Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Fools Rush Inn (2014)

By Bill James

Bill James has been called something of the godfather of baseball analytics. Starting with his self-published Baseball Abstracts in 1977, James has coming up with new ways to look at the game and use those results as tools for evaluation.

What was always overlooked by those who wrote James off as nothing more than a "stat guy" is that he's an absolutely fascinating writer on anything he touches. Exhibit A is the material in "Fools Rush Inn" that have very little to nothing to do with baseball. It's that writing talent that makes this an interesting read.

A little background is needed to explain this book. A few years ago, James - who works as the Senior Advisor for Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox - started a web site called BillJamesOnline.com. It's a collection of articles and other information; James writes about 40 to 50 articles for it per year and answers questions from readers. You can visit the site and see a fraction of what's available at no cost, by the way.

Then, some of those articles are collected into one book and sold as a package. "Fools Rush Inn" is the second such collection.

James attacks a variety of issues here, armed with evidence that few would think of bringing to the table. For example, Jack Morris has a reputation as a Big Game Pitcher, Capitalized, mostly because of his great work in the 1991 postseason. The includes maybe the best Game Seven of the World Series performance ever. James went back more than a half-century, came up with a formula for determining "big games," and then rated pitchers on their performance. The usual suspects are on top of the list - Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford - although there are some surprises (Roy Osvalt? Bruce Kison?). Interestingly, Morris is nowhere to be found.

James goes off in other directions, naturally. There's a study of rating a manager for the Hall of Fame. Now that Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox are going in this year, the biggest oversight according to the rankings is Davey Johnson. Dusty Baker, Jim Leyland and Mike Scioscia aren't far from the qualifying line, with Scioscia still on the job and thus able to add to his resume. James found that size of the pool of 300-game winners really hasn't changed much lately, and there's no reason to think that someone won't be joining the exclusive club in the relatively near future. We just don't know who it will be yet. And James looked at pitchers who gave up lots of ground balls vs. those who gave up fly balls, and found less of a difference in effectiveness than he though.

Obviously, it really helps to follow baseball quite closely to "get" this material. But the numbers aren't too technical; the reader doesn't have to know what OPS+ or Adjusted ERA is. But sprinkled throughout the book are short essays on a variety of other subjects.

For example ... James sees statistics saying America is no longer first in education. Many here take it as a sign of weakness; James wonders if it's just a case of the rest of the world catching up. Teachers say today's kids are working harder than they ever did in school. Indeed, are we forcing them to do more because of our own insecurities? It's a question worth asking, because at some point the students might reach the breaking point, causing a variety of different problems for the educational system.

There are other subjects here, areas that you no doubt haven't pondered lately. Should private citizens be allowed to keep certain animals under their care? What do classical music and baseball have in common? What does the Occupy Wall Street movement have to do with running a baseball team? This is original thinking, no matter what you think of the thoughts expressed along the way.

"Fools Rush Inn" has a couple of obvious drawbacks. Some of the essays feel a little dated since many don't include the 2013 season. There have been updates to a few of the essays, but it seems like more work could have been done there. And it is a quick read. The book checks in at 188 pages, but with charts, etc. it can be read in a day. More material would have been nice.

But what's included in "Fools Rush Inn" is almost always worthwhile and thus worth your time. You'll come away from it not only a little smarter, but anxious to look at issues in a different way in order to get surprising answers. That's a pretty good deal for $16.95 plus tax.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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