Archive for Monday, May 28, 2007

Woodling: James deserves ranking

May 28, 2007


Lawrence is the 100th most-livable metropolitan area in the country. Or so says a Frommer's travel guide.

Do you agree? Either way, it's all subjective. You can't prove Lawrence is or isn't No. 100. So it goes with rankings, the enduring staple of manufactured news.

People love rankings. I know it, you know it, and people who buy ink by the barrel know it. So we churn them out from time to time in order to enhance the bottom line.

Newsweek, for instance, ranked the 100 best high schools in the country in last week's issue. No Kansas high schools were listed. Does that mean Sunflower State high schools stink? Of course not. Ratings are meaningless.

No one knows that better than Bill James, the nationally known baseball guru who unequivocally can claim the unofficial title of Lawrence's Most Ranked Man.

Just last month, USA Today Sports Weekly's cover story revealed its 50 Most Influential People in Baseball. "Who's Our No. 1?" the sub-head asked. I won't keep you in suspense. It was Bud Selig, as if we should have expected someone other than the commissioner of baseball.

Way down the list at No. 43 was James, who was sandwiched between Atlanta Braves' skipper Bobby Cox and the two San Francisco Chronicle investigative reporters who broke the BALCO story.

None of this is strange territory for James, who also has been ranked on similar lists by Baseball America and Sporting News magazines. And a year ago, Time Magazine tapped James as one of the 100 most influential thinkers in the world - an appellation James characterized as "truly bizarre."

Not that James hasn't had an influence on baseball. He is, after all, the man who came up with such statistical new-think as runs created, win shares, range factor and major-league equivalency.

If you're familiar with James' writings, you know his Baseball Historical Abstract ranks the top 50 players at each position based partly on his formulas, partly on standard statistics and partly on the inevitable transitional shifts of the game.

Sure, his rankings are subjective. They have to be, but they're based on an interpretation of the facts. And that's what bugs James about all those listings that include him.

"How seriously can you take that stuff?" he told me. "My being influential - or ANYONE being influential - has no exact definition, but it has become conventional wisdom.

"As a person who has made his career challenging conventional wisdom, I am honor-bound to point out the lack of a solid empirical method supporting this position."

In other words, if you don't have any facts, then it's strictly fiction.

At the same time, however, people gobble up rankings whether they're based on fact or arbitrarily compiled based almost solely on the perception of one or more people.

I know this. Not everyone believes James has had a profound impact on the National Pastime. They're the people who believe the designated hitter is an aberration. They're the ones who believe all leadoff hitters must be fast and steal bases. They're the inside-the-box thinkers.

Bill James has been outside the box so long he's forgotten what cardboard looks like. Is he among the top 50 most influential people in baseball? Of course.


Horace 11 years ago

I just wish James would teach a class at KU.

Sean Livingstone 11 years ago

Ranking doesn't reflect anything, if at all. There are many highly ranked universities that use TA to teach everything. There are some states that basically give out monies to their universities for research so that they can rank high. And of course, there are some universities that issue way too many Ph.Ds.

I remember once Boise, ID ranked no. 1 as the best place to live in the USA (Boise can win so many other cities!!!). I also remember once Ford had high reliability ranking for their 1 yo models (1 yo, my goodness).

I agree, don't look at ranking, look at yourself.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.