to what else baseball could stand to improve.     But answering the question, staging the game.    We’re working on it, but the games still drag on sometimes, and in many stadiums the scoreboards are controlled by six-year-olds who seem to be mainlining caffeine. 

Why do you think pitchers parks are more conducive to winning than hitters parks? (Your interview with Rich Lederer at Baseball Analysts.)

Petco Park is a huge pitcher’s park
- oh snap

Expectations and confidence.   The learning curve is different for hitters and pitchers; the experience of adjusting to the majors is totally different.   Pitchers coming to the major leagues need to learn to focus, relax, and make good pitches.   It is easier to do that in a pitcher’s park than a hitter’s park.   But there is no parallel benefit for a hitter coming to the majors in a hitter’s park, because either you can hit or you can’t.   Teams working in a pitcher’s park have a better chance to develop a strong and deep pitching rotation, but teams working in a hitter’s park have no more chance to develop good hitters.   The park simply makes them LOOK better; it doesn’t make them ACTUALLY better.   A pitcher’s park, over time, helps pitchers learn to be ACTUALLY better. 

I talked to former Reds GM Brad Kullman a couple years ago about the future of pitching and “endurance.” He oversaw a unique system in the Reds’ minor league system at the Class-A level and below. Instead of one starter going as long as he can, the Reds pulled their pitchers after three to five innings and replaced them with another pitcher who then goes a maximum of three to five innings. The reasoning was that if pitchers were to continually decrease in endurance to save their body from injuries, why not decrease it significantly, to three to six innings, so they can exit while their arm is fresh and bounce back quicker? “If we, as an industry, are going to continually limit starting pitcher workloads with arbitrary pitch and inning counts, why not at least get them out there one day sooner?” asks Kullman.

What do you think? Should baseball head to having starting pitchers pitch less per outing but possibly increase the number of outings, or should we trend back towards having starting pitchers stay out there longer?

Well, it’s a complicated issue with a lot of different theories around, and I don’t have the expertise to sort them all out.   There are also people who think that, if you want pitchers to pitch complete games in the major leagues, you need to start asking them to pitch longer in the minor leagues.    I don’t think either argument is going to win, because I don’t think it’s a logical argument.   History will go wherever history is going.

Casey Kelly is a two-way player for the Sox
in the minors  – Courtesy

Why aren’t there more two-way players in baseball? Micah Owings, for example. Why not give him a couple games at first or the outfield to get his bat into play?

To ensure that he doesn’t develop properly in either role?  I don’t know, honestly; it may be that you’re right, and players could do both.    The thinking of major league field personnel is that the game is too hard to divide your attention and succeed at the highest level in multiple roles.   I don’t know that they’re right, but I don’t see any evidence that they’re wrong.

You’ve said that Bret Saberhagen is the closest you’ve come to seeing a pitcher achieve perfection. Which active pitcher would you say comes the closest?

Another Royal. . .Zack Greinke.     At the end of the season he had that same look that Saberhagen did in the 1980s and Catfish Hunter did in the 1970s–that he was doing effortlessly the things that everybody else struggles to do.   

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