Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bill James the Baron of Baseball Stats

Tonight on 60 Minutes there was a great special on Bill James, the baseball statistician whiz. Most people will be watching the Braves v. Nationals game or recovering from the Davidson loss but 60 minutes really pulled through with the story on baseball statistics. I am hoping that this story, being watched primarily by the elderly, will open the eyes of those batting average embracers. For those of you who don't know, Bill James is a baseball statistician who has written over two dozen books devoted to Baseball stats and in 2006 he was named by Time Magazine as one of the most influential people in the world. The king of almost every baseball stat geek, Bill James revolutionized the way baseball looks at statistics. He taught us, among other things, that individual ballparks have a profound effect on a ballplayer's production, that the largest variable determining how many runs a team will score is how many times the leadoff hitter gets on base, that much of what we perceive as pitching is actually defense. Some of James' most prominent theories include: Major League Equivalency (which shows minor league performance to be a valuable predictor of big-league success), Runs Created (quantifying a player's actual contributions to his team's runs scored), Win Shares (to compare players at different positions and from different eras) and Range Factor (as a measure of defensive effectiveness). Before James, the typical fan -- and, for that matter, many sportswriters and historians -- paid little attention to such variables as the impact of park dimensions, the value of stolen bases, or the truth of established beliefs over who was to credit (or blame) for a team's fortunes. Now such interpretation is taken for granted. In the late '70s, he started publishing his "Baseball Abstracts," yearly dissections of baseball players and baseball seasons that were typed, photocopied and sent to other aficionados. He built up a cottage industry and the publishing world noticed; in 1982, the "Bill James Baseball Abstract" was put out nationally, and became an annual bestseller -- despite concern that there was a narrow market for his work. In 2002 the Reds Sox hired Bill James and since then things have shifted within the organization. That includes providing input before the Red Sox signed players such as David Ortiz and Mark Bellhorn, who helped the team end an 86-year drought by winning the 2004 World Series and as you all know (I hope) the Red Sox won the World Series again last season two rings for crunching numbers....not bad. "Bill's had a great influence on the game," says Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who recalls reading James' Abstract when he was 10. "He's really helped bring objective analysis from behind the clouds into the sunshine. His unique perspective is always valuable for us. Whenever we have an issue, we solicit his opinion. His opinions help us get to the right answer."