Pioneering James opens up on the numbers game

In appearance, Bill James reminds you of Michel Lonsdale, the French actor best known for his portrayal of Lebel, the detective who catches the assassin in Day of The Jackal.

Pioneering James opens up on the numbers game

Lebel is meticulous, patient and industrious, his attention to detail enabling him to achieve his goals in the end, and the parallels with James’s career in sports statistics are obvious.

At the Web Summit Sports Stage over the last couple of days, James, a courtly giant, offered a quick look back at his career, beginning with his now-famous stint as a security guard in a ‘franks and beans’ factory back in the 70s, when he started writing his Baseball Abstract.

“I had four jobs at the time,” he said, “including that one I was working in a convenience store, teaching and working as a night watchman.”

Back then, his photocopied newsletter reached a select few fellow aficionados, other obsessives with an interest in baseball facts and figures. Nowadays James is a consultant for one of the game’s powerhouses, the Boston Red Sox, “which can be restrictive: if I say something nice about a player, it can be interpreted as the Red Sox looking to acquire that player, and the reverse if I criticise a player.

“If I say something, it can end up on a message board somewhere, which doesn’t help.”

In that sense his boss, John Henry, who also owns Liverpool FC, might take an interest in James’s views on long-term contracts for older players: “In baseball, when players get to 30, 31, they sign four-year contracts, which are almost always terrible for the team and which overestimate the likelihood of that player succeeding over three or four years.”

James’s interest in baseball statistics was enabled by one simple fact: the sheer amount of information that was available, even when he started writing almost 40 years ago.

“The lucky thing about baseball generally is the volume of information. When I came to write about baseball and statistics, there was historical information going back over a century, which made my job easier.

“That doesn’t exist in other sports, but that’s not the only reason sabermetrics doesn’t work as well in other sports. Baseball is a very orderly sport, probably the only one in which players take turns to pitch and hit.

“For sabermetrics to work as well in soccer, it would have to become far more orderly — this player would have to kick the ball to this player, that player to this player and so on. Which doesn’t happen, obviously.”

James’ clear analytical writing style was formed by a lifelong addiction to the crime writing of Ed McBain (“I’ve been reading him since I was 10”) and various econometrists, a winning combination for the man who majored in both English and economics in college. Oddly enough, given he was introduced on stage with a clip of Brad Pitt in the movie version of Moneyball, he said he hasn’t read Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, which gives due credit to James’s pioneering work in the field of baseball data.

The man from Kansas isn’t precious about his field of expertise; he can differentiate, for instance, between nonsense and statistics quite easily, or bullshit and statistics, to use his term.

“Bullshit has tremendous advantages over knowledge as it can be created as needed, on demand and without limits. But statistics are too detailed. They don’t rise to the level of true bullshit, which is generalised compared to statistics.

“You spend time in any field filtering out what’s not useful and as an adult, you have filters in place. You don’t notice it.”

James also acknowledges the power of intuition, rejecting suggestions that data and analytics will replace the gut instincts of a manager or coach.

“It’s (intuition) tremendously valuable and we’ll never reach a point where data answers all the questions intuition poses.

“On a specific issue in baseball, the importance of catchers, there are many things like that, things which people suggest are tremendously important but you look and look, and can’t find that tremendous importance when you do. What happened in that case was that people looked and found something important, as opposed to an idea like clutch performance, the ability to perform at key moments, which is a mythical beast you can’t measure — but people still talk about it. On the possibility of replacing intuition, heading into a season, a team may have some players who can achieve maybe 50% of what they’re capable of, some achieve 10%, some nearly 100%.

“A good manager or coach can move that centre group from achieving 50% to 55%, then that’s much larger than anything we do by making the details work better.

“There’s still a much larger role for the intuition of a manager, I think, than for data, which is detail-driven.”

Though James is now embedded in the baseball establishment, he points out the inherent power of sports fans: “If the people in this room organised to collect data (for sport) they’d do it better than any company could.

“In the early 80s, we went to the professionals who collected the Major League baseball data and they said ‘it’s ours you can’t get to it’ so we said ‘screw you’ and organised ourselves as fans to collect data.

“In five years we were way ahead of them in terms of data. That can be done in any sport because in any sport the fans are more numerous and powerful, they can collect anything to get far ahead of the professionals. Then the professionals are in the position of playing catch-up.”

He doesn’t publish The Bill James Baseball Abstract but he does have a website on which to air his baseball thoughts. “We charge $3 a month for access, to keep the riff-raff out,” he said before adding: “And it keeps the riff-raff out.”

James has also written Popular Crime — Reflections on the Celebration of Violence to reflect the “hundreds” of crime books he’s read over the years.

Even now he’s working on a book covering a “terrible crime committed 100 years ago”.

Crime and punishment? That’s where we came in.

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