Bill James Gets it Wrong on Penn State

Following the 1983 season, when I was in high school, my hometown team, the San Francisco Giants, lost Darrell Evans to free agency and the Detroit Tigers. Evans had been a mainstay of the Giants of my youth. He had arrived in mid-1976 in a trade with the Atlanta Braves and been one of the Giants regulars, playing first base, third base and even left field for part of a season. Evans was coming off a very strong 1983 in which he had hit .277 with 30 home runs. To replace Evans’ bat, the Giants acquired veteran Al Oliver from the Montreal Expos for a package of second tier prospects and young players.

I remember this series of transactions because I was convinced that this was a terrible move for the Giants. I thought Evans was the better hitter because he got on base and walked more, while most of my friends and fellow Giants fans thought Oliver was better because of his higher batting average. My certainty and adamance must have been annoying, but I was right. I was right not because I was smarter than the other Giants fans in my life, but because I had read Bill James and they had not. At that time, reading James and having a rudimentary understanding of his work made one an unusual, even weird, kind of fan.

I had begun reading James only in early 1982 when his work first became widely accessible. His combination of obsession with baseball, questioning of conventional wisdom and authority and humorous and rebellious tone was the perfect fit for my 14-year-old, baseball obsessed, smart-ass, rebellious self. Those early James books remain among the books whose impact on me has been the strongest and most profound. James’ broader impact in the decades since 1982 goes far beyond influencing teenage hippie Giants fans. He has helped revolutionize how America sees, appreciates and discusses baseball. Even those who disagree with him have to wrestle with his work in one way or another.

James’ career has been an interesting and successful one, but like many people who take on a dominant culture or paradigm and change it, James has had trouble adapting. The same ability to question conventional wisdom and authority that made him a great security-guard-turned-baseball-analyst seem misplaced as a well placed senior advisor to one of baseball’s richest teams. Similarly, his aggressive approach to debunking the baseball establishment is less valuable now that what baseball research most needs is a way to combine quantitative and qualitative research. This phenomenon occurs in other areas of life as well. The politician who was a firebrand while in the legislature opposing the executive becomes a mediocre president, governor or mayor. The leader who makes the revolution cannot govern after the revolution.

This week saw the latest example of James’ largely unsuccessful attempts to make a place for himself in a baseball world where many of his once radical ideas are now broadly accepted. It is in this context that James’ defense of Joe Paterno for his role in the Jerry Sandusky affair should be viewed. James argued that Paterno “was isolated. He was not nearly as powerful as people imagine him to have been,” thus making Paterno less responsible for doing nothing to stop Sandusky. James’ defense of Paterno was shameful and, on the surface, inexplicable.

This is a more serious mistake for James than arguing, as he did in 2003, that Craig Biggio had been the best player of the 1990s, but the origins of the two arguments are very similar. In both cases, James is seeking to question the accepted narrative and to see if a different approach leads to better answers. This methodology has served James well for much of his career, but was clearly the wrong way to figure out Joe Paterno’s role in what has happened at Penn State.

James’ transition from iconoclastic and groundbreaking baseball analyst to whatever he is now has not been smooth. The set of skills he had that made him so good in that role and so influential to so many people have not served James as well now that the movement he has started has now become part of the mainstream of baseball analysis. Questioning everything, and not believing any conventional wisdom was a great way to reinvent statistical understanding of baseball 30 years ago, but that approach has failed James badly now.