On Sunday night, 60 Minutes had an interesting piece about Bill James, a baseball statistician who was instrumental in the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007. By analyzing scores of data while working as a night watchman, he debunked certain statistical myths and helped to identify more meaningful baseball statistics.
“There were certain things that Major League Baseball traditionally believed that I argued were nonsense. One, that you could evaluate a pitcher by his won-loss record. Two, that I — serious disagreement on what drove an offense,” he says.
Like batting averages: the oldest way to measure a hitter, James believed that players who got a lot of walks and wore down pitchers were overlooked. So he embraced a new statistic, “on-base percentage,” which has become part of baseball’s Bible.
As for pitching, he has said that won-loss records do not tell how good or how bad a pitcher is. “The most accurate thing is to focus on the strikeouts, the walks, the home runs allowed. And to evaluate the pitcher on that level,” James explains.
So James stresses another statistic: the strike-out to walk ratio. He says for decades managers used outdated formulas or intuition in making decisions. So night after night, he crunched numbers until he came up with new statistics based on facts that would either support or debunk tradition.
James first published his ideas in 1977 in the “Bill James Baseball Abstract,” and he eventually gained a wide following. Several clubs admit that they use his statistics to make major decisions. For example, The Los Angeles Angels acquired young, undervalued talent, and made the playoffs. The 60 minutes site has the piece on video (it’s about 13 minutes).
I hope the Cubs hire this guy.
The Freakonomics blog has a Q&A with James that has more information on what he has learned from analyzing statistics.