Bill James, doyen of baseball statistical analysis, paid tribute to Liverpool FC owner John Henry at the Web Summit, identifying Henry’s statistical acumen as being key to his success, writes Michae Moynihan
Henry also co-owns the Boston Red Sox, where he and then-manager Theo Epstein hired James as a consultant.
“Theo and John spoke to me,” said James at the Web Summit.
“I realised they understood what I’d done, and how I could be helpful.
“Theo is really intense, focused, he likes to do big stuff, bold stuff. To have a good baseball team you must have a series of good drafts of players, but for that you need a lot of good scouts. For that you need to talk to a lot of people about what goes into good scouting.
“My point is process — there’s a long process, and Theo is very good at supervising, controlling, and providing energy to every step of the process.
“If you present John with a sheet of numbers, he’ll immediately zero in on the one number you didn’t work properly on, or that you didn’t do enough work on. He’s very astute.”
James is widely credited with beginning the revolution in baseball analysis that eventually spread into other sports. He revealed the level of resistance to his approach: “I’m not a kind, gentle person. I’m a sarcastic SOB by nature.
“Someone I criticised a long time ago fired back at me that the stuff I and others were doing was people analysing the battle after it was fought.
“But when are you going to analyse the battle — after it’s been fought, right? He thought that because I was doing that analysis after the war, that the analysis didn’t have value, but that’s how you analyse a battle. After it happens, to get ready for the next one.”
James described the current revolution in data as a “great time” because of the masses of data now available.
“What was a great benefit to me was that people had collected data for 100 years before me but hadn’t made an effort to study it. Fifty years later it seems even stranger that there were massive piles of data but nobody had made much of an effort to see how important this call was, what this number meant, what this action did compared to this one. I didn’t collect data. I stumbled into it.
“Old people always wish they were younger, but the data revolution, the amount of it that’s still there — it’s massive. We’ve collected so much data that it’ll take decades to understand it.
“I came along at a great time, the data was there, but now is a great time too because in the last three decades we’ve done a great job of generating all this data.”
James added that the key to the information revolution was the generational shift: “The most exciting things happen when a threshold of generations is crossed. In the first 10 years that I did this, I encountered a lot of resistance from baseball. To be honest, they thought I was a pariah. That I was full of it.
“Then one year, everybody decided I was OK. What had happened — I had small kids and I was paying attention to them — was that the people who’d grown up reading my books had become journalists or begun working for sports teams. The most progress comes when generations shift.
“I’m in no way pleased or excited about the (US presidential) election, for instance, but the best things happen when there’s a shift. That’s what opens up possibilities, possibilities to which we’ve been blind up to that point.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved