Monday, July 28, 2003

Nerds rule!

The New Yorker profiles Bill James, the "Sultan of Stats," the statistical guru who has changed the way a lot of fans (including me) -- and now front-office executives -- think about baseball. (From what I've heard, James is also an important minor character in Michael Lewis' recent best-seller Moneyball.) Two decades ago, I started buying James' annual Baseball Abstracts and later his Baseball Books. I still have a few of them on my bookshelf, and was delighted with his descriptive writing (Wally Backman, the great offensive second baseman of the hated Mets of the mid-80s "plays second base about as well as Tip O'Neill") and the way he looked at the game. I just finished James' 1993 book about the Hall of Fame, originally titled "The Politics of Glory," but now called "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?" And I've let Lola know I'd really like to get the new edition of the Historical Baseball Abstract for Christmas. From the New Yorker:

Our James brought barstool argument to the page, and enforced a rigid sobriety. He set forth rational, elaborate methods for evaluating greatness, for example, and when he released his “Historical Baseball Abstract,” in 1985, he established a new pecking order for the celebrated baseball players of our time. (Sorry, Catfish Hunter. Step on up, Bobby Grich!) More important, however, James treated his readers to an egghead’s theory of winning baseball, in which outs—the only finite resource—are to be avoided at all costs, and walks (which are outproof) are considered more than just acceptable. Walks are admirable, and on-base percentage, not batting average, is the bedrock of a productive offense.

Anyway, the guy who described himself as the consummate outsider, who analyzed games as a fan, not a sportswriter or an announcer, is now the consummate insider. He was hired by the Red Sox as a consultant and an evaluator of talent. The Sox are doing remarkably well, by the way, and have put together an offense that's a delight to watch. To this day I miss the excitement I felt each December or January when the Abstract arrived at bookstores, wondering if my armchair assessment of players was anywhere close to his ... and what he thought about the prospects of my favorite teams going into the spring. I'm delighted that the Sox are doing well, not only because the first team I followed was the '67 Sox, but because it's nice to see an ideas guy get the opportunity to shake up such a great institution.

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