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Bill James, Dennis Eckersley and the Worst Time to Bring Up Stats

There’s a time and a place for statistical analysis, and we just found the line…

Frank Robinson by Erik Drost is licensed under CC 2.0

Bill James, Dennis Eckersley and the Worst Time to Bring Up Stats


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Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes

In case you missed it, Frank Robinson, the first black manager in the majors, the first player to win MVP in both leagues, and one of the most feared hitters in the game’s history, passed away last week at the age of 83.

Robinson was elected to Cooperstown in 1982, his first year on the ballot, with 89.2% of the vote. Robinson’s 89.2% was the eighth highest vote percentage at the time. His staggering numbers, amassed over a 20 year career, included 2,943 hits, 586 home runs, a .294/.384/.537 slash, and a .926 OPS.

Frank Robinson was a beast at the plate. As former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton once put it, “Going over the hitters it was decided that we should pitch Frank Robinson underground.”

As a manager, Frank Robinson would captain the Cleveland Indians, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, as well as both the Montreal Expos and Washington Nationals. Completing a dream of Jackie Robinson‘s to see a black manager in the game of baseball, Frank Robinson paved the way for minority managers for generations.

His loss is immense, but what he gave to the game will be remembered long after the last pitch in this beautiful game has been thrown. Frank, you will be missed.

While both players, pundits and hall of fame members took to the web to express their remembrances of Robinson, one baseball personality decided to bring up a different topic of conversation.

Bill James is a polarizing figure in the game of baseball. The father of Sabermetrics, James is viewed as a hero of the modern game or enemy of the fundamental machinations of the game. While the movie Moneyball is not nearly as amazing as the book, it helps to simplify the pushback Bill James got from baseball purists.

Remember the scene where Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, listens to old men discussing a player’s lack of confidence because his girlfriend was a six? 

That’s what Bill James was up against. And remember Peter Brand, based off Paul Podesta and played by Jonah Hill, talks about the medieval understanding of baseball and player evaluation? That’s what Bill James was trying to do.

And in 2004, James helped the Boston Red Sox win the 2004 World Series and end their 86 year curse. From there, Sabermetrics became the hottest thing in baseball since peanuts and crackerjacks. Now front office executives like Theo Epstein and Sandy Alderson to Managers like Don Mattingly and A.J. Hinch are using Sabermetrics on a daily basis in very aspect of the game, from building a team to day-to-day gameplay.

So how do these two things intersect?

After the news broke of Robinson’s passing, Bill James gave us his unsolictied opinion on the 1966 AL MVP.

James’ tweet has since been deleted, but in its place is a half-hearted apology.

This is the baseball writer equivalent of “I apologize to those who found my words offensive.” The apology is nothing. It’s Bill James gaslighting us. Of course, he knew how it would come off, he just didn’t think it was wrong.

It’s also such a rich statement from the man who said, “all baseball player can be replaced.”

Bill, you know damn well what you were trying to say. The statistical wrinkle is not something that can be fixed. It’s based on a metric you have spent your life creating and promoting. Let’s be real. You meant to say that Robinson wasn’t the best player in the league based on WAR. What you said was that he wasn’t the MVP. Don’t get it twisted, Bill. You can’t walk this one back.

And that’s where I side with Dennis Eckersley.

Dennis Eckersley, the Hall of Fame pitcher, is probably most known for a sour note in an otherwise brilliant career. Eck was on the mound during the ninth in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. If that sounds familiar to you it’s because Kirk Gibson took him yard in one of the most famous World Series moments of the last 50 years.

Aside from that one tough moment, Eckersley built himself a storied career over 23 seasons including six All-Star Games, and both the Cy Young and MVP Awards for the 1992 season with the Oakland A’s. When you think about elite pitchers of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, you have to think about Dennis Eckersley.

So of course, when Frank Robinson needed to slam the door on an opponent, he went to an elite closer. Upon seeing James’ tweet, Eckersley dropped the baseball analyst with two words.

Dennis Eckersley has been a polarizing figure over the past few years. Most recently there was the time he got into a fight with David Price on a team flight. And while there have been moments where every Sox fan would have wanted to fight David Price during his tenure in Boston, Eck was clearly in the wrong.

Not here. He’s absolutely correct.

For the last decade, the new school and the old school of baseball thinking have been clashing. The most recent example being the clash between the elder statesmen of the BBWAA’s view on PED users against the understanding of newer voters. There was also the divide over Mariano Rivera becoming the first unanimous inductee because of his position.

In this moment however, both sides have joined together to voice their opposition of the father of Sabermetrics. For the first time, both sides of fight joined against a common foe: the man who began the fight.

Sabermetrics helped illuminate the intricacies of a game that can often appear to be guided by the ethereal. In a game that has seen players like Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, and Mark McGwire play at the same level decades apart, mystery becomes an evaluated concept. Bill James kicked the door down to how the game is studied and played. Sabermetrics are better used to force Carlos Peña to hit against a shift, than to question the legacy of a legend.

There’s a time for statistical analysis, and there’s a time for celebration. We were celebrating the legacy of a man who broke barriers for countless players, managers, executives, and future generations to come. Bill James didn’t confuse the two. No, he got caught saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Bill James’ 2019 WAR: -1

Dennis Eckersley’s 2019 WAR: 1

There’s some statistics for you, Bill.

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