Friday, June 23, 2006

A Review of "The Mind of Bill James"

The Mind of Bill James by Scott Gray, subtitled "How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball", is a book that cannot decide exactly what it wants to be. Is it a biography of Bill James? Or a summary of his work? Or an attempt to describe what a day in the life of Bill James is like? Or a chronicle of how his work has affected the baseball world? It tries(or at least ends up as) to be all of those things, and therefore does not do a great job of any of them.

As a biography, it probably does about as good of a job as you would want, because while I don’t mean any offense to Mr. James, his life probably would not make for a stirring biography anymore of that of an anonymous scientist at some university--it is their work that is the most interesting thing about them, not biographical minutiae. Personally, I would say the same thing about Thomas Jefferson or other such figures, but somebody apparently likes them. Even so, I don’t think that Bill James would be on the top of the wish lists of biography fans.

As a summary of his work, it is woefully incomplete, as it would probably take a book of this size solely devoted to just that goal in order to be adequate. Gray does include an appendix which summarizes some of his work, but focuses on concepts(e.g. Defensive Spectrum, Law of Competitive Balance, Johsnon Effect) rather then specific applications/formulas(e.g. Runs Created, Win Shares, Component ERA). Of course, to someone who has read most of James’ work, like myself, this is not something that is necessary, and to me the appendix dragged on more then much of the book.

As far as describing how James’ insights have been adopted in baseball, the book discusses his role with the Red Sox, and refers to Moneyball a few times, but again, is not at all close to comprehensive on this front.

One aspect of the book you may or may not find interesting is that Gray reprints some emails and conversations between him and James about non-baseball topics, such as politics and criminality. On one hand, it is interesting to see how James approaches these other topics. On the other hand, I can think Bill James is the greatest baseball mind ever born but think his position on NAFTA is silly. Now the fact that I disagree with his position on NAFTA makes me think no less of his baseball work. But I’m sure there is somebody out there who will be affected in that way, which is why I don’t talk about politics and other such things here (in addition to the fact that I am mildly surprised that anybody cares what I have to say about baseball, and would be truly stunned if anybody cared what I thought about anything else).

I don’t mean to criticize the book too strongly, because I did find it an enjoyable read, with no glaring factual errors or misrepresentations. I have two standards of recommendation for a book--one is that it is great and you will want to read it again and again and you will refer back to it frequently. The second is that you should probably read it as you might find it enjoyable and somewhat informative, but it is not a part of an essential sabermetric library. Under the first standard, this book falls short, but under the second, The Mind of Bill James is a read I would recommend.

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