James’ revolution ongoing, evolving
The headquarters of the revolution hides in plain sight, on a brick street lined with towering old trees in this college town. An old Volkswagen van is parked across the street, not far from a limestone house torched during the Civil War raid of Lawrence, an incident your host will soon recite in exacting detail.
Bill James, the statistician-slash-historian-slash-philosopher who changed the way we look at major league baseball, lumbers to the front door. A life-sized redwood sculpture of an old-time ballplayer, carved with a chainsaw and nicknamed Old Hoss Radbourn, stands in the foyer of his 1894 home.
Go past the antique furniture that fills this house. Follow James into his library, which is populated with some of the thousands of historical busts James collects: Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill and Richard Wagner next to Groucho Marx and George W. Bush and, yes, Bill James, the revolutionary’s own bust rendered in bobblehead form. The tall, slightly stooped 61-year-old lowers himself into a wooden rocker and then tells of the evolution of sabermetrics, from the shunned view of only statheads to a governing philosophy of the game today.
It is, to be sure, an odd home for a revolution: a place that honors history and thumbs its nose at it at the same time.
But it always was an odd revolution, populated by box scores and calculators and numbers geeks who — after decades on baseball’s periphery, after suffering those constant put-downs that they “never played the game” — have infiltrated the ultimate good-old-boy network of major league baseball and spread to other professional sports, including football and basketball.
Where to begin? Not with this week’s release of “Moneyball,” the Hollywood film where Brad Pitt plays cerebral Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. That is the ending, the moment officially welcoming James’ analytic view of baseball into the American mainstream.
Nor with the Michael Lewis book of the same name, which focused on Beane’s use of sabermetrics to transform the small-market A’s franchise and deified James in the major league baseball lexicon. Don’t begin with James’ two dozen baseball books, either, whose long stays on bestseller lists proved that more than a few numbers geeks thought there was something to James’ way of thinking.
No, to understand how far the discipline James coined as “sabermetrics” has come, you must rewind. Begin with a baseball fanatic in small-town Kansas, whose widowed father raised five children on a school janitor’s salary, his son never attending a major league game until high school. Begin with this boy clipping box scores from the Topeka newspaper and stuffing them into old green bean tins.
Because even then, James had a revolutionary thought: Baseball needed a scientific approach to challenge its long-held beliefs. Even more revolutionary, that he could make a living doing just that.
And so now, as only James would do — leaning back in his rocker, surrounded by scores of encyclopedias, tomes on ancient Roman history, classics like “War and Peace” — he describes his career arc through a scene in “Moby Dick.”
In Herman Melville’s whaling epic, a character pulls a rope from the sea without knowing what’s on the other end. It could be a shoe; it could be a whale. It could be a nightmare; it could be a dream come true. That’s James’ career. He’s been tugging on this statistical rope for decades, knowing his work feels right but without a clue what’s on the other end.
“Science is a blank slate, and that’s what makes science work,” James says. “You can be an undergraduate C-student in physics and say you think Einstein is wrong, and you might make an argument pointing to facts, and people will listen to you. That’s what I tried to bring to baseball: The sense that you can be as big of an expert as you want or as humble as you want, but facts are stubborn things.”
The revolution doesn’t feel so revolutionary any more.
Revolutionaries, after all, are outsiders. Bill James is now an insider. All 30 big-league clubs have people dedicated to sabermetrics. Companies and magazines have thrived on dissecting baseball numbers. James has two World Series rings from his work for the Boston Red Sox.
And people in baseball’s elite, like Beane — named one of the top sports general managers of the decade by Sports Illustrated for building a competitive Oakland franchise on a small-market payroll — call James their inspiration.
“As soon as I read (James’ writing), it was like a light bulb went off,” Beane says. “The game is very rational if you allow yourself to look at it that way. The great thing about baseball is 2 plus 2 equals 4 in baseball, too. It’s purely rational, as opposed to subjective or emotional or irrational. It makes sense. The puzzle fits. It puts order to everything.”
Hearing a baseball man say this is like seeing suburban kids in Che Guevara T-shirts, so integrated has James’ revolutionary philosophy become in baseball’s mainstream.
Yet this was not always the case.
James remembers in high school, when he read that Wes Parker, a mediocre-hitting Dodgers first baseman who was spectacular on defense, saved a hit a game with his glove. Yet the Dodgers were thinking of benching him for a bigger bat. This confounded James: Why wasn’t defense part of the equation? Add the hits he saved to his mediocre batting average and Parker was hitting over .500, James figured. The high school kid wrote in a seven-page letter to The Sporting News: How irrational, benching a .500 hitter. (It wasn’t published.)
Through college at the University of Kansas, a stint in the Army, a job as a night watchman at Stokely Van Camp pork and beans cannery, these thoughts simmered. His dozens of green bean tins became stacks of equation-filled notebooks. Late at night at the cannery, James would try to solve a baseball question. Does a marquee starting pitcher increase attendance when he’s pitching, as people assumed? (No.) What starting pitcher forced batters to hit into the most double plays? (Back then, Tommy John.)
He sold his typed manuscripts with an ad in The Sporting News. Then he got a review in Sports Illustrated, got a major publisher, and learned more people were interested in his philosophy than he ever suspected.
Yet as his books stayed on bestseller lists, baseball insiders mocked him.
“When you propose a new idea it is a normal reaction from almost everyone to see why it won’t work rather than see why it will,” James says. “That’s that way the human mind works. People see the world the way it is. If you suggest a way it could be, people focus on reasons why it can’t be that way. I pay no attention to those people.”
Instead, James asked: Why not?
“Why shouldn’t there be a baseball science?” he says. “Why shouldn’t there be actual knowledge about baseball? What percentage of the American population would self-identify as baseball fans, and what percentage of people are happiest with actual knowledge instead of B.S.?”
Baseball has always been a numbers game. But over time, James and other sabermetricians — named after the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR — have challenged which numbers matter.
Batting average isn’t as important as on-base percentage, or a statistic James invented called "runs created." Errors or fielding percentage don’t tell you who the best fielder is; James created statistics like "range factor" or "defense efficiency rating." Wins and losses? James created the Pythagorean winning percentage, which takes a team’s luck out of the equation.
This, however, rubbed baseball lifers the wrong way, quantifying a game with so many variables.
“You can’t take the human element out of it — these people are human beings, they’re not Strat-O-Matic cards,” says Kevin Goldstein, who writes for Baseball Prospectus, a magazine founded on the Jamesian philosophy. “You can’t just (use) them and expect some sort of consistent value based on what you want to do with them.”
It’s a trait James believes sabermetricians need more of: humility. The more he has learned, the more people he has influenced, the louder the saber-clamor becomes for James’ induction into Cooperstown. It all makes James realize how little he does know. When people say he’s changed baseball, James demurs. He says he’s only changed the conversation.
"I will never understand baseball,” James once wrote. “I will never understand 1 percent of what I need to understand. My view of our work is that we are attacking a mountain range of ignorance with a spoon and a used toothbrush. The things that we do not know are inexhaustible."
This is what the revolution looks like today:
“Moneyball” will hit thousands of theaters this weekend. Time magazine has named James one of the world’s 100 most influential people. The internet overflows with statistical websites. Companies such as Baseball Info Solutions sort through mounds of fielding data to better quantify players’ value on defense; other sabermetricians try to better predict how players progress as they age.
“There is no more influential person ever in baseball in taking an analytical approach to the game than Bill James,” says John Dewan, who quit his actuary job and now runs Baseball Info Solutions. “But we’re at the tip of the iceberg. A hundred years from now, we’ll know more. But it will not end.”
Dewan believes teams that do analytics properly in their front offices can add four or five wins a season, same as if they signed a superstar player. That’s right: A sabermetrician believes the impact of sabermetrics can be quantified, too.
As for James, at the moment he’s brushing Diet Pepsi bottles from his old Honda Accord and driving around Lawrence. His frenetic mind slows a moment to explain why he does this work. The world, he says, is a complicated place. We’ll never figure it out. Baseball is a microcosm of that world. It’s more manageable for our brains to understand.
“Part of what makes baseball fascinating is the sense that it’s an intelligible universe,” James says. “Because it’s so orderly, it creates a clockwork universe that creates the illusion you can understand it.”
He pauses, his words catching up to his brain.
“We make this organized set of information about the players on the team,” he says. “We put it on baseball cards, in books, on the internet . . .”
“We’re all constantly trying to figure out the world,” he continues. “You can’t figure out the world. It’s beyond your comprehension. It’s too complicated. Baseball is very much like the world, but very much simpler. (So) you have a fair chance, you have a fighting chance, of figuring it out. You can make order out of it.”
We’ll never completely figure out baseball, never reduce it to a set of numbers. James knows this. He enjoys baseball’s beauty and unpredictability. He also enjoys the challenge of trying to figure it out.
And so the revolutionary goes to Oakland for a Hollywood premiere. The revolutionary speaks to conferences at ESPN. The revolutionary advises a team with one of baseball’s highest payrolls on whom they should spend money on.
He has learned much about baseball over the past decade: from considering the dollar signs when he evaluates players to considering clubhouse chemistry. He believes clubhouse chemistry eventually could be quantifiable, a statistic to show players’ contribution to a winning atmosphere.
And as we speak, he’s creating a mathematical ranking system for starting pitchers. He was watching ESPN recently and heard a conversation about Tiger Woods dropping in golf’s world rankings. James wondered: Why can’t we say, with some degree of mathematical certainty, who is the best starting pitcher? Within minutes, he began to devise a numerical way to figure this out. He’s still fine-tuning things, but as of now, Justin Verlander is beating Roy Halladay.
The revolution, it appears, lives on.