George William "Bill” James (born October 5, 1949, in Holton, Kansas) is a baseball writer, historian, and statistician whose work has been widely influential. Since 1977, James has written more than two dozen books devoted to baseball history and statistics. His approach, which he termed sabermetrics in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), scientifically analyzes and studies baseball, often through the use of statistical data, in an attempt to determine why teams win and lose. His Baseball Abstract books in the 1980s are the modern predecessor to websites using sabermetrics such as Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Primer (now Baseball Think Factory).
Although James may be best known as an inventor of statistical tools, he has often written on the limitations of statistics and urged humility concerning their place amidst other kinds of information about baseball. To James, context is paramount: he was among the first to emphasize the importance of adjusting traditional statistics for park factors and to stress the role of luck in a pitcher’s win-loss record. Many of his statistical innovations are arguably less important than the underlying ideas. When he introduced the notion of secondary average, it was as a vehicle for the then-counterintuitive concept that batting average represents only a fraction of a player’s offensive contribution. (The runs-created statistic plays a similar role vis-à-vis the traditional RBI.) Some of his contributions to the language of baseball, like the idea of the "defensive spectrum”, border on being entirely non-statistical.
While the resulting non-profit organization never functioned smoothly, it worked well enough to collect accounts of every game from 1984 through 1991. James’s publisher agreed to distribute two annuals of essays and data – the 1987 and 1988 editions of Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Statbook (though only the first of these featured writing by James).
The organization was eventually disbanded, but many of its members went on to form for-profit companies with similar goals and structure. STATS, Inc., the company James joined, provided data and analysis to every major media outlet before being acquired by Fox Sports in 2001.
Acceptance in mainstream baseball
In 2003, James was hired by a former reader, John Henry, the new owner of the Boston Red Sox.
One point of controversy was in handling the relief pitching of the Red Sox. James had previously published analysis of the use of the closer in baseball, and had concluded that the traditional use of the closer both overrated the abilities of that individual, and used him in suboptimal circumstances. He wrote that it is "far better to use your relief ace when the score is tied, even if that is the seventh inning, than in the ninth inning with a lead of two or more runs.” The Red Sox in 2003 staffed their bullpen with several marginally talented relievers. Red Sox manager Grady Little was never fully comfortable with the setup, and designated unofficial closers and reshuffled roles after a bad outing. When Boston lost a number of games due to bullpen failures, Little reverted to a traditional closer approach and moved Byung-Hyun Kim from being a starting pitcher to a closer. The Red Sox did not follow James’ idea of a bullpen with no closer, but with consistent overall talent that would allow the responsibilities to be shared. Red Sox reliever Alan Embree thought the plan could have worked if the bullpen had not suffered injuries. During the 2004 regular season Keith Foulke was used primarily as a closer in the conventional model; however, Foulke’s usage in the 2004 postseason was along the lines of a relief ace with multiple inning appearances at pivotal times of the game. Houston Astros manager Phil Garner also employed a relief ace model with his use of Brad Lidge in the 2004 postseason.
James is still (2010) employed by the Red Sox, having published several new sabermetric books during his tenure (see Bibliography, below). Indeed, although James is typically tight-lipped about his activities on behalf of the Red Sox, he is credited with advocating some of the moves that led to the team’s first World Series championship in 86 years, including the signing of non-tendered free agent David Ortiz, the trade for Mark Bellhorn, and the team’s increased emphasis on on-base percentage. During his time with the Red Sox, Bill James has received two World Series rings for the team’s 2004 and 2007 victories.
Sabermetrician Martin Bernstein points out on Baseball Prospectus that knowledge is pointless without application. Following the aforementioned Red Sox and Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics, most major league teams today use sabermetrics and statistic tracking. But although sabermetrics is mostly accepted within baseball, Bernstein says that there is another frontier – the average fan still does not readily use or accept sabermetrics. Beane is such a renowned figure not for his actual innovations in specific statistics or ideas, but for his open-mindedness and application of knowledge that led other’s inside baseball to apply sabermetrics as well. Bernstein concludes that the next most important innovation in the field will be in getting fans to accept and use sabermetic knowledge, and that this goal should be the main focus of sabermetricians until it is accomplished.
The Mind of Bill James, a biography-cum-chronicle of James’s works was published in the spring of 2006. How Bill James Changed Our View of the Game of Baseball was published in February 2007. He was profiled on 60 Minutes on March 30, 2008, in his role as a sabermetric pioneer and Red Sox advisor.