July 15, 2003

What Sgt. Stryker Knows Tha...

What Sgt. Stryker Knows That the Newspaper Industry Still Can't Grasp: Nick Denton makes largely the same point at the bottom of this post.

One of the 20 or so main principles uncovered by the Bill James revolution in baseball is that cheaper and often better talent is widely available and largely unrecognized, because of the inefficiencies of a tradition-choked talent recognition system. Put in plain English, a clever general manager can flesh out his team with good, undervalued talent -- your Scott Hattebergs, your Bill Muellers. Earl Weaver was great back in the '70s recognizing the strengths of such castoffs as John Lowenstein; the current Anaheim Angels are particularly adept at scouring the minor leagues for hidden gems like tonight's winner, Brendan Donnelly.

The principles and conditions which underpin the baseball thing are highly transferable to non-sporting endeavors. When amateurs create a vibrant network of self-produced content and argument, the messy consensus will nominate new talents, and ahead-of-the-curve managers will have a lucrative season of plucking the underappreciated, underpriced new contributors from poverty and mainstream obscurity. But at a rate that will only seem agonizing for the talent themselves, at least until they are under contract. One of the ironies of the statistical revolution is that baseball has always been the most measurable of sports. It's almost as if the metrics lulled analysts into a false sense of knowingness. I think you can say the same thing about newspapers -- which, after all, are supposed to be in the business of finding and evaluating writing talent, but got bogged down in their own crusty traditions. That's the sermonette for tonight, at least.

Posted by at July 15, 2003 10:01 PM

You make a good point about the applications of Jamesean thinking to newspapers, and others have highlighted the business implications, but what about politics? As I'm reading Moneyball, I've been trying to figure out how its lessons can be applied to running a campaign, ushering a bill through Congress, or diplomacy.

I suppose you can point at Howard Dean's emergence as a serious Democratic contender, because he's been able to harness the popularity of the Web (still perhaps an untapped political resource) to his advantage. In other words, the potential of the Internet (and blogs) to build momentum has perhaps been undervalued.


Posted by: Robert Tagorda at July 16, 2003 09:10 AM

In case you haven't read it, James' Hall of Fame book, The Politics of Glory, is in many ways a thinly veiled cri de coeur about fractious, emotional mid-90s politics. But, as Ron Bailey points out in a Reason Online column from yesterday, scientific fact doesn't just produce perfectly formed policy. In fact, the "government of experts" concept that many rational-minded people sometimes exasperatedly suggest, is one of the worst ideas going, because it assumes that there is One Political Truth, and it also smacks of an unseemly (and ultimately unhelpful) elitism....

Posted by: Matt Welch at July 16, 2003 10:24 AM

So, baseball-breathing friend, what is the one James book I need to check out of the library to begin this journey to Jamesian enlightenment?

Posted by: henry at July 16, 2003 10:37 AM

Ha! It took 10 years, but I finally hooked you! The Politics of Glory is good, because it's not a big pile of numbers; they're just tools in his history & arguments. Also, he uses much good, old-fashioned research and lively writing to point out dozens of previously unremarked on flaws in the way the Hall of Fame operates & selects members. And, it will prepare you for his easily distracted style -- the book is really three books in one, and it jerks hither and yon between them.

Posted by: Matt Welch at July 16, 2003 10:46 AM

But you really should read Moneyball, in case you haven't.

Posted by: Matt Welch at July 16, 2003 10:46 AM

Just as I was about to write that newspaper are probably more mired in their traditional hiring practices than baseball teams, I realized that the whole New York Times scandal probably proved that statement wrong. But does it? The problem there was that the paper placed a higher value on who the reporter was rather than his capabilities as a writer. That is really no different from the bias that most newspapers have of only hiring people with "daily newspaper experience," a cushy internship or a journalism professor with a big Rolodex.

Are there a lot of great reporters out there who will never get work at the big dailies because they don't play the game? Of course. Fortunately, the only venue to place good work anymore. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of major league baseball.

Posted by: Garrison at July 16, 2003 10:48 AM

Bad typo at the end of my last post. It should read: "Fortunately, the big dailies aren't the only venue where writers can get an audience for good work."

Posted by: garrison at July 16, 2003 10:50 AM

So -- if I read Bill James, will help explain why my Red Sox don't have a closer? (:

Just kidding. Except for the bullpen fiasco, James has been great for Fenway...even if he does telecommute from Kansas.

Highly recommended article on him and the Sox in the this week's NYer.

Posted by: Chandler at July 16, 2003 11:23 AM

I'm an empiricist, and as soon as I see with my own two eyes the overcoming of the inefficiencies in the system that are keeping me down, I'll believe it.

And the Yankees never get enough credit for having high on-base percentage, home-run hitting players just because their payroll is roughly one billion dollars.

Posted by: bunsen at July 16, 2003 12:06 PM

Perhaps Jamesean thinking -- if we take it to mean the rational teasing out of a problem that has often been tackled by emotionally driven people -- does have its drawbacks, particularly because it might lead to elitism. But I still wonder how (for example) cash-strapped campaigns can exploit inefficiencies in the political world to mobilize voters, raise money, and ultimately win by using Moneyball strategies. Basically, I suppose, I'm trying to think if Howard Dean is the Oakland A's of presidential politics. That's what I've been tossing around in my mind.

I'll check out The Politics of Glory. Thanks for your input.

Posted by: Robert Tagorda at July 16, 2003 12:09 PM

Politics of Glory is good, but I like The Historical Baseball Abstract better. It's less conducive to reading straight through, but I think it's a better introduction to James' thoughts on the game and his writing style.

Posted by: Andrew at July 16, 2003 12:14 PM

Either of the Historical Baseball Abstracts are a good place to start. The annual Baseball Abstracts of the 80's and the Baseball Books of the early-90's are tougher to find; some public libraries might have copies. His book on managers from a few years back and some of the other books put out under his name over the past few years (but not the Historical Abstract) are forgettable. His newsletters from 1984-5 are great, but you might have to go to E-Bay for those. Unless you make me an offer...

Posted by: Steve Smith at July 16, 2003 12:47 PM

And of course, The Politics of Glory is essential Jamesiana, even if his argument against Drysdale is weak.

One obvious area where the lessons of Beane Ball can be applied with an even higher likelihood of success is in popular entertainment, where there is much greater fungibility of talent.

Posted by: Steve Smith at July 16, 2003 12:52 PM

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or, and a terrific baseball writer.

My favorite essay in the book is "The Web of the Game," which recounts the 1981 college regional championship game between Yale (with Ron Darling on the mound) and St. John's (with Frank Viola on the mound). Darling pitched 11 innings of no-hit ball only to lose the no-hitter -- and the game --1-0 in the 12th. In the stands that day was 91-year-old Smokey Joe Wood, the most famous fastabller of his era who was 34-5 for the Boston Red Sox in 1912. Angell watched the game with Wood, and his story is a terrific tapestry that juxtaposes the flow of recollection from Wood against the epic battle between Darling and Viola down on the field. Great writing, and great reading!

Posted by: Mark at July 20, 2003 07:12 AM

This is reminiscent of a Michael Lewis column.
Wish I knew html.

Posted by: d smith at July 21, 2003 08:38 PM

As a current San Diegan I really miss the "love" of baseball that made me a fan when I lived in the Virginia/Maryland area. Baltimore had a great thing going, especially with its 'A' team in Frederick and 'AA' team in Towson. As an Orioles fan I could go to a game in Frederick and watch for the 1 kid in a 100 who might make it to the majors. This really infected Maryland with with baseball fever (the Frederick A team regularly drawing crowds larger than most AAA teams).

When Angelos bought the team there was a lot of fans (and press) clamoring for a return to Weaver style talent development and farm teams. Obviously Angelos went the for the short-term and we see how well that all turned out.

For me though, minor league baseball still has that old-fashioned magic that's been lost in the majors. Young men playing hard because they *need* to play well. Enough errors to make the game interesting. Hilarious marketing gimmicks by the teams. Kid friendly, the Frederick stadium even had a concession stand with a "maximum height" line for kids, and the players generally can't avoid the kids seeking autographs. Just a great way to spend a hot Saturday/Sunday afternoon.

Posted by: Van Gale at July 21, 2003 09:49 PM
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