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Archive for Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Woodling: James on top of game

October 1, 2003

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Bill James surprised me Tuesday. I figured James, Lawrence's nationally known baseball statistics guru, would know if the Boston Red Sox had knocked baseball's most legendary team out of the record books.

But he didn't.

"Wait a minute," James told me. "It'll take about 20 seconds."

Momentarily, James went to his computer, hit a couple of keys and, sure enough, he confirmed the 2003 Red Sox had indeed compiled a higher slugging percentage than the fabled 1927 New York Yankees.

How about that? The Red Sox didn't even have the best record in the American League and their team slugging percentage of .491 wiped a 76-year-old record off the books. The '27 Yankees, with feared sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, had a .489 slugging percentage.

James was hired by the Red Sox last winter to provide management with data about possible free-agent acquisitions and potential trade prospects. At the time, James received a lot of publicity because baseball teams hire statistical analysts, aka sabremeticians, about as often as thoroughbred owners hire quarterbacks.

James came upon the national baseball scene in the early 1980s with the publication of his controversial but readable Baseball Abstract, a mixture of mathematical formulas and player ratings punctuated with colorful prose. For instance, he once wrote that one team didn't know the difference between a baseball player and a hot-air balloon.

Some of his formulas were over-the-top. Others were inconsequential. Yet he was the first to stress the importance of on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

The 2003 Red Sox are testimony to James' long-held beliefs.

You know about the Red Sox' slugging percentage, but Boston also led the league in on-base percentage (.360). In addition, the Red Sox had the league's highest batting average (by a eye-opening 20 points), scored more runs, hit more doubles and finished second in home runs (one fewer than the Texas Rangers).

Boston, in fact, unleashed the most potent offense baseball has seen in years and James deserves at least some of the credit because he is part of the Red Sox' braintrust.

Not that James is trotting out the personal pronouns.

"Some members of the media have overstated my input," he said. "But I do take a lot of pride in what we did as a team."

Naysayers might point out the Red Sox should be a good-hitting team. After all, they play in ancient Fenway Park with its short left-field wall. That may be, but James has always taken park factors into account and he says Fenway has not been a hitter-friendly stadium over the last few years.

"This year, for some reason," he said, "they scored a lot of runs there."

In fact, the Red Sox scored 532 runs at home and 429 on the road. Yet, as James pointed out, "I'll bet that 429 was the most runs a team scored on the road this year."

You'll have to forgive James if he hasn't completed a statistical breakdown on the entire 2003 season. He has other pages to turn. His latest book, compiled with Rob Neyer, is due next spring. It will list hundreds of pitchers and their favorite pitches.

So what was the favorite pitch, I asked him, of Bill James, the right-hander who won 26 games for the Boston Braves of 1914?

"Ah, let me look that up," he replied.

Moments later, I learned from Bill James that Bill James, the old Braves pitcher, relied mostly on the spitball and the change-up. I also was informed that Bill James, a pitcher of the same vintage who was with five major-league clubs, is not in Bill James' new book.

This has no real significance, but Lawrence's Bill James stands 6-foot-4 and the two former major-league pitchers of the same name are listed in the record books at 6-4 and 6-3. James also will tell you that Bob James, a hurler with the White Sox in the '80s, was about his size, too.

"And he had a beard just like me," James said. "His weight was 205, but I think that was his baseball weight. He probably weighed closer to what I do."

Baseball statistical analysts don't have to list their weight, but James is definitely a heavyweight, both on the scales and in the pantheon of baseball sabremetics.

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