For example, his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract of 2001 mentions steroids maybe twice, in passing, in 1012 pages.
By largely staying mum on the impact of steroids on baseball statistics since the topic first became widely discussed when Jose Canseco enjoyed the first 40-homer 40-steal season in 1988, James got himself a nice front-office job with the Boston Red Sox, and got to be part of World Champions in 2004 and 2007, teams whose biggest stars, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, were found to be on the juice in the 2003 test.
So, what does James have to say for himself now about his silence? Well, not much. Instead, he's written complacently, in "Cooperstown and the 'Roids," about how all the notorious drug cheats of the last two decades will eventually be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
But it wasn’t really an issue of some players gaining an advantage by the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs; it is an issue of many players using Performance Enhancing drugs in competition with one another. Nobody knows how many. It would be my estimate that it was somewhere between 40 and 80%. The discrimination against PED users in Hall of Fame voting rests upon the perception that this was cheating. But is it cheating if one violates a rule that nobody is enforcing, and which one may legitimately see as being widely ignored by those within the competition?
Hey, thanks for giving us that 40% to 80% estimate in 2009, Mr. Baseball Statistics Guru!
Moreover, that's a misleading way to phrase it. Perhaps 40% to 80% tried drugs at one point or another, but it's clear that 40% to 80% of the man-years weren't enhanced. Otherwise, we wouldn't see so many silly anomalies when players went on the juice, like Brady Anderson's 50 homers, or Ken Caminiti's second half of 1996.
Consider Barry Bonds. We have the full inside story on Bonds, and he comes out looking a little better than his public image would suggest. We now know he didn't touch performance enhancing drugs during his first 13 seasons, 1986-1998. From 1990-1993 he was the best player in the National League each year, and from 1994 to 1998, he was the second to fourth best player each year. If, say, 60% of his competition was on the juice, how could he compete with them?
During the 1998 season, obvious juicers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa got all that publicity for "restoring the innocence to the game," and nobody paid attention to Barry's usual monster season (.303 BA, 37 HR, 122 RBI, 120 runs, 130 walks, 44 doubles, 7 triples, 28 stolen bases, .438 on-base average, .609 slugging average, 1.047 OPS, 178 OPS+). If Barry had retired right then, he would have been a first ballot Hall-of-Famer.
Instead, resentful of the lack of press appreciation he got compared to what the cheaters got, he started dabbling with drugs in 1999, got good with them in 2000, and great with them in 2001 through 2004. When Bonds hit 73 homers in 2001 (previous career high 46 when he was eight years younger), it was perfectly obvious that he was cheating, but Bill James preferred to talk about Bonds' new maplewood bat, telling the WSJ in 2007:
I strongly suspect that the influence of steroids on hitting numbers is greatly overstated by the public. ...I've never understood why nobody writes about it, but the bats are very different now than they were 20 years ago. [Barry] Bonds's bats are still different from everybody else's.
Yeah, sure, if only I'd gotten me one of those special bats when I was 39, major league pitchers would have issued me 232 walks, too.