Adaptation

When people ask me who my favorite writer is, I have two answers. The first, who is my favorite writer in terms of being fun to read, is Terry Pratchett. My second is Bill James, who has influenced both my own writing and my way of thinking more than any other writer.

The thing about Bill James is that he really only writes about one subject: Baseball. He’s even said, explicitly, that he probably wouldn’t be a writer if there was no such thing as baseball (but, since there is such a thing as baseball, he “can’t imagine being anything else”). However, unlike most sportswriters, James comes at the subject from an entirely different perspective. Baseball is defined in part by is long and storied history — more than almost any other American hobby, it is informed by what has come before. Baseball is a self-feeding institution — almost everyone who is in baseball and isn’t a player is a former player. They weren’t all good players — a lot of managers, coaches, scouts, and GMs started out as minor leaguers who played a few years, washed out, and got back in the game on the management side. Almost every announcer who isn’t a color guy is a former player. There’s a tendency within baseball, present to this day, to believe that you can’t really understand the game unless you’ve played it professionally. Sportswriters, and by extension, the fans, have always deferred to that wisdom and experience, and so the things that “everyone knows” about the game have been set in stone for decades.

Until Bill James. James wasn’t the first writer to question this, but he was the first to do so in a manner that really got people thinking about it. He was the first person to look at all this crap that “everyone knows” and ask “How? How do you know this? Can you prove it? What value is it?” He’s baseball’s first real iconoclast, the one who wasn’t willing to assume the people who ran baseball knew what they were doing just because they played two years in A-ball. He was the first to really start breaking down the mysteries of baseball into their component elements, trying to understand what was true (and thus valuable, and thus worthy of being kept) and what was just nonsense. He didn’t solve all of these questions on his own, but he opened the door. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to say that you can draw a straight line in between Bill James’s writings and twenty-something Harvard graduates becoming baseball GMs, rather than guys who signed right out of high school. James showed us that the way people assumed you had to think about baseball wasn’t necessarily the only way to do it.

I’ve always tried to follow in his footsteps in that. Ever since being exposed to James for the first time I’ve tried never to simply go with the flow and assume common wisdom is correct. A lot of times it is, but taking things on faith doesn’t have any value. I hate seeing people jump to conclusions or rush to judgment, because it seems to me to be the least productive thing you could do.

James has often been smeared by his critics as being little more than a number-cruncher (a deadly insult in the testosterone-soaked world of professional sports), but that’s not true at all. James doesn’t love numbers any more than a plumber loves his wrench. He uses numbers, sure, but the numbers are just a tool for getting what he really wants, really values: Truth, or at least accuracy. James has always been scathing in his contempt for statistics which go through a lot of gyrations but don’t tell you anything meaningful about what’s going on. And if you read his books, you’ll find just as many humorous stories and jokey theme teams (All Born-On-Holidays team, All-Tall Team, All-Still-With-Their-First-Organization Team), as well as thoughtful essays examining subjects ranging from how good defenders tend to be nicer people than poor ones, to the shifting relationship between players and the press. He’s got a very wry sense of humor that I’ve always found appealing, and he’s a better teacher than most flesh-and-blood ones I’ve had.

One of the statistics James invented was the Power-Speed number, intended to figure out the most well-rounded players in the game. That is, the players who could both hit for power (in the form of home runs) and were still athletic enough to steal bases. If you go down the list of power-speed leaders over at baseball-reference you’ll see some of the most complete players to ever step on the diamond… Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron. It’s not a perfect statistic, in that it doesn’t perfectly correlate with value, but it does exactly what it sets out to do, a classic Bill James characteristic. Here’s the formula:

2(HR x SB) / HR + SB

It’s designed so that you can’t “trick” the formula by being really good at one or the other… you have to do both. A player who hits 30 homers and steals 30 bases does twice as well by this measurement as a player who hits 50 bombs but only swipes 10.

Several years ago I took this formula and applied it to something else entirely… namely, one of my favorite games ever, Fire Emblem 7. It’s well-known that in that game Power and Speed are the most important by a fair margin — you need both to be a good character — so I plugged the growth rates for those stats into the formula in lieu of HR and SB to see who did best:

Dart — 62
Nino — 55
Raven — 50
Rath — 50
Lyn — 48
Sain — 48
Rebecca — 48
Heath — 47
Farina — 47
Florina — 46
Wil — 44
Erk — 44
Serra — 44
Lucius — 44
Bartre — 44
Hector — 44
Geitz — 44
Kent — 42
Matthew — 42
Eliwood — 42
Guy — 42
Fiora — 41
Pricilla — 40
Louise — 40
Canas — 39
Isadora — 38
Karel — 38
Harken — 37
Renault — 37
Legault — 35
Oswin — 34
Pent — 34
Dorcas — 30
Lowen — 30
Hawkeye — 30
Marcus — 27
Jaffar — 21

Again, this isn’t a perfect formula in determining absolute value, because it doesn’t measure where the guy started from — Pent, for example, has pretty miserable growths, but he starts out high enough that you can mostly ignore them. Same deal for Jaffar… It also doesn’t account for a myriad of other factors like weapons and supports. What the list does do, however, is tell you who the best characters are if you’re willing to put a pile of experience into them. Dart, Raven, Rath, Sain… all these guys are murdalizers, mostly because their growths are so superb. Of course, anyone who plays FE7 knew this already, but this puts a price on the difference.

Surprises here are Canas, Oswin, and Hector, who don’t impress by this measurement, but are still widely regarded to be staples. But then again, it’s not that surprising. Everyone knows that Canas is only valuable because he’s the only player character who can use Luna — you’d just as soon take Erk if not for that. And Oswin’s Speed has always been iffy — he gets mediocre in a hurry if you don’t luck into a few points in that department. As for Hector, I might well label him the Ted Williams of FE7 — not the most well-rounded guy, but so good at what he does do that it more than makes up for it.

Pointless? Probably. But in my opinion, anything that gets you thinking about a subject from a different angle than you normally would is something worth considering. Too many people stake out their opinion and refuse to be swayed from it; I prefer to look at things from as many perspectives as I can. That’s what Bill James taught me.

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