Bill James on Fielding, Part 9

Bill James on Fielding, Part 9

Published Feb. 4, 2015 2:51 p.m. ET

One great thing about Bill James has always been his willingness to disagree with his friends, publicly. This is actually a long-established and well-respected practice among academics, but has generally been spurned by sportswriters. If less so now than before. Anyway, over at Bill James Online, Bill's been in the middle of an opus about fielding stats, and wrote the following about his friend and partner John Dewan's prodigious work, for decades now, with fielding statistics...

This, I believe, is where John went wrong.   Analysis is not based around answers.   Answers are nothing; answers are temporary, and they are ALWAYS wrong.  Analysis is based around QUESTIONS.    What counts in analysis is not the answers you give, it is the questions that you ask.

What we need, in Fielding Statistics, is a pathway toward greater understanding.   John has not offered us such a pathway; in fact, for all of his work, all of his effort, he hasn’t really done anything to create a pathway toward understanding of the data.    I know that John believes that he has created a pathway toward understanding by, for example, measuring how well a player goes to his right and to his left, how good he is at coming in on the ball or going back, but that really isn’t giving us anything; that is merely moving the underlying mistake along to a new station.   We have a system to measure how well players field bunts; that’s useful.   That’s a step forward, but it’s not part of any organized structure.   

Batting statistics and pitching statistics succeeded because they created an organized universe of information, which people could analyze in ways that became progressively more sophisticated over the course of more than a hundred years.    But Fielding Statistics failed because they created no organized universe of data, thus no solid footing on which Direct-Inference Analysis could be conducted.   

RATINGS are not DATA.   Ratings are opinions, stated in numbers.   Data is facts; ratings are not facts.   My Win Shares and Loss Shares. . .those aren’t facts.   They’re just opinions, stated as numbers.

Bill's argument is that need good, raw, publicly available fielding statistics. Which we've never really had, and still don't. And Bill's absolutely right ... or would have been five years ago. Now I don't think anyone really gives a damn. The new tracking technology is going to utterly revolutionize the analysis of current players, and those of who care about Keith Hernandez's prowess are, I'm afraid, in a distinct minority.

Actually, there's plenty of tremendous data for Keith Hernandez and everyone else who's played in the 1980s and since. You just have to pay for it. Which is certainly a barrier to entry, if hardly impenetrable. The fact is we'll never have great data on guys before the '80s, and we never will.