I’m not aware of Bill James orating at any college commencements this month, but that’s higher education’s loss. Last month I reviewed the 25th anniversary edition of The Bill James Handbook. James created the analytical tools that have challenged baseball traditions. But James also philosophizes on subjects beyond baseball, and educators from schoolmarms to college presidents should absorb his thoughts on what’s important to learn.
Here’s what he writes about his own education:
“When I was in high school I had two habits that greatly irritated my teachers; actually, many more than two, but let’s focus. One was writing funny notes to my classmates, trying to make them crack up in the middle of class. The other was spending hours of valuable study time making mystifying totals from the agate type in the sports pages. I was called on the carpet any number of times and told to stop doing this stuff and pay more attention to What Was Really Important.”
The question is: What’s Really Important? James writes:
“As I look back on those years, the two most useful things that I was doing, in terms of preparing me for my career, were 1) Writing humorous notes to my classmates, and 2) Making mystifying totals from the agate type in the sports pages. By writing amusing if vulgar notes to my classmates, I was learning to write—not learning to write in a way that would please English teachers, but learning to write in a way that would hold the interest of people who had no reason to read the note, other than the expectation that they would enjoy reading it. That’s much, much closer to writing books than writing insipid research papers to please bored English teachers. The adults in charge thought they knew what was important, but in retrospect they were just completely wrong.”
And the mystifying totals? The mathematical side of James led him to show that on base percentage is more important than batting average, OPS (on base plus slugging) is the single most useful offense indicator, and WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) is more important than won-loss records and probably earned run averages as well. Those calculations are simple, but dozens of more abstruse ones are available these days, and James invented most of them, as his hobby became first his passion and then his profession.