Bill James is back.
Sure, it’s not like he actually disappeared—he has been busy helping the Red Sox win two World Series in the past four years—but for baseball fans, there’s not been a Bill James book to read since the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers in 2004. For a book that was completely written by James, you have to go back to the 2002 Win Shares book and his 2001 New Historical Baseball Abstract.
It’s the longest drought of James’ writing since he began penning the Baseball Abstract at home in 1977. That book eventually grew into one of the most anticipated annual titles.
But the father of modern statistical analysis is back this year with the Bill James Gold Mine, a book that pairs 17 James’ essays with statistical snippets and notes on all 30 major league teams. In addition, James has founded Bill James Online, a subscription site that will continually be updated with additional essays and profiles.
It may have been a long drought, but it’s one that’s been ended with a book that will leave longtime Bill James fans happy. The essays give James plenty of chances to unveil his extremely readable, and funny, writing style in a manner that will remind longtime readers of the Abstract. Like the Abstract, the new book is organized in team-by-team chapters, with stats and notes on each team. And like the Abstract, the chapters are separated by essays that may be loosely tied to the team that was just covered.
“There are a lot of things in common with the Baseball Abstract,” James said. “It has more in common than anything I’ve done in the interim. I can’t do an Abstract now because I’m 58 years old. I’m too old and I don’t have the energy. If I did it now, it would be the end of me . . . But there are strong similarities between this book and the Abstract.”
What jumps out about the Gold Mine is its randomness. Essays about who are the most consistent players of all time follows one called the Turk Farrell award, which recognizes the unluckiest pitchers of all time. If you’re looking for a consistent theme from one page to the next, look elsewhere, but that’s by design.
“That’s the way my mind works. I bounce topics around my mind, I always have. It’s hard for me to write in any other way. It’s more natural for me to write in that way.
“In the 1970s I remember thinking how easy it was to get into a magazine and how hard it was to get into a book,” James said. “So I decided I would create a book with a magazine feel. So that’s what I’ve done for most of my books.”
The origins of the new book and the online site actually go back to 2004. James started thinking about how many obvious baseball questions still lacked answers. He decided to make a list of all of those questions he could think of, then go about starting to answer them.
In this case he meant questions with tangible answers, like how many of Prince Fielder’s RBIs came on doubles compared to singles.
It’s taken him four years to go from the seed of the idea to a book. The Gold Mine is more about explaining answers to those questions and adding some interesting facts than it is predicting why the Tigers will win in 2008. Add in some of James’ memory for the history of the game and you get articles like a small essay that compares the current Brewers to the Dodgers of the early 1970s. Both had a surplus of talented infielders, but needed to figure out where to play them.
“I know very well that the Detroit Tigers fans know more about the Tigers than I do,” James said. “I’m reluctant to tell Braves fans about the Atlanta Braves. So what I’ve always done is, here’s some facts about this team and here’s what interests me. I wouldn’t feel comfortable to try to explain the Braves to Braves fans.
“I can’t speak for anybody else. A lot of people who write tend to assume that they are experts and write as an expert. I never have. I’ve always assumed that all I know is what the facts clearly show.”
What has made James a baseball treasure is the way his mind works. He focuses more on what he doesn’t know than what he does. He doesn’t try to necessarily answer what he doesn’t know by trying to fit it within the framework of his previous knowledge. It means that the answers aren’t always what he expected, but he’s open-minded enough to accept whatever the research shows.
“I’m not a disciplined person, but I’ve always tried to look at the world through what I don’t know,” James said. “It’s not easy, but because we know so little. We don’t understand very much about anything.”
Because of that, there should be years of Gold Mines to come as long as there are still questions to be answered.