Bill James has always been reticent when it comes to talking about the Boston Red Sox. What makes this strange is that it is not James’ nature to be reticent. In the 35 years since he wrote a pamphlet that he optimistically called, "The Baseball Abstract," James has taken on all comers, all questions, all topics. He has played devil's advocate on things that did not seem to have another side.
Sometimes he was right, sometimes he was wrong, sometimes he was right but few knew it yet, oftentimes he was misunderstood, either honestly or intentionally. But he did not hold back. Pick a baseball topic, any baseball topic, and Bill James was on the record, usually from an angle that you did not see coming. And this wasn't only true for baseball: Did Lizzie Borden really kill her father and stepmother with an axe? What are Bob Dylan's best and worst songs? Why was O.J. Simpson acquitted? What is the great American novel? Bill James always answered with force.
But on the Red Sox … he has long held back. This comes, I think, from his sense of duty. James spent his entire writing career as the outsider, the rogue who dared to question those commonly held -- and, to his ears, utterly preposterous – truisms, such as: Baseball is 75 percent pitching; batting average and wins are the best way to judge hitters' and pitchers' skills; a great shortstop can save a team 100 runs a year, and so on. He invented runs created and similarity scores and game score and win shares and the Pythagorean winning percentage and range factor and dozens of other ways to look at baseball.
But almost 10 years ago -- in 2003 -- Red Sox owner John Henry hired James to advise the team. The outsider went inside. And Bill James is, above all else, devoted.
When the team's bullpen struggled for much of 2003, plenty of people wanted to blame it on James' "closer-by-committee" theories -- even though he does not believe in a closer-by-committee -- rather than blaming it on the perhaps more pertinent fact that the Red Sox had a lousy bullpen. James accepted that. When the Red Sox won their first World Series in a billion-jillion-shmillion years in 2004, James’ role was not well understood, allowing people on either side of the fence to overhype or entirely ignore his contributions, which many did with vigor. He went along with that. The Red Sox won another World Series in 2007, which allowed people to repeat the exercise. Bill James did not particularly care.
Bill James is a friend, and so I can tell you this from personal experience: I have never met anyone who cares so little about what people say or write about him. But he does care about loyalty, and the Red Sox were his team. If people wanted to blame him for the team’s flaws, he happily would accept the blame. If people wanted to believe that the team won despite him, he did not discourage them -- he didn't want or believe that he deserved any credit anyway. But if the team itself or the people in the organization were somehow hurt by something he said, well, that was not acceptable. James will admit: He doesn't always know how people will take his jokes or comments or theories. He says that he was born without that filter. So, he decided that when it came to the Red Sox, it was better for him not to say anything at all.
Three years ago, we had a conversation about then-Tampa Bay outfielder Carl Crawford, and while I won't go into the details, it was quite clear that Bill was not as high on Crawford’s future as, say, I was. I've long been a big Carl Crawford fan because, at his best, he's such an exciting player to watch. Bill agreed with that -- Bill loved watching Crawford play, with his great speed and defense -- but, like I say, he made it pretty clear that he thought some team would overpay wildly for Crawford's excitement quotient as he aged into his 30s.
When the team that did overpay for Crawford turned out to the Boston Red Sox, I knew that something was up.
Of course, Bill would not talk about that. He would not talk about the odd way that the Red Sox seemed to be wavering and oscillating after the years of success. He would not talk about the Red Sox giving a 31-year-old John Lackey -- coming off two shortened and not especially great seasons -- a five-year, $82.5 million deal. He sure as heck wouldn't talk about the Red Sox giving Bobby Jenks -- Bobby Bleepin' Jenks -- $12 million in celebration of his 30th birthday and two worst big-league seasons. There were many others. These were precisely the sorts of moves that Bill James had spent his entire career skewering, the sorts of moves that inspired some of his funniest and most provocative essays.
We now know that the Red Sox, essentially, stopped listening to Bill James. Owner John Henry told reporters that over the last few years -- "for reasons I really don't understand" -- James had fallen out of favor with the organization, and he said that he had to set things right, beginning immediately. Bill says that from now on, he will report directly to John Henry, and they are working on a way for James to do his best work and have that work as part of the Boston Red Sox fabric. "The purpose of this," James says, "is to ensure that my input is heard."
In several parts of Boston and New England, this bit of news stirred up precisely the sort of inane criticisms that Bill James does not care about. Clichéd talk about Bill's apparent lack of human emotion, his purported inability to see anything beyond numbers, his callous distaste for those all-American baseball qualities like leadership and courage and guts and heroism crackled in newspapers and on radio and so on. Of course, there were those who thought it might be good for the Red Sox to actually consider the opinion of one of the most influential thinkers in baseball history, since he actually works for them.
Bill James, let's be honest, didn't listen to or read what they thought, either.
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The Red Sox, Bill James believes, fell into what is a pretty common trap for successful people: "After we had been very successful for a long time, we lost sight of the fact that we were still capable of making huge blunders," he says. "We sort of started to assume that whatever we did would work out."
This small bit, I believe, explains so many seemingly inexplicable decisions in sports and in life. You get told that you're smart enough times, and it gets harder and harder to not believe it (just as if your employees or admirers laugh every time you make a joke, you can become convinced that you’re Louis C.K.). This is one of the reasons why Bill James doesn't care for praise, either. When the Red Sox won their second World Series in 2007, they were at the end of a rather extraordinary five-year run that would probably convince even the most humble and insecure people that they are geniuses.
• For 2003, they hired Theo Epstein (well, late 2002), hired Bill James, signed Bill Mueller (who led the league in hitting), found David Ortiz on the junk heap, picked up Bronson Arroyo off waivers, bought Kevin Millar from Florida, drafted Jonathan Papelbon (one year after drafting Jon Lester), and made it to Game 7 of the ALCS before losing after Grady Little just would not pull the plug on Pedro Martinez.
• For 2004, they fired Grady Little … and replaced him with a guy named Terry Francona. They traded for Curt Schilling, traded for Mark Bellhorn, called up Kevin Youkilis, signed Keith Foulke, drafted Dustin Pedroia, came back from a 3-0 LCS deficit against the New York Yankees and won their first World Series in a billion-jillion-shmillion years.
• For 2005, they mostly kept the team together, won 95 games, and lost quickly in the playoffs to the irrepressible White Sox.
• For 2006, they began to dismantle the team, allowed several players, including Johnny Damon, to go, traded away super-prospect Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, tried a few older players such as David Wells, Mike Timlin and Mark Loretta, and quickly realized that they would need to try something else.
• For 2007, they spent a truckload of money to get Daisuke Matsuzaka to come over and pitch. They signed J.D. Drew. They called up Pedroia and pitcher Jon Lester. They gave the closer's job to Papelbon. They got 20 wins from Beckett, an MVP-type offensive season from Ortiz, Drew killed it in the playoffs, they drew more walks than any team in the league and had the lowest team ERA. They came from behind to win the ALCS against Cleveland, then swept the Rockies for the World Series championship.
Sure, when you are on that kind of streak, it's easy to believe that it will never end. It's easy to believe that the cards aren't running lucky -- no, that's not the reason -- it's that you've figured out a way to beat the system. The Red Sox won 95 games in each of the next two seasons behind players like Lester and Beckett and Dice-K and Pedroia and Youkilis. The team didn't get to the World Series either year, but that's the crapshoot of the playoffs. Everything was humming. The Red Sox had money, they had Theo, they had the greatest scouting people, they had the greatest stat people, they had the most progressive owner, they had the loyal fans, how could it possibly go wrong?
And that, exactly, is the trap.
In a very short period of time, the Red Sox imploded in previously unimaginable ways. There was a series of disastrous signings. The pitching went south. There was an astonishing late-season collapse -- following quickly by stories of nefarious clubhouse dissension that included players eating chicken and drinking beer during games, and the manager being distracted by various personal issues. Theo Epstein left. Terry Francona was fired -- or in the polite phrasing of the times, the Red Sox "declined to exercise his option." The team brought in new manager Bobby Valentine -- a personal favorite who had more or less been viewed by every other team as too much of a renegade. The Red Sox traded for closer Andrew Bailey and signed Nick Punto and Cody Ross and Vicente Padilla. They moved Daniel Bard to the rotation, they acquired Marlon Byrd and Scott Podsednik.
And they look to finish in last place in their division for the first time since … baseball added divisions.
This is not to say that if the Red Sox had listened to Bill James, some or all of these things would have been different. We can't know that, and Bill himself would throw stuff at me if I suggested it. But it is to say -- and I'm saying this, not Bill -- that alienating Bill James was a pretty decent sign that something inside the Red Sox had broken. I would argue that part of what made the Red Sox so smart there for a few years was this great blend of voices, the multiple angles they got, the way conflicting opinions led to innovative and imaginative resolutions. But to do that, you have to have both the confidence to give voice to the dissenters and the modesty to admit that sometimes they're right and you're wrong.
People talk all the time about the war in baseball between scouts and stats. But Bill James doesn't see it as a war at all. (Though first he says, "I'm looking forward to that Clint Eastwood movie [“Trouble With The Curve”] -- to see how things really are.") He has said again and again that scouts do things that he could never do and see things that he could never see. But he also believes that breaking things down in different ways, using history as a guide, trying always to get closer to the heart of what wins baseball games, are valuable too.
"The 'tension' between scouts and analysts," he says, "is like the 'tension' in a business between accountants and salesmen, or the tension in a factory between welders and spot-checkers. It's nothing, basically."
* * *
There was, within the Red Sox, a sense of renewal when they traded -- or dumped -- Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers. There's a good chance that some of those players, and maybe even all of them, will be good again for the Dodgers or wherever they end up next. But inside the Red Sox world, there was just an understanding that there needed to be a purge, a cleansing, a move away from the arrogance and certitude and unluckiness that weighed down this organization for too long.
Of course, a cleansing is not going to make the Red Sox contenders again. They will have to find their rhythm again. And I would argue that part of this is making Bill James a part of the conversation again. He is, as he nears his 63rd birthday, too famous and too accomplished and too polarizing for so many people to view in anything but hackneyed distortions. He doesn't watch baseball through the open slots of a slide rule (he has even been known to stand during the seventh inning stretch and everything), and he doesn't believe that numbers form the answers (and especially the absurd numbers that so many of his critics count on in their anti-stats arguments), and he even seems to have a pretty clear understanding that the game is played by actual people with, you know, hearts and minds and blood and various organs. But it's too late for many people on all that. They've got their song, and they will sing it.
And James won't listen. He won't care. The last three years have been tough for him, but not because he was an outsider again. Heck, he's been an outsider since the start, and it hasn't discouraged him yet. The hard part was watching the Red Sox gobbled up by their own hubris. Maybe he could have helped. Maybe not. He will never know.
"On a personal level, I have failed before," he says. "I have written books that didn't quite work and had other ventures that failed. On a personal level, I can deal with that. It's embarrassing, the performance of the organization.
"But at the same time it presents a new challenge. In some ways I've been impatient, waiting to get to the point where we could start to fix this. We're there now."