Nerding out on baseball at the Museum of Science

Pax Arcana

Pax Arcana and the luminous and courageous Mrs. Pax Arcana beat a path down to the Boston Museum of Science last night to hear Bill James, the grand poobah of baseball nerds, and his protege Rob Neyer hold forth on a variety of baseball related topics.

A few quick observations:

1) Bill James is legendarily difficult to figure out, and is clearly uncomfortable with people. He came across as pleasant and funny, but also had difficulty answering direct questions from the audience. It seemed as though he lacked the ability to bridge the gap between what the person asked and what the person meant to ask — a valuable social skill that most of us develop at some point.

2) If I bought into such theories — and I’m not sure I do — James seems to fit into that category of ultra-smart numbers geeks that are quite possibly on the autism spectrum somewhere. People have said the same about Bill Gates for years because of his social awkwardness, inability to remember names, and fidgety personal habits. James is articulate when discussing baseball statistics, but can’t remember anybody’s name, at one point transposing Leo Mazzone and Lee Mazilli. He also rubs his fingertips together constantly.

After the jump, why Bill James says Barry Bonds should go to the Hall of Fame.

Probably because they’re sick of explaining VORP ad nauseum, James and Neyer dove right into the deep stuff last night. As James puts it, he hesitates to discuss what statistical analysis has taught us about baseball, because it indirectly implies that we’ve learned everything there is to know. In his opinion, what we know are tiny islands of knowledge in a vast sea of ignorance. He prefers to talk about elements of the game that he has not yet been able to measure.

For example, there is what he calls “The Dick Allen Problem.”

Dick Allen was a talented baseball player for the Phillies in the 1960s who had trouble getting along with management and many of his fellow players. Many believe Allen was a clubhouse cancer whose antics (he fought with teammates on a few different occasions and once missed a double-header because he was stuck in traffic) cost the Phillies wins.

The problem for James is how to measure the impact of a player’s personality on the team’s wins and losses. He has no idea how to go about doing that, but thinks it will have to involve practices from other scientific disciplines, such as organizational psychology. He sharply disputes the idea that off-field behavior doesn’t matter.

“There are some people who seem to think the things that happen off the field have no effect on teams whatsoever. That strikes me as idiotic,” he says.

About Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, James hews to his numbers-based approach and refrains from diving into the murky waters of ethics and morality. “If you choose to feel cheated, I can’t argue with that,” he tells an audience member. “I choose to feel a different way.”

Bonds was “the greatest ballplayer I’ve ever seen,” James says, and Clemens deserves admiration for his big league career. James doesn’t have a Hall of Fame vote, but clearly believes both should sail in with no problem. Neyer chimes in that it’s difficult single out guys like Bonds and Clemens in a Hall of Fame discussion, because they were probably going to make it regardless of whatever cheating took place. The more interesting question, he says, is with guys like Rafael Palmiero, who wouldn’t have been considered HoF-worthy had he not tacked on four or five allegedly steroid-fueled years at the end.

James goes as far as to say that the evolution of bat technology in 1990s may have played a greater role in the offensive boom of the recent era than performance enhancing drugs. By kiln drying and compacting maple bats — and covering them with three coats of lacquer, James argues the bats are far harder than they ever were when Hank Aaron was swinging them. He’d like to see the rules changed to eliminate these processes.

One of James’ persistent themes is that while he believes the numbers tell one story, he doesn’t believe they should overrule the experience of men with intimate knowledge of the game. If a scout sees a guy with a “great swing” but bad numbers in college ball, James isn’t going to argue taking a chance on him. Still, he sees it as his job to advocate positions based on statistical analysis.

“That’s my whole life right there. I know you know more than me about this, but I think you’re wrong,” he says.

James and Neyer agree that some of the lingering traditions of minor league development have to go. Neyer mentions the New York Mets (official baseball team of Pax Arcana), and the saga of a AAA outfielder named Valentino Pascucci. At some point in his minor league career, Pascucci was labeled a “non-prospect.” So despite the fact that he’s performed well at the AAA level for the Mets, he remains in the minors with the “non-prospect” stigma wrapped around his ankle like a lead weight. Meanwhile, Marlon Anderson is with the big club sucking up at bats while the Mets keep losing.

We want the cooch! We want the cooch!

Speaking of player development, James addressed last year’s assignment of Red Sox pitcher Clay Buccholz back to the minors even after the youngster threw a no-hitter in the fall. He used Buccholz as a case study in trusting the numbers, even if you don’t know why they are the way they are.

“Someone, I can’t remember who because I’m bad with names, figured out that pitchers that pitch more than 30 innings more than the previous season have a higher likelihood of arm injuries,” James says. “I don’t know why that is, but we don’t take the chance.”

Other topics included the difference between the National League and American League when considering player personnel. James says that while the AL has clearly pulled ahead of the NL on the team level, the difference is practically negligible on the individual level. Somewhere J.D. Drew just hit another double.

James was reluctant to discuss specifics about his current employer, the Boston Red Sox, but he was not shy in praising the coaching staff. While he struggles to come up with ways of measuring the success of, say, a batting coach or manager, he gave the impression that he knows one when he sees one. For example, on the subject of pitching coaches, he had this to say:

“What I do know is that John Farrell is a heck of a lot better than the guy we had before.”

Say hi, Dave Wallace:



1 Comment

Filed under baseball

One response to “Nerding out on baseball at the Museum of Science

  1. Buchholz, not Buccholz. Thanks for the writeup.

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