on baseball and moneyball and bill james

MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis was a look into the work­ings of the Oak­land A’s base­ball team. Pub­lished in 2003 with the un­likely sub­title, “The Art Of Win­ning An Un­fair Game,” Lewis wanted to know how a team in a ‘small’ market—Oakland being deemed such by MLB—with a budget that con­sis­tently ranked in the lower half of base­ball in terms of team pay­roll could so con­sis­tently play com­pet­i­tive ball with the “rich” teams. So here I briefly speak on base­ball and mon­ey­ball and Bill James.

The story starts in 1996 when the new owners of the team or­dered pay­roll slashed. Since the team could no longer solve any po­si­tion is­sues by bid­ding on free agents, then Gen­eral Man­ager Sandy Alderson be­came the first GM to use Bill James-based saber­met­rics to eval­uate players and build a team.

 

Bill James is ar­guably the most im­por­tant figure in modern base­ball who is out­side of baseball.

 

He was fol­lowed as GM by Billy Beane, who learned saber­met­rics from Alderson. Beane not only con­tinued its use, he built his whole phi­los­ophy on it. It is Billy who is the focus of Mon­ey­ball.

It took a few years, but since 1999, the dra­mat­i­cally un­der­paid (by major league stan­dards) Oak­land Ath­letics have won their di­vi­sion five times and fin­ished second an­other five times! Usu­ally, without any mar­quee players!

 

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The New Bill James His­tor­ical Base­ball Ab­stract is ar­guably the best in­tro­duc­tion to James’s writing. If you dig base­ball, you prob­ably will be reading this book in spurts for the rest of your life.

On Moneyball and Bill James

Mon­ey­ball was very successful—although NOT with hard­line, old-fashioned coaches, man­agers, scouts, and front of­fice per­sonnel, who felt that their faith in “the book” was being chal­lenged (which it was)—and a movie based on the book fol­lowed in 2011.

The movie starred three of to­day’s best ac­tors: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and per­sonal fav­erave Philip Sey­mour Hoffman. It, too, was a suc­cess, both at the box of­fice and with the critics.

Alderson and Beane based their un­der­standing of saber­met­rics pri­marily on the books and ob­ser­va­tions of Bill James. Ar­guably the most im­por­tant figure in modern base­ball who is out­side of base­ball, James rev­o­lu­tion­ized the in­ter­pre­ta­tion and un­der­standing of the game. While most people as­so­ciate him with ar­cane math­e­mat­ical for­mulas out­side of their ken.

 

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Mon­ey­ball may be the most pop­ular base­ball book in decades, per­haps even the most in­flu­en­tial! It could not exist without the universe-changing work of Bill James.

Common questions, uncommon answers

Not so: James’ ap­proach is to ask common-sense ques­tions and then allow the data to do the talking. Starting back in the 1970s, Bill as­sem­bled the world’s largest data­base of MLB box scores and de­vel­oped a com­puter pro­gram to gather the mas­sive amounts of raw sta­tis­tics for him and his fellow base­ball fanad­dicts and spit it back out to them for interpretation.

A typ­ical James ques­tion might be, What is the value of a stolen base in ac­tual runs scored?

That might lead to an even more im­por­tant ques­tion: If a runner on first with no­body out at­tempts to steal second and is thrown out, how many po­ten­tial runs did that cost his team?

 

SportsIllustrated Moneyball BradPitt 500

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in the movie Mon­ey­ball on the cover of the Sep­tember 25, 2011, issue of Sports Illustrated.

A game could go on forever

James pointed out that only base­ball of the major team sports does not have a clock; that a base­ball game is mea­sured in outs and until one team makes twenty-seven outs, the game is not over. The­o­ret­i­cally, a base­ball game could go on forever!

This caused him to de­velop a system whereby an in­di­vidual bat­ter’s value was based on what he pro­duced (hits, home runs, walks, stolen bases, etc.) against how many outs that he cre­ated achieving them.

 

A word of cau­tion about the James books: Do not take his books into the bath­room, or you may never leave.

 

Aside from his many con­tri­bu­tions to an in­tel­li­gent fan’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the game, Bill James is an em­i­nently read­able writer! I have ad­mired his clean, in­for­ma­tive, ca­sual writing style (and thank Grom­mett he stops com­fort­ably shy of the ‘aw-shucks!’ ap­proach) since I stum­bled over one of his books on a $2 re­mainder table in Scotts­dale in 1983!

I could go on, but will not: should you want to know more about these two topics, please read Mon­ey­ball and then buy a copy of The New Bill James His­tor­ical Base­ball Ab­stract.

A word of cau­tion about the Ab­stract: do not take it into the bathroom—you may never leave

 

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HEADER IMAGE: The photo at the top of the page is of the late Philip Sey­mour Hoffman as Art Howe in the movie Mon­ey­ball (2011). Hoffman may have been the finest actor of the past thirty years. For­tu­nately, I don’t keep track of stuff like that.

 

 

 

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