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Dublin: 9°C Saturday 26 September 2020

'I've never read Moneyball' says the man whose work inspired the book

Bill James also argues that, despite their proliferation, statistics can still give sports organisations an advantage

Bill James (middle) was also speaking at the Web Summit this morning.
Bill James (middle) was also speaking at the Web Summit this morning.
Image: Web Summit

STRIDING LIKE ZEUS to his throne atop Mount Olympus, there was a a palatable sense of being in the presence of greatness when the man widely regarded as the godfather of modern sports analytics took to the stage at the 2014 Web Summit yesterday.

However, Bill James is not one to believe his own hype.

Indeed, he’s never even read the book Moneyball, which focuses on the Oakland Athletic’s who successfully used the sabermetric approach pioneered by James to change the way baseball players are evaluated.

Self-deprecating, curmudgeonly but ultimately engaging, James’ interview with Simon Kuper on the Sports Summit stage is dominated by the 65-year deftly deflecting praise and steadfastly defending the use of statistics to judge player performance, even if it doesn’t provide the level of advantage it once did.

“It’s easier than ever to [benefit from stats]. There will never be a shortage of ignorance. There will always be things that we do not know that, if you can figure out how to use the evidence available to figure it out, there’s an advantage in it.

“It’s true the advantages are not where they were years ago, but on the other hand, there are a lot more people looking for them so there are a lot more suggestions and a lot more data so it’s easier.

“We also have some of the same problems we always have. The problem with overcoming resistance to how people assume that things should be done is still there. It’s in a different place, but it’s still there.”

“I definitely don’t think it’s harder and, in some ways, it may be easier.”

Source: Wikipedia

And of the skeptics, James says there’s still a lot of them, those that believe analytics can’t account for ‘heart’ or ‘passion’ or the dreaded ‘wanting it more’. His approach to dealing with those people is surprisingly simple.

“The number one strategy is never argue with anybody.

“Simply ignore those people who disagree with you, who criticise you, who explain why you’re wrong. Just ignore those people and carry on as before.”

And while his first sport is obviously baseball, he says the same is true for sports, like football, still coming to grips with the use of data in player evaluation.

“The people you can reach are the people who are listening. You would not believe how many scouts come up to me and tell me they were using my stuff way back in the eighties.

“If they were, they were damn quiet about it at the time.

“I can guarantee, in soccer, there are an awful lot of people who are listening now, they’re just being very quiet about it.”

Though he works mostly from his home in Kanas, James is currently employed by the Boston Red Sox. While this impacts on how much he can comment publicly on players – US media automatically assume the Red Sox are interested in that player – he does enjoy his job, even if his contribution to player evaluation conversations comes later than many would expect.

“I’m a consultant for the Red Sox. The team has issues they face on a daily basis; should we sign this player? Should we use this player in a particular way? Should we do this trade?

“I try to stay out of these things as long as I can because I find you have more impact on a debate when you join it much later, when you wait for everyone else to have their say and join in as late as possible, people are more inclined to listen to you.”

And as for the revelation that James hasn’t read Moneyball, he knows nobody ever believes him but insists it’s true.

“Moneyball’s a great thing for me. People won’t believe me but I never read the book. I read Michael Lewis and I like Michael Lewis but I’ve never read it.

“I gather from the way people talk about me that he was very nice to me and it’s been wonderful for me and helped my career immensely.”

Some would argue that’s putting it mildly.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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