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 database. People started proposing new theories and formulas, engaging in brutal but collegial peer review, and buying enough James books to make him a perennial best-seller.
"All these exquisitely trained, brilliantly successful scientists and mathematicians," Lewis writes, "were working for love, not money."
Yet the profit motive played a crucial role as well. Soon after James burst on the scene, Lewis points out, "two changes were about to occur that would make his questions not only more answerable but also more valuable. First came radical advances in computer technology: This dramatically reduced the cost of compiling and analyzing vast amounts of baseball data. Then came the boom in baseball players' salaries: This dramatically raised the benefits of having such knowledge."
But organized baseball couldn't be bothered with it. Almost every single decision-maker in a traditional baseball franchise, from general manager down to the lowliest talent scout, clung to the same comfortable prejudices and conventional wisdom that the Jameseans were now ridiculing.
The Old Guard wanted beautiful athletes; the New Guard preferred fat guys who could hit and draw walks. Baseball men loved to bunt and steal; the outsiders called such "little ball" a way to lose runs. General managers were forever drafting high school players; desktop dynamos said college men were far better prospects. Year after year, millions of dollars were being thrown at first basemen who hit home runs and relief pitchers who threw hard; the computer nerds argued the minor leagues were filled with similar players available at a fraction of the cost.
The most effective counter-argument against the radical new information was one that innovators in any discipline will find familiar: "What the hell do you know? You've never been a professional!"
Moneyball's biggest revelation to a long-time James freak like me is that the man who finally introduced these ideas to a baseball organization, Billy Beane, was himself almost the ideal example of what the Old Guard baseball men fancied in a player: A specimen of an athlete, with a great sense for the game. He was also an abysmal failure as a pro, which gave him extra motivation to question how players are valued. At the same time, his continued physical vigour and Major League experience gives him credibility in the insular macho culture he's trying to subvert.
Crucially, it was the fact that Beane works for one of the cheapest organizations in the game that made his bosses just desperate enough to give these crazy new ideas a whirl. His astonishing success (296 wins and three playoff appearances in the past three years) has put sabermetric analysis in demand, leading to a new breed of general manager, including the Jays' Ricciardi (Beane's former director of player personnel), and 28-year-old Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox (who, completing the circle, hired Bill James this past off-season).
What lessons can we learn from this tale? That the pursuit of better information will eventually unearth discrepancies and irrationalities, even in a field as seemingly well-studied as baseball. That the gatekeepers of information and judgment will instinctively and defensively protect their turf, rather than question their own legitimacy. That intelligence and passion can still win in the end, especially if they take advantage of the networking power of the Web.
The most obvious application for these lessons is in other sports, especially under-measured ones like professional basketball (already, several people have attempted to become "the Bill James of the NBA"). But any industry addicted to its own traditions, conventional in its hiring practices, and hostile to outsider analysis, is vulnerable. Especially if it attracts the attention of fanatical observers who publish their own Web sites.
Any good Jamesean knows to avoid small sample sizes and results-based analysis, but I for one can't help notice that Moneyball came out just as The New York Times editor Howell Raines was being drummed out of office at least in small part because of the hounding of a thousand individual outsiders. It's a bad era to be a gatekeeper. Thank God.
Matt Welch is an Associate Editor at Reason magazine and lives in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com