Archive for Wednesday, December 11, 2002

James puts Red Sox on cutting edge

Boston brass believe Lawrence stats guru will keep team one step ahead of competition

December 11, 2002


When the Boston Red Sox introduced a former night watchman as their new senior adviser a few Fridays back, it wasn't so much a front office coming out party as it was the final installment of The Revenge of the Nerds.

Baseball had moved into a new era, symbolically, if not literally. The only surprise was that there wasn't a lineup of computers and calculators on hand to herald it.

As the sun shone on the Green Monster, Bill James, 53, of Lawrence, Kan., a large man with a salt and pepper beard and longstanding reputation as the all-time sultan of stats, heard himself being acclaimed in ways typically reserved for Nomar and Pedro.

Nobody seemed fazed that a man who has spent years assailing batting average as the game's most overhyped stat was being trotted out in the 406 Room - a space recently named for Ted Williams and maybe the most celebrated average of them all.

"We want our baseball organization to be on the cutting edge, and this is the guy to help us get there," said Sox CEO Larry Lucchino.

"We look at Bill as our guru because he's so far ahead of us in quantitative analysis," said owner John Henry.

When the gushing finally stopped, an outsider had become an insider and baseball's sabermetric revolution had gone deep. James - author, analyst and wry dispenser of knowledge - found himself both excited and terrified.

"I could recommend the Red Sox sign a player and he could wind up stinking up the joint," James said. "I never had to worry about that before."

The writer of the renowned Baseball Abstract series, and more recently, Win Shares, James is the spiritual godfather of modern sabermetrics, the science of baseball statistical analysis.

For years sabermetricians were widely viewed as numerically obsessed geeks with way too much time on their hands. Now, increasingly, they're seen as sources of valuable information - and sometimes even as colleagues.

More and more, clubs are embracing such sabermetric gospel as the value of on-base percentage and slugging percentage over batting average; the James-concocted Runs Created; and the dubious worth of sacrifice bunts.

"You're crazy if you are blind to the value of sabermetrics as a way to supplement your scouting reports," Padres GM Kevin Towers says.

Aside from a short stay with the Royals in the late 1980s, James' previous work in baseball has been as an advisor to agents who are preparing arbitration cases.

James was a special-ed teacher in Kansas when he started his journey, quitting so he could write and study full time. He worked as a night watchman and a boiler-room attendant, and wrote all night while nothing happened.

"My goals when I started were not to create more statistics," he says. "My goals were to battle ignorance and create fields of knowledge."

Those fields seem to expand almost daily, the crunch of the number becoming almost as much of a baseball staple as the crack of the bat. Bill James, statistical sage of Landsdowne St., is an insider now.

As we wait to see how it plays out, there seems little doubt that he's hit the sabermetric shot heard 'round the world, or at least the big leagues.

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