Bill James

If ever you’ve tried to wonder why I seem to talk about stats more than most, this is the answer:

“Bullshit has tremendous advantages over knowledge. Bullshit can be created as needed, on demand, without limit. Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.

“There was a Kansas football game a year ago; some Texas-based football team, much better than Kansas, came to Lawrence and struggled through the first quarter — KU with, like, a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. The rest of the game, KU lost, like, 37-0, or something. The announcer had an immediate explanation for it: The Texas team flew in the day before, they spent the night sleeping in a strange hotel; it takes them a while to get their feet on the ground.

“It’s pure bullshit, of course, but he was paid to say that … if it had happened the other way, and KU had lost the first quarter, 24-0, and then ‘won’ the rest of the game 17-14 (thus losing 38-17) … if that had happened, we both know that the announcer would have had an immediate explanation for why THAT had happened. … Bullshit is without limit.”

Then:

“As I saw it, baseball had two distinct mountains of material. One the one hand, there was a mountain of traditional wisdom, things that people said over and over again. On the other hand, there was a mountain of statistics. My work was to build a bridge between those two mountains. A statistician is concerned what baseball statistics ARE. I had no concern with what they are. I didn’t care, and I don’t care, whether Mike Schmidt hit .306 or .296 against left-handed pitching. I was concerned with what the statistics MEAN.

“Sportswriters, in my opinion, almost never use baseball statistics to try to understand baseball. They use statistics to decorate their articles. They use statistics as a club in the battle for what they believe intuitively to be correct. That is why sportswriters often believe that you can prove anything with statistics, an obscene and ludicrous position, but one which is the natural outgrowth of the way that they themselves use statistics. What I wanted to do was teach people instead to use statistics as a sword to cut toward the truth.”

Until very recently I was of the same mind.  (not the teaching bit, but the general point of using available data to get to the bottom of things).  I felt that there was an awful lot of bullshit talked about football, a lot of it from people who seemed far more certain in their views than it felt like they ought to be.  Now I don’t know why, but I was keen to offer alternative perspectives.   To get closer to a truth.  It wasn’t good enough that people could say “I don’t need stats to tell me that.  I’ve been watching football for 50 years and I trust my eyes”…. opinions really are like arseholes, we do all have one.  Having read Bill James for years I felt that bringing evidence, no matter how foggy, into discussions, would help.  So people would slate Bobby Zamora for not scoring goals, or Dickson Etuhu for not looking like the most technically accomplished footballer, or Clint Dempsey for whatever beef they had with him, or Chris Baird for various sins, or Bryan Ruiz for not trying, and these thoughts just felt lazy to me so I challenged them however I could.  I don’t quite know why I bothered but I was watching Fulham every week then and writing about them every day and, dammit, it felt important.  Sometimes this challenging (as with Ruiz) has been wishful thinking, sometimes I think that trying to look at things from other angles has been instructive.

However this little crusade might have seen, I wasn’t remotely arrogant enough to suppose that I had all the answers, but I did feel that there were ways of getting at truths that might advance discussions (certainly the comments in CCN over the years have taught me enormous amounts, more than anything else I suspect).

Why though?  Well who knows why?  Ultimately none of this matters, and lord knows nobody likes being lectured/hectored about their hobby, but you know how it is: people can and will discuss football in great depth, over and over and over.   Like Bill James, I wasn’t obsessed with stats, but I was, and am, interested in another perspective.

The Secret Footballer has a new book out and in its introduction he rails against the new wave of armchair experts, noting that the only way you can really understand is to be involved, or have been involved, in the game.  Now, he has books to sell, and of course he has a point, but they thought this in baseball until very recently, too, until it became obvious that ignoring different approaches to learning about the game was literally self-defeating.

But he is right. We’re all on the outside of the game and so there’s a limit to what we can really understand.  So we do our best to get at a truth by whatever means we can.

Sorry if this seems a bit self-serving – it isn’t meant to – but many of you have been kind enough to read this website for 8 years or so, and this article seemed very relevant to whatever underlying ethos you might find in the words I’ve written down the years.  (Bill James self-published his books for five years too, which directly inspired me to do the Fulham Review).  Anyway, thanks. As you were.

4 thoughts on “Bill James

  1. Amen as usual to this kind of thing. This reminded me of a Joe Sheehan rant from a couple years ago. Sheehan is my favorite baseball writer. I hope you don’t mind me pasting it in full, I really like it:

    As you surely know, Sunday’s Super Bowl was interrupted early in the third quarter when about half the Superdome’s lights went out. The game was delayed for 34 minutes, and from the time the game resumed to the end, the San Francisco 49ers played better than they had prior to that point. For most, this made the loss of lighting a key trigger event in the game. I spent some time on Twitter yesterday pointing out how silly this was — even over and above the bullshit dump that is “momentum” — but it’s worth spelling it out in greater detail.

    The game resumed with the 49ers in a third-and-14 spot at their own 40-yard line. Colin Kaepernick was chased and completed a short pass to Delanie Walker well short of the marker. Down 28-6, facing fourth-and-seven from their own 46, the Niners elected to punt, a pretty bad decision that went largely unnoticed. Andy Lee punted the ball into the end zone, and the Ravens took over at their own 20. Joe Flacco immediately completed a pass to Torrey Smith for a first down.

    Full stop.

    At this point, both teams’ units have been on the field since the delay. The Niners offense ran a give-up play, their punter managed to miss the red zone from his own 30 or so, and their defense allowed an immediate first down. The aftermath of the blackout delay was that the game was going exactly as it had gone from the opening kickoff. Even if momentum existed the way the entire sports-media community insists that it does, it had not moved following the blackout delay.

    The Ravens proceeded to run three more plays on this drive, falling short of a first down by about a yard, maybe less, and electing to punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 44. (Again, a bad decision, but cowardly punting is the way the big, strong manly football of the NFL is played.) Sam Koch followed Andy Lee’s lead and kicked the ball into the end zone.

    Now we’re on the third possession, the eighth snap, about two minutes of game time and maybe ten minutes of real time into the post-delay football game. Now is when the game did change. Kaepernick scrambled twice for a total of 20 yards, and the Niners’ comeback was on.

    Two theories:

    1) The game changed when the delay happened and momentum shifted, only it waited until the Niners failed and then the Ravens averaged six yards a play on their drive and executed a bad idea of a punt, to make that clear.

    2) The Ravens punting on fourth-and-1 gave the Niners an opportunity, and Kaepernick’s two scrambles — he had one in the entire game to that point — opened up an element of the offense that made it incredibly hard to defend.

    You can listen to a thousand football players and a million sportswriters, but there’s an infinitely better argument to be made that the fourth-down punt at midfield was what changed the game, rather than the delay. Here’s the thing, though: nothing changed the game. Two good football teams played, and at some moments, one team played better than the other one did.

    I find the “momentum” discussion painful because it diminishes the game and the athletes who play it. The desperate need to find reasons for everything that happens and to assign meaning to small streaks of events is disrespectful to the talented men on the field. The difference, the real difference, between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers is measured in tenths of a percent. Play that game 10,000 times and no team will win more than 5100 of them. Outcomes are what they are not because of some mystical force that — according to its own adherents — comes and goes unpredictably, but by the effort and execution of absurdly talented men. There’s just enough randomness in the form of bounces and officiating — where NFL refs have a lot more leeway to affect a game than do their MLB counterparts — so that the entire construct rests shakily, like that couch at grandma’s no one will dare sit on.

    If you can’t appreciate the football game you watched last night on its merits, if you need to parse the events just so to fit a narrative, have at it. But when you do, get it right: the fourth-and-1 punt, not the blackout, was the hinge on which the two teams’ play swung.

  2. This is good stuff, definitely good to try and explore alternative ways to talk about football. I rarely read anything football related these days as it doesn’t tell me anything I can’t see with my eyes.

    I read TSF’s first book recently and was left with the feeling that all things considered he was a bit of a twat. Didn’t really provide any insight beyond a few anecdotes that could have come from any retired footballers autobiography but had less impact due to the anonymous nature of author.

    Perhaps this is a little harsh. It was an ok read, and I liked what he was trying to do but by the later chapters it seemed he wasn’t providing any answers just claiming if your outside the game your opinion is worthless.

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