After four years at the University of Kansas, and one course short of graduating, James joined the Army in 1971. James was the last person in Kansas to be drafted for the Vietnam war, although he never saw action there. Instead, he spent two years stationed in South Korea, during which time he wrote to KU about taking his final class. He was told he actually had met all his graduation requirements, so he returned to Lawrence in 1973 with degrees in English and economics. He also finished an Education degree in 1975, likewise from the University of Kansas.
The Bill James Baseball Abstracts
An aspiring writer and obsessive fan, James began writing baseball articles after leaving the United States Army in his mid-twenties. Many of his first baseball writings came while he was doing nightshifts as a security guard. Unlike most writers, his pieces didn't recount games in epic terms or offer insights gleaned from interviews with players. A typical James piece posed a question (e.g., "Which pitchers and catchers allow runners to steal the most bases?"), and then presented data and analysis written in a lively, insightful, and witty style, that answered the question.
Editors considered James' pieces so unusual that few believed them suitable for their readers. In an effort to reach a wider audience, James self-published an annual book titled The Bill James Baseball Abstract beginning in 1977. The first edition of the book presented 80 pages of in-depth statistics compiled from James' study of box scores from the preceding season.
Over the next three years James' work won respect, including a very favorable review by Daniel Okrent in Sports Illustrated. New annual editions added essays on teams and players. By 1982 sales had increased tenfold, and a media conglomerate agreed to publish and distribute future editions.
While writers had published books about baseball statistics before (most notably Earnshaw Cook's Percentage Baseball, in the 1960s), few had ever reached a mass audience. Attempts to imitate James' work spawned a flood of books and articles that continue to this day.
In 1988, James ceased writing the Abstract, citing workload-related burnout and concern about the volume of statistics on the market. He has continued to publish hardcover books about baseball history, which have sold well and received admiring reviews; these books include two editions of The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.
On two occasions, James has published a series of new annuals. The Baseball Book (1990-1992) was a loosely-organized collection of commentary, profiles, historical articles, and occasional pieces of research. The Player Ratings Book (1993-95) offered statistics and 50-word profiles aimed at the fantasy baseball enthusiast.
Among the statistical innovations attributable to James are:
Although James may be best known as an inventor of statistical tools, he has often written on the limitations of statistics and urged humility concerning their place amidst other kinds of information about baseball. To James, context is paramount: he was among the first to emphasize the importance of adjusting traditional statistics for park factors and to stress the role of luck in a pitcher's won-loss record. Many of his statistical innovations are arguably less important than the underlying ideas. When he introduced the notion of secondary average, it was as a vehicle for the then-counterintuitive concept that batting average represents only a fraction of a player's offensive contribution. (The runs-created statistic plays a similar role vis-à-vis the traditional RBI.) Some of his contributions to the language of baseball, like the idea of the "defensive spectrum," border on being entirely non-statistical.
In an essay published in the 1984 Abstract, James vented his frustration about Major League Baseball's refusal to publish play-by-play accounts of every game. James proposed the creation of Project Scoresheet, a network of fans that would work together to collect and distribute this information.
While the resulting non-profit organization never functioned smoothly, it worked well enough to collect accounts of every game from 1984 through 1991. James' publisher agreed to distribute two annuals of essays and data - the 1987 and 1988 editions of Bill James Presents The Great American Baseball Statbook (though only the first of these featured writing by James).
The organization was eventually disbanded, but many of its members went on to form for-profit companies with similar goals and structure. STATS, Inc., the company James joined, provided data and analysis to every major media outlet before being acquired by Fox Sports in 2001.
Acceptance in mainstream baseball
For most of his career, James' ideas have either been ignored or rejected by professional baseball teams. James' sabermetrics rejects much of the conventional wisdom that has been passed down by players, executives, and writers over decades. Most teams, managers, and players prefer to continue to follow maxims that were developed decades ago, as well as their gut instincts.
In recent years, James' ideas have begun to gain official acceptance. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane began applying sabermetric principles to running his low-budget team in the late 1990s, to great effect (as chronicled in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball), and sabermetricians have penetrated other organizations since then.
In 2003, James was hired by a former reader, John Henry, the new owner of the Boston Red Sox. The move generated some controversy, but after 25 years James had finally gained an official position within Major League Baseball. Current Red Sox GM Theo Epstein also turned out to have a sabermetric bent.
One point of controversy was in handling the Red Sox' relief pitching. James had previously published several analyses of the use of the closer in baseball, and had concluded that the traditional use of the closer both overrated the abilities of that individual, and used him in suboptimal circumstances. Reportedly, James influenced a reorganization of the Boston bullpen, with several moderately talented relievers and no clear closer. When Boston lost a number of games due to bullpen failures, they were forced to acquire a traditional closer (Byung-Hyun Kim) in order to address the issue. Many writers considered this to be a rejection of James' ideas, and the signing of ace reliever Keith Foulke following the season further suggests this. Others, however, argue that the Boston pen was simply not very talented and that the outcome doesn't necessarily undermine James' arguments.
It should be noted that Boston did not implement James' idea of the "relief ace". James did not suggest a "bullpen by committee"; rather, his studies showed that the relief ace should be used in close or tie games as early as the 7th inning, when the outcome of a ballgame is really decided. Boston had no relief ace in 2003. During the 2004 regular season Foulke was used primarily as a closer in the Tony La Russa model; however, Foulke's usage in the 2004 postseason was along the lines of a relief ace with multiple inning appearances at pivotal times of the game. Houston Astros manager Phil Garner also employed a relief ace model, perhaps unwittingly, with his use of Brad Lidge in the 2004 postseason, further demonstrating the efficacy of James's relief ace concept.
James is still (2006) employed by the Red Sox, having published two new sabermetric books in the preceding four years. Indeed, although James is typically tight-lipped about his activities on behalf of the Red Sox, he is credited with advocating some of the moves that led to the team's first World Series championship in 86 years, including the signing of non-tendered free agent David Ortiz, the trade for Mark Bellhorn, and the team's emphasis on on base percentage.
Several books have recently been published on Bill James. The Mind Of Bill James, a biography-cum-chronicle of James' works was published in the spring of 2006. How Bill James Changed Our View of the Game of Baseball is due to be published in February 2007.
Dowd Report controversy
James was a strong critic of the Dowd Report, which was the most thorough investigation (commissioned by baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti) on the gambling activities of Pete Rose. James, in his Baseball Book 1990, dismissed Dowd's conclusion (based on the evidence available to Dowd at the time) that the former Cincinnati Reds manager bet on baseball games. (For James to defend Rose was rather ironic: James had been sharply critical of Rose in James' yearly Abstracts late in Rose's playing career). James reproached commissioner Giamatti and his successor, Fay Vincent, for their acceptance of the Dowd Report as the final word on Rose's gambling. In 2004, Rose admitted to having bet on baseball and that the Dowd Report was correct.