Pioneering James marvels as influence spreads far

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 06, 2014 2:38 PM

By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - For must of his 40 years spent analyzing and writing about baseball, Bill James, the godfather of the sport's data-driven "Moneyball" movement, was an outcast.

This week the 65-year-old Boston Red Sox advisor shared the stage with technology CEOs a third his age at Europe's largest tech conference, Dublin's Web Summit, watching on as sport was acknowledged as being a part of their world.

"It's absolutely amazing. The central gamble of my life was that the number of people who were interested in these things that I was interested in was larger than the world thought it was," James told Reuters in an interview.

"I knew they were wrong and I was willing to gamble that they were wrong but I didn't have any idea how wrong they were. The number of people interested in it was vastly larger."

James began challenging baseball's conventional wisdom in the 1970s and recalls how at a time when nobody had a computer, his wife Susie would sit and figure out statistics from box score accounts of games.

The turning point, he said, came in the early 1980s when at the beginning of the computer revolution, his annual statistics guide The Bill James Baseball Abstract, heretofore a photocopied newsletter, was published nationally across the United States.

After two decades of "deep resistance," baseball executives began applying the so-called sabermetric principles James was preaching - most famously by Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics as chronicled in Michael Lewis' best-selling "Moneyball" book and later portrayed in an Oscar-nominated film starring Brad Pitt.

Now he sees similar principles proliferating through other sports. On Wednesday, he was on a panel with Manchester United head of athletic development Tony Strudwick who told an audience that collecting and analyzing data was the coaching way of the future when managing 500 million pounds ($792 million) worth of assets.

"You can't analyze anything without understanding it," James said, when asked whether other sports, particularly a more fluid game like soccer, can learn from what baseball eventually embraced.

"Anything you know helps you. If you can get the players on your team performing at 60 percent of their potential rather than 50 percent, you can mess up a lot of small details and still win."

One problem soccer must overcome first, James says, is the propensity to hire and fire managers: "The guy from Manchester talking about having three coaches in 15 months? That's just insane. Any kind of turnover washes out everything you've done."

"IGNORANCE IS INEXHAUSTIBLE"

James, whose influence even led to an appearance on 'The Simpsons' - when he poked fun at himself by saying "I made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes!" - has spawned a movement where most front offices in baseball now have teams of statisticians vying to give their team an extra edge.

Beane's A's keep defying the odds by building playoff teams out of a tiny payroll. The Pittsburgh Pirates, another relative underdog, have succeeded by including their team's so-called "brain trust," which includes mathematics university graduates in their 20s, in most facets of decision making.

Yet despite the rapid advances, James believes there is still so much baseball and statisticians like himself can learn and refine.

"Ignorance is inexhaustible, we will always have things we don't know. There is still a thousand things that people say are tremendously important that you will still turn over rocks to study and find something occasionally," he said.

And what of the prospects of the Red Sox? The team hired James shortly before ending a 86-year World Series championship drought in 2004 and have yo-yoed from champions once again in 2013 to bottom of their division is the season just ended.

"We better do better or we or we'll all get fired!"

(Editing by Frank Pingue)