Red Sox senior advisor Bill James, ‘Father of Sabermetrics,’ visits Tufts
Published: Friday, March 2, 2012
Updated: Saturday, March 3, 2012 11:03
Renowned "sabermetrician" Bill James, who laid the groundwork for alternative baseball analysis techniques now used by many MLB front offices, stopped by an Experimental College class on Thursday afternoon to discuss the thinking that fueled his statistical methods. James famously inspired the baseball decisions made by Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, the main character of Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" (2003), a book that James told the students he didn't actually read.
James spoke to the students of Sabermetrics 101: The Objective Analysis of Baseball, a weekly full-credit class taught by Boston University Professor of Natural Science Andy Andres, who has been studying sabermetrics himself for more than 15 years. Andres met James at the 2005 SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) convention in Toronto, and the two have remained close friends ever since.
"I think [James] genuinely was surprised that [sabermetrics] had become academic," Andres said. "He was really on his own, doing something that very few people had interest in, and all of a sudden it becomes a college class. That's a big transition, to go from something quite obscure to something more mainstream."
Sabermetricians attempt to measure the performance of baseball players with total objectivity, ignoring conventional baseball statistics, that they claim are flawed, and instead using other measures that more directly dictate a player's value. Some examples of sabermetric statistics include "weighted on-base average," which is used to measure a hitter's true offensive value, and "fielding independent pitching," which subtracts fielding performance from a pitcher's statistics to derive his true value to the team.
James is well-known for his annual handbooks, which are comprised largely of statistical projections of how teams and players will perform in the upcoming season.
"If you are going to make decisions about next year's team, you have to have some sort of projection system to know what you're dealing with," James told the class. "I look back on it and wonder how I didn't realize that what I was doing would have some sort of greater significance. I didn't have any serious purpose whatsoever."
James, a Kansas native, began writing baseball articles after leaving the Army in the 1970s. In addition to releasing his annual projections and maintaining Bill James Online, he works as a Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox and has been referenced in numerous sabermetric articles for his work.
Despite his focus on numbers, James maintains that traditional baseball scouting, which is inherently more subjective than — and can at times conflict with — sabermetric analysis, should remain an important aspect of player evaluation.
"The idea that you can scout young baseball players based on their stats is ridiculous," James said. "The reason you can't is because you are projecting some players across such a wide distance."
Generally, James has been pleased with the growth of sabermetrics in academic settings around the country and within major league organizations.
"It's been a fun ride," he said. "When I started doing this stuff, the number of people interested in what I was doing isn't as large as the number of people in this room. To see it grow to something that is central to all sports is a lot of fun."