Bill James, the father of sabermetrics (and the man who coined the word), was the rare kind of writer who had no apparent motive for becoming a writer. He had no literary role models, was never encouraged to write, and spent most of his twenties working as a night watchman. In the late 70s, he began writing about baseball, and in 1977 he self-published a collection of his work. The collection was unremarkable except for a section in which James critiqued fielding statistics. Ingeniously, he showed that fielding statistics were unique in baseball, because they depended upon an arbitrary definition of what is and isn’t an error. He concluded that GMs were making important decisions based on statistics that didn’t measure what they were supposed to measure.
In this chapter, Lewis discusses the history of sabermetrics: the use of statistics and mathematics to calculate optimal playing strategies in the game of baseball. Bill James is considered the father of sabermetrics because, at a time when personal computers made it easier for the average American to study thousands of baseball stats, James recognized that baseball GMs were making decisions based on players’ statistics, but didn’t understand what these statistics really meant.
James proposed a new sports statistic that could help GMs make intelligent decisions with their players: the range factor, in other words, the number of successful plays a player made per game. James acknowledged that range factor wasn't a perfect statistic—like existing fielding statistics, it hinged on a somewhat arbitrary definition of success (for example, a mediocre outfielder playing against a fly ball pitcher would have a higher range factor than a talented outfielder playing against a sinker ball pitcher)—but it gave a better sense for a player’s overall ability.
It’s important to note that James’s new, modified statistics weren’t perfect, either: like existing fielding statistics, James’s range factor hinged upon an arbitrary definition of success and failure. James’s contribution to sabermetrics wasn’t to provide an authoritative list of baseball statistics so much as it was to challenge baseball dogma. Put another way, he was better at asking questions than he was at providing answers.
The flaws in baseball statistics date back more than a century. In the 1860s, a British journalist named Henry Chadwick pioneered the concept of the box score in baseball. Chadwick’s reference point was the game of cricket, and, as a result, many of his statistics painted a misleading picture of the game. For example, he believed that when a player earned a walk, it was an error. He emphasized the importance of batting average at the expense of more comprehensive statistics. He also pioneered the Runs Batted In, or RBI, statistic. In the 20th century, RBI became so fetishized that it altered the way people played baseball—ballplayers would swing at bad pitches in order to boost their RBI count.
In the 1970s, the most familiar baseball statistics had been developed in the 1860s and, by and large, had not been questioned since that time. The biggest problem with Chadwick’s statistics, as James saw it, was that it became more important for athletes to achieve high statistics than to win the game. Furthermore, there were occasions when high statistics interfered with winning games. For example, a hitter who tries to get a high RBI is often less of an asset to his team than a hitter who has a low RBI but gets lots of walks.
Between Chadwick and James, there had been periodic attempts to rethink baseball statistics. But it wasn’t until James’s lifetime that people had access to computers and, therefore, to huge numbers of baseball statistics. Year after year, James published baseball abstracts in which he discussed important statistical principles. He had a no-nonsense approach to sports writing: he dismissed statistics like the batting average, writing, “It should be obvious that the purpose of an offense is not to compile a high batting average.” James argued that baseball statistics were biased in order to showcase a player’s ability to do impressive things, such as hit home runs and steal bases, rather than their ability to gradually help the team win through a combination of power hits, regular hits, and walks. Not all of James’s ideas were right, but he sparked new interest in the math of baseball.
The statistical methods that James, and later Paul DePodesta, used to reform baseball statistics had been around for decades (or in some cases, centuries), but it wasn’t until the seventies that ordinary people had access to large amounts of baseball statistics, to which they could apply statistical methods. In many ways, James’s ideas reflect Billy Beane’s career. James argued that baseball is biased in favor of impressive, misleading statistics, such as batting average, that don’t always correlate with a player’s overall ability. Similarly, talent scouts were impressed with Billy because of his impressive, though uneven, performance.
One of James’s most important contemporaries was a pharmaceutical scientist named Dick Cramer. Cramer’s most famous idea was that clutch-hitting (i.e., being good under pressure) didn’t exist in major league baseball, contrary to popular opinion. Cramer studied thousands of statistics and found zero evidence that certain players performed better in high-stakes situations. Cramer, and thousands of other amateur statisticians, sent fan letters to James thanking him for his annual baseball abstracts.
One consequence of the sabermetric revolution was that baseball fans found that their sport was full of superstitions that had become accepted wisdom about the game.
In the 1980s, the sabermetrics movement had grown so vast that people began petitioning Major League Baseball to publicize player statistics. Dick Cramer and Bill James started a business called STATS Inc., the purpose of which was to measure and publicize baseball stats. Cramer and James sent employees around the country to record different statistics, including many that Major League Baseball didn’t even measure.
Sabermetrics was a grassroots effort: its greatest advocates were fans and baseball wonks, rather than GMs and coaches. Because the Major League Baseball system refused to reform its practices and continued basing management around misleading stats, super-fans like Cramer and James took matters into their own hands.
Throughout the eighties, baseball GMs largely failed to see the importance of statisticians’ research; instead, they trusted old-fashioned, misleading statistics, such as batting average. In part, the reason that GMs ignored baseball wonks was because they didn’t always agree with the strategies that statistical research recommended. For example, some GMs refused to believe that their teams could do better by refraining from trying to hit home runs, since “they believed home runs sold tickets.”
Lewis doesn’t offer an in-depth explanation of why coaches refused to adopt sabermetrics reforms that, one would think, would have helped the coaches do their jobs. However, Lewis suggests that 1) coaches were very traditional and set in their thinking, and 2) coaches weren’t just trying to win games—they were trying to entertain millions of fans. Thus, even if the correct, sabermetric decision was to acquire and use players with lots of walks, coaches continued to prefer uneven players who could hit homers and thereby sell tickets.
Frustrated with trying to pass on its information to teams, STATS Inc. decided to sell its information to fans. At the time, sabermetrics was in the process of becoming a mainstream movement; indeed, Sports Illustrated wrote a feature article on Bill James. Also around this time, sports fans were becoming more interested in fantasy league teams, reflecting their interest in the tiny details of the game. STATS Inc. became a successful company and the leading source of information for baseball fanatics. In 1999, Fox News bought it for forty-five million dollars.
As sabermetrics became increasingly mainstream, it became clearer that Major League Baseball was behind the times. Coaches, GMs, and managers assumed that baseball fans just wanted to see players hit home runs when, by all the evidence, fans increasingly wanted to approach the game from a technical, mathematical standpoint and study the intricate details of the game.
In spite of the rapidly growing interest in sabermetrics, the management of major league baseball barely changed in the eighties and nineties. GMs sometimes hired statistics-loving assistants, but rarely prioritized their advice. Articles mocked the often nerdy and uncharismatic statisticians hired by baseball GMs and, in response, GMs often chose to fire their statisticians rather than face further mockery. In the late nineties, it was apparent that big league baseball was “unwilling to rethink anything.” Even the owners of sports teams who respected statistics were unwilling to impose their beliefs on the management structure of the team.
Major league GMs sometimes recruited token statisticians, but they usually didn’t take these people’s advice seriously. The passage also suggests another, perhaps obvious, reason why coaches and GMs didn’t listen to their statisticians: they regarded statisticians as nerdy and out of touch with the physical side of the sport, and they were too proud to take advice from people who couldn’t even throw a ball.
As time went on, James became increasingly frustrated with the slowness of professional baseball and its disrespect for the mathematics of the game. In his writing, he maintained a detached, vaguely bemused tone, as if amazed that professional sports continued to subscribe to the same myths about winning games. In the nineties, James gave up writing his annual baseball reports. No one ever told him that a major league team, the Oakland A’s, was finally putting his ideas into practice.
The evolution in James’s literary style reflects the evolution the relationship between sabermetrics and baseball management. In other words, as it seemed to become clear that baseball GMs would never listen to statisticians, James became increasingly curmudgeonly and sardonic in his writing, unaware that the Oakland A’s were, in fact, listening to him.