Baseball stats pioneer Bill James says ‘Moneyball’ hits it out of the park

Bill James

Bill James is a critic of baseball, not movies. But he’s got an informed opinion of the movie “Moneyball,” out in theaters nationwide this week.

“It’s terrific,” said James, who lives in Lawrence. “It’s a fun movie with a warm and original perspective on baseball. It’s got a really nice energy to it.”

“Moneyball,” based on a book by Michael Lewis, is the story of a corps of nerds trying to change the way big-league teams assess and acquire players. The system that the club, led by Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane character, uses is based on James’ system of sabermetrics, the analysis of player performance based on statistics.

There isn’t a Bill James character in “Moneyball,” but his name is used four times in the script, as well as his image.

James has been writing about baseball for nearly 35 years. Jargon in his world includes “win shares,” “similarity scores” and “range factor.” As in the movie, the baseball establishment shunned his early work until a new generation took over. James now has two World Series rings for his role as senior adviser of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox.

“I write to hard-core baseball fans,” James said. “Anybody else is an interloper. That’s part of what defines my books: the decision to write to the hardest-core, most knowledgeable baseball fans, assuming that the reader starts with a deep knowledge of the game. I’ve never tried to write to the casual fan.”

So it’s a wonder sabermetrics can be the basis for a Hollywood movie.

“The people who made the movie — all of them, I think — are nonbaseball fans,” said James, a towering yet soft-spoken figure. “That’s part of the reason it works as well as it does; they avoid the cliches associated with baseball because they don’t have a traditional view of the game.”

If there were a Bill James character in the movie, whom would James like to play him?

“John Wayne and Wally Cox would appear to be the logical candidates,” he said.