Diamond Life

A talk with Bill James--about records in jeopardy, the new strike zone, and the riddle of Tom Kelly.

CONTEMPORARY BASEBALL writing features two main strands: the belles lettres sensibility of Roger Angell et al. and hardcore studies of the game itself. The latter category was virtually invented by Bill James with the advent of his copiously detailed and meticulously reasoned baseball annuals in 1982; it's hard to think of any other writer who has had such an impact on how serious fans regard a sport. During most of the eight seasons in which we've done City Pages baseball previews, we've been able to prevail upon James to contribute an article of some kind. This year he's fighting the deadline on a book about managers due out in the fall from Simon & Schuster, so we had to settle for a few minutes of his time on the phone.

What unfolding dramas do you see in baseball this year?

We've had tremendous hitting numbers for the past two years, and the fact we haven't had major records broken is largely because of the strike. They've tried to adjust the strike zone, and we'll see if that works. The runs may drop sharply and we'll see league ERAs around 3.20 again, or we may see Frank Thomas hit 62 homers. Or probably not Frank, because he walks 140 times a year or something. Matt Williams is the obvious answer, but I don't know that it's the correct one. Maybe it's Melvin Nieves or somebody. I suppose Albert Belle is the most obvious 62-home run candidate, isn't he? If half those doubles become homers, that's 76.

There's been a lot of talk about the rule change expanding the strike zone. Will it produce a dramatic impact on run-scoring?

It's a very hard question, because the written strike zone hasn't been called in years. If you changed from the old version of the real strike zone to the new written strike zone in one jump, it would be incalculable. It would drive batting averages down 70 points around the league. But as was also true in '63, the written strike zone hasn't been the enforced strike zone. So you don't know. If they actually follow through, it will have a huge impact on the number of runs scored.

If I can editorialize, I don't know why they muck around with manipulating the number of runs by manipulating the strike zone. There are many other variables you can adjust less noticeably--the size and weight of the bat, the resiliency of the baseball. It doesn't require a rocket scientist to test the resiliency of a baseball and establish a standard: When you drop them from a certain height, they're supposed to bounce 13 to 15 feet, not 17 or 9. You could control the hitting backgrounds, the foul territories--there are lots of things you can mess with other than the strike zone.

Part of the impetus for the change was the Palermo Commission, which was actually assigned to look at ways to speed up the game. The major-league owners' notion of a perfect game is three hours, with three minutes of baseball and 2:57 of advertising. The Palermo Commission was designed to look at how they could get more ads into their three hours of airtime. [chuckles] You can tell mine is a cynical view of the Palermo Commission, I guess.

Allen Barra makes a case in ESPN's new baseball magazine that he's made here in City Pages before, that this is a golden era of baseball. What do you think?

Well, I don't derive a lot of enjoyment from the incessant labor strife. But in terms of the players on the field--I have no tolerance for old guys bitching about how baseball has gone to hell in a handbasket. Every generation has had that, and it's obvious that they're not telling us anything other than, it's more fun to be young than it is to be old. I would much rather take the opposite tack, as Allen does. I think what he says in comparing players is right. If you take the front-line players now--people like Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, Greg Maddux--you'll be hard-pressed to find another era in which there were as many players of quality. So he's more right than wrong.

You're in the midst of writing a book about managers. How would you rate Tom Kelly?

You have to respect the fact that he's won two world championships. But boy, he does some weird stuff. He's got this pitching coach who he likes and keeps, even as their pitching goes from bad to worse to comical. You'd think he'd say, "All right, let's do something." But it's more like, "Pat Mahomes had a 6.37 ERA for us last year? Well, let's see what it is this year." A lot of managers wouldn't care to find that out.

But I'd rate him pretty good, basically. I've always noticed that the Twins do a far better job than anybody else of tagging up and advancing on flyballs to the outfield. Another thing is, Kelly tends to have smart people in the infield, and it's amazing how much difference this makes. Over the course of a season, there are so many decision plays to be made in the middle infield, and he always seems to get these guys who have good instincts playing second, short, third. I'd put both Meares and Knoblauch in that category. [chuckles] But of course if you have no pitching, you're limited as to what you can do in game situations.

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