Outtakes: Bill James on his work with the Red Sox, steroids, and what makes a successful baseball player

July 17th, 2006 → 7:52 am @

This is the eighth in a series of outtakes done for Feeding the Monster, available in stores now. These interviews with Red Sox special consultant Bill James were conducted over the course of the 2005 season.

On his role with the Red Sox: Well, it can involve anything that involves an issue about the player. Whatever question arises about the player I would try to research. I remember at one point we had some interest in acquiring Adam Piatt from Oakland. Piatt had looked like All-Star material a couple of years earlier, but then had viral meningitis and had more of less lost two seasons. The question arising [was], what are the odds that he can get his career back on track? … First of all, it was hard to find out what the hell had happened to him, but I finally found out that there was a diagnosis of viral meningitis. Well, OK. . .what is “viral meningitis?”

It turns out that both “virus” and “meninges” are very broadly defined terms, with the result that there are hundreds of different diseases, from mumps to West Nile Virus, which can be described as some type of viral meningitis. It’s a clothes-hamper diagnosis. Anyway, what are the odds that a player will come back from some vaguely defined illness like this? I wound up recommending that we try to acquire him and find out. Fortunately we didn’t.

I have little to do with preparing for key series, honestly. That’s [current scout and former video advance scouting coordinator] Galen Carr’s area, and I think he’s extremely good at it, but he knows so much more about it than I do that I would be wary of saying very much. I will say something occasionally if I think it might fit into his presentation.

On the type of work he does for the team: I do more work on my own than responding to requests. I am trying now to create an organized or “formal” structure to grade prospects. In other words, here’s this kid who hit .318 this year at such-and-such a stop in High A ball, he’s a first baseman, he can’t run, he’s 22 years old: what are his chances of being a successful major league player? I have the work 90% done, but, like writing a book, the last 10% of the job will kill you.

I’d say it is 75% [of what I do] is on my own initiative. When I first had the job, Theo said something like, “We need to see you in Boston more often,” which I think was profoundly true. My contract calls for me to come to Boston four times a year, but it just doesn’t do the job. I lose contact with what is happening; I don’t know what the guys are thinking about. I need to be in the office sometimes to talk to people to find out what is bothering them. The longer I am out here [in Kansas] on my own, the harder it is to figure out what I should be working on.

On the impact of the steroid-testing program on evaluating players: The new steroid policy is more of a media focus than a looming factor in analyzing what has happened or is likely to happen. I’m not saying it is nothing; it’s a legitimate concern. If you’re looking at a player whose production has dropped suddenly or has, sometime in the past, accelerated suddenly, you have to be concerned about the possibility that there may have been some steroid use involved.

But on the other hand, you have to worry about 500 other things, too. It could be an injury, or he could have put on weight, or he may have been going through a divorce, or his parents may have been going through a divorce. Stan Musial had an off season in ’59. He attributed it later, in a biography, to the fact that they had a newborn baby who wasn’t a good sleeper, and was keeping him awake nights. You could be dealing with a back injury, or with a player who has just suddenly figured something out, or with a player who has been exploiting some edge that will disappear in another year. It’s not that the steroids aren’t a legitimate factor, it’s just that there are a very wide range of legitimate factors, so that adding one more to the equation doesn’t really change anything very much.

On what makes a successful major league player: It is my general belief that a highly successful player is supported by a “network” or “scaffolding” that must be built up gradually over time. In other words, to play successfully in the major leagues requires a great deal of athletic ability, but also a great deal of knowledge of how the game is played, training habits, self-motivation habits, self-confidence, and a wide variety of skills.

Sometimes, in a simple example, a pitcher will develop a new pitch, and take a great step forward in effectiveness, [like] Esteban Loaiza in 2003. But when the player takes that great leap forward, he finds himself in a new role–pitching many more innings than he ever has before, for example, and also being counted on to pitch critical games. In most cases where that happens, the entire structure of the man–his knowledge, his self-confidence, his training habits, etc.–will not support the new level of effectiveness to which the player has been pushed, and this will lead, in most cases, to an inevitable collapse. A player who hasn’t been hitting home runs starts hitting home runs, the pitches that he sees are going to change, and he’s going to have to adjust, so then you’re back to the question we asked before: Does he have the ability to adjust so as to sustain this new level of production? Occasionally this is not true; occasionally there is a player–David Ortiz in 2003–who reaches a new level because he should have been there all along, but something was holding him back.

[With steroids], whether you have steroids involved in it or not, the basic question is the same: Will the entire structure of the man support this level of productivity? Or has the player gotten his production ahead of where it should be? It’s a very tough question in all cases, but it’s essentially the same question with or without steroids.

On developing minor league talent: If you have a Dustin Pedroia, who comes right out of college and takes all those transitions in stride. . .obviously, he has a lot of things going for him beyond talent. But then there is a danger of relying too much on that, and pushing him along until he does fail and you find out what happens there. So the answer there would be, I guess give the player the opportunity to succeed, but hold back as much as you can on the pressure to succeed.

On his public persona: I have been ripped to shreds in some books; I have been praised far beyond my real accomplishments in many others. I don’t get into trying to shape what people write about me.

Post Categories: Bill James & Feeding the Monster Outtakes

2 Comments → “Outtakes: Bill James on his work with the Red Sox, steroids, and what makes a successful baseball player”

  1. Jason O.

    17 years ago

    James’s analogy between Musial’s personal issues in 1959 and steroid use is laughable. Minimizing steroids as just another of the 500 issues that can affect a player’s performance is similarly specious.

    We’ve all read the charades of noteworthy SABR sources analyzing Bonds et al in a ceteris paribus fantasyland that does not include discussion of steoroid/HGH use. This from people who claim to be the vanguards of the rational….

    I feel sympathy for the sabermetrician’s dilemma. The drug inflated offensive statistics of the past 20 years make fair comparisons to past eras impossible, which is James pioneered. Why is this hard-nosed group taking the easy way out?

  2. […] That’s all for now. I’ve written plenty about steroids in the past, including last August, when I wondered why no one was wondering about Roger, and way back in October ‘06, when I mocked the press’s surprise that Clemens had been fingered in he Grimsley affidavit. I also tagged Jason Giambi a gutless punk, ripped into the Players Union for defending the players’ right to destroy their livers, lamented the fact that Jose Canseco seemed to be the only honest guy around, and talked about how Bill James compared steroids to going through a divorce. (Sort of, anyway.) […]

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