Wednesday, March 17, 2004

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Why Bill James is not an economist

Bill James, the godfather of baseball sabermetrics, is now working as a consultant for the Boston Red Sox. Of course, it's only recently that James' pioneering idea of using statistical analysis to determine what causes a baseball team to win games has been accepted.

Before that, he had an interesting set of careers, as he told

Before he started making his living analyzing baseball, James worked in several unglamorous odd jobs, including fast food restaurants, night watchman, convenience store clerk and forklift driver. One of his first career goals was to be an economics teacher.

But his obsession for baseball drained the ambition he had for any other kind of work.

"I was never a particularly good student," said James. "I suppose I was capable of being a good student -- most everybody is -- but when I studied Micro Economics, for example, I would take what I learned there and figure out how to apply it to baseball. I would spend five minutes mastering the concept, 50 hours figuring out how it might apply to baseball. This was a drain on my potential to become an Economics professor. Even when I was in high school, teachers would tell me to put away those box scores and do my homework. Once I focused on writing about baseball, all of that energy was working for me, rather than working against me."

As someone who also started out in economics, but found politics more interesting, I can certainly understand.

UPDATE: On a loosely related topic, David Pinto has an interesting guest essay by Glenn Berggoetz and Jeff McBride arguing that contra conventional wisdom, ex-catchers make lousy managers.

posted by Dan on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM


As an A's fan, I find the Red Sox bringing Bill James aboard to be particularly revolting, the over-looked front-office equivalent of the Yankee's picking up A-Rod. While teams like the A's go and get smart people like Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta, and J.P. Ricciardi to overhaul their clubhouse, the Red Sox throw their money around and go straight to the top of the Sabremetrics pecking order: Mr. Bill James himself. Yes, he's just a consultant, and he's probably an unnecessary addition to one of the smartest front offices in baseball. But A-Rod was probably an unnecessary addition to one of the most potent offenses in baseball. It's just indicative of the attitude that says to win you have to spend the most and bring in the most prominent people you can find. Which is exactly opposite from the Oakland attitude that brought Sabremetrics to prominence in baseball in the first place! The irony! You don't have to spend the most to win, and hopefully this year there won't be any called strike-threes to prove me wrong!

posted by: Winning on the cheap on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

What the hell is Bill James' background? I always assumed he had some sort of formal statistics training. Now it appears he is just Joe Schmoe who likes baseball statistics. He came up with all this statistical analysis, but has anybody really checked to see if it is correct? I like a lot of what he does (he is really a good writer), but it seems like sabermetrics is becoming a dogma just like traditional baseball analysis.

posted by: Marc Schneider on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

Is Bill James really "expensive"? The guy worked for french fries! I doubt the club misses the low-six figure retainer they probably pay him, and they can always ignore his advice. Seems pretty innocuous (but then, hey, I'm a BoSox fan).

The best an economist can hope for is a modest TIAA-CREF pension, a few dalliances with cute undergrads--if they're awesome a shot at a Nobel Prize. That crap pales next to the solid gold statue they'll place atop the Green Monster in homage to BJ should he bring them a WS victory this year.

It's all sooo exciting, we've decided to move to Boston this spring. We'll never be at a loss for house guests from April to October.

posted by: Kelli on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

" has anybody really checked to see if it is correct? "

Well, now, baseball arguments are kind of like politics. "Correct" is a slippery concept. But what James was most responsible for doing was attaching numbers to ALREADY slippery concepts so that there was some basis of comparison. And he has been challenged, (attacked, really) year after year by other fanatics as crazy as he is -- and survived.

I'd recommend using James's methods in High School as a way to teach various sorts of math ...

posted by: Pouncer on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

I don't think that baseball analysis is like politics or at least the saber-types don't think so. They argue that there is a direct (and presumably causal) relationship between such things as on-base percentage and runs scored, for example, or the importance of a pitcher's strikeout ratio. These seem to make sense, but the approach is premised on a kind of scientific rigor that may or may not exist. Even if its not rigorous, it's still fun, but the sabermetricians have a pretty haughty attitude toward traditional baseball people that I find distasteful at times. More importantly, the spread of sabermetric analysis may actually harm the game by driving teams into strategies that are less entertaining, albeit potentially more effective. A perfect sabermetric strategy seems to be that every hitter take tons of pitches and teams do nothing but hit home runs. That sounds like a formula for long, tedious games.

posted by: marc schneider on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

One of the things that Bill James proved that was baseball players peak much earlier (at or near age 27) than had been supposed. This is also true of people in general, I believe.

In the aggegate, people's most productive years are probably the 15 years from age 25 to 40, or so. (Of course a given individual may vary greatly from this.) Before that, not enough experience and concentration; after that, not enough brain cells and energy.

I think that this is earlier than conventional wisdom would say. Really, after age 40 or so, people's incomes should be coming down. After age 45, they should drop sharply. I don't care who you are or what you do, there are very few people who are as produtive at 50 as they were at 30. This is actually more true of knowledge workers than manual workers, by the way (in my opinion).

We all know that mathemeticians, chess players, and the like peak before 30. In my opinion, actuaries and physicists and economists may peak perhaps a bit later, and accountants and lawyers and doctors perhaps a bit later still; but all are on the downhill slide before 40.

(And "experience" is grossly overrated. After you've been doing something ten years, you should pretty much know everything about it. Tons of experience does have some value, and for that reason it's appropriate to keep some of the old-hand surgeons or attorneys or engineers or whatnot around -- but not at the salaries they made when they could really do things.)

In the future, the average person should expect his highest income to come at age 35 or so.

posted by: a random person on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

I started reading Bill James' Baseball Abstract (his first publication) in 1979, after reading about it in Esquire magazine that spring. The 1979 edition was the third annual edition. I think it stopped in 1989 or thereabouts.

The first time I read his work it was clear to me that he was a mad obsesive genius who was determined to hack baseball as a mathematical system. It was an utterly original approach. I am always captivated by thinkers completly outside the conventional wisdom (which is why I so detest academic liberalism) and I was very taken by James.

He was so far outside the mainstream that the first few editions of the Baseball Abstract were offset from manually typed (and if you are under 30 you may have no idea of what I am talking about) copy. James himself in those early years seems to have been obsesed with hacking the APBA Basball Game, a dice and card creation that allowed a fairly realistic recreation of the scoresheet of a major league game. I recall him writing about working the night shift in the boiler room at the Stokley Van Camp Plant in Kansas. I also took it from his writing that he had not had much positive feed back from the formal academic system. This is not surprising as obsesive genuises seldom do. The odds are that the next Albert Einstein will wind up at a second string provincial college and will get a job as a patent clerk, just like the last one.

At any rate James developed a following by the mid-80's. He found more remunerative work as an expert witness in salary arbitrations and stopped producing the annual Abstract.

Baseball teams started using James like approaches in the mid 80's. There is a book: The Diamond Appraised by Craig R. Wright and Tom House, which was written in the 1980's. House was a former major league pitcher and pitching coaching of the Texas Rangers and Wright was the team SABRmetrician. The book was for baseball propeller-heads and you didn't read it.

A wider audience was not found until Michael Lewis , a talented writer, found and decided to write about Billy Beane of the Oakland A's, who was doing quite well competing with the big money teams using some of the analytic tools invented by James.

Of course the tools do not make the artist. IIRC, Keynes made a lot of money trading stocks and bonds for his college. But the wizards at Long Term Capital went broke and darn near busted the whole global economy in the summer of 1998. I do not know whether Bill James has the ability to use the tools he forged to help the Red Sox or whether the curse will prevail yet again.

Go Cubs!

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

"...with hacking the APBA Baseball Game, a dice and card creation that allowed a fairly realistic recreation of the score sheet of a major league game."

I remember playing that game back in the early 70s with 1969 player/cards. We always fought over who got Rico Carty. The thing I remember most though is that the Baltimore Orioles won most of the time. The 69 Mets WERE a miracle :)

PS The made us quit playing at lunch because the principal was convinced we were gambling in his lunchroom.

posted by: TexasToast on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

Toast: The difference between you and Bill James is that 1) he did not let the principal deter him, and 2) he wanted to know why Rico Carty was so desirable.

posted by: Robert schwartz on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

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posted by: Cialis on 03.17.04 at 12:50 AM [permalink]

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