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Turning baseball on its ear
'Jameseans' attempting to revolutionize baseball statistics
 
Matt Welch
National Post
(Photo of a baseball player.)
 
ADVERTISEMENT

LOS ANGELES - Can a ragtag, decentralized army of passionate outsiders and unpaid enthusiasts use their brains to break down 140 years of tradition and transform a multi-billion-dollar industry?

Hell yes, it can. And it's happening in Toronto as we speak.

Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker and The New New Thing, details a thrilling example of this phenomenon in his new book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. It's about baseball -- specifically, about how such teams as the Oakland A's and Toronto Blue Jays finally recognized and exploited a decades-old grassroots revolution in statistical analysis -- but you do not need be a baseball fan to thrill to the potential analogies it has for the world at large.

In 1977, an iconoclastic night watchman at a Kansas pork and beans factory, named Bill James, wrote and published a book called The 1977 Baseball Abstract, which attacked many of the statistics baseball fans had long held dear, and proposed radical new ones to take their place. It sold 75 copies. Yet without it, J.P. Ricciardi would not be the general manager of the Blue Jays today.

James approached statistics not as a method to generate trivia answers -- of the who holds the rookie record for home runs among players whose last name begins with "ph" variety -- but rather as a tool to ask fundamental questions about how the game is played and won, and as a bludgeon to mock baseball observers who used hoary clichés that couldn't possibly be true.

This approach led to observations that seem blindingly obvious in retrospect, but were borderline heretical at the time. For instance, in 1977, the most valued offensive statistic was batting average (hits divided by at-bats). To this day, team offences are usually ranked according to this one-dimensional number, which doesn't differentiate between a bunt single and a home run. James pointed out that, well, the object of the game was to score runs, not get base hits.

So he tinkered with hundreds of formulas to determine just what constituent parts of an offence contribute to the production of runs. This process quickly revealed, among hundreds of other things, that the ability to draw walks was severely undervalued in the public perception of baseball players.

James was the first to really hammer home the notion that different ballparks have vastly different effects on statistics (Fenway Park and Wrigley Field were great for hitters, the Astrodome and Dodger Stadium protected pitchers). He counted numbers that no one thought to collect -- stolen bases against pitchers and catchers, team records on Astroturf versus grass. He argued that fielding errors were less important than the actual number of defensive plays made.

But just as importantly, he wrote in a caustic, thrilling, outsider-and-proud-of-it style. "He spoke plainly and said smart, provocative things that cut against the grain of conventional wisdom," ESPN.com's Eric Neel wrote last year, recalling the eye-opening effects of discovering James as a teenager. "It wasn't fancy, but it was rhetorically sharp and intoxicating."

Moneyball -- which is not about James, but rather the efforts of A's general manager Billy Beane to foist Jamesean ideas on a resistant culture -- is nevertheless filled with "Bill James moments," when people had their lives changed by cracking open their first Abstract. A full list of such people would produce plenty of non-baseball professionals -- the terrific New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell (and his colleague James Surowiecki), derivatives-trading whiz John Henry (who has since bought the Boston Red Sox) ... and Lewis himself.

"What stunned me," he said in an interview with BaseballPrimer.com this week, "was the literary eloquence of Bill James. I was absolutely astonished.... I could not believe that I didn't know who this man was. I was just astonished by it. It was a combination of the clarity of the thought and the joy of the way it's expressed. It just seemed totally original and fresh to me."

James had one other quality that helped make him the cranky pied piper for the "sabermetric" revolution: He actively solicited help from readers and other amateurs, and encouraged them to form parallel structures of information far superior to what Major League Baseball had to offer. This collaborative, open-source movement was an early adopter to the Internet and World Wide Web, predating and predicting such things as the modern-day explosion in Weblogs.

By the late 1980s, members of the James-organized "Project Scoresheet" (now called Retrosheet) were attending nearly every professional game, writing down minute details of each play, and sharing it in a centralized datab at www.mattwelch.com

© Copyright  2003 National Post

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