Bill James: How Sabermetrics Changed Baseball

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Who is Bill James in Moneyball? How did Bill James’s Moneyball strategy lead to a successful season for the Oakland A’s?

Bill James was an employee at a pork and beans factory when he began writing about baseball metrics. Eventually, Bill James’s Moneyball strategies were adopted by an important baseball manager searching for a solution: Billy Beane.

Bill James: Prophet of Sabermetrics

Bill James had begun his writing career under quite humble circumstances. When he starts self-publishing in the late 1970s (it takes a few years for his work to be taken up by a professional publisher), he is already in his 30s, with no written works to his name. Working the night shift in a pork and beans factory in a tiny town in Kansas, he is an unlikely figure to ultimately revolutionize America’s national pastime. But for Bill James, baseball needs some updates.

He has keen insights about baseball (the only topic about which he ever cared to write) and is driven to put them on paper. He begins analyzing baseball statistics: specifically, the deficiencies of existing baseball statistics, and how these deficiencies lead major league teams to make poor and shortsighted personnel decisions. In 1977, he self-publishes his first work, barely longer than a pamphlet. He doesn’t know it at the time, but James is launching a new field of intellectually rigorous and data-driven baseball analysis, which will come to be known as sabermetrics (so named after SABR, the acronym of the Society for American Baseball Research).

Bill James’s sabermetrics baseball strategy decries the arbitrary and subjective nature of fielding statistics in baseball, particularly the concept of the error. An error occurs when a fielder blunders on some sort of defensive play, resulting in a base or a run for the opposing team. But, James argues, the concept of the error is entirely subjective, almost moralistic—indeed, he cites it as the only statistic in sports that is based on an observer’s opinion of what should have happened. 

Simply tallying up errors and praising (and paying) the players who commit the fewest makes little sense, in no small part because there is no objective definition of what an error is. The “error” in question may be the fault of the pitcher, not the fielder. In fact, a player must do something right to be assigned one in the first place—they must be in the correct field position to even attempt the play on which they erred. In fact, a player could keep his error numbers low by consistently being in the wrong field position. For Bill James, Moneyball is the answer.

The Deficiencies of the Naked Eye

One of Bill James’s main sabermetrics insights is that the naked eye is a poor tool for measuring baseball performance. Statistically significant data, accumulated over long periods of time, offers a much better guide.

Traveling around the country looking for baseball talent, a professional scout might only see small snippets of any given player’s overall performance. In isolation, these tiny sample sizes can lead to wild inaccuracies in judgment about a player’s worth. On any given night, after all, a player with a .275 on-base percentage can play better than his teammate with a .350 on-base percentage. 

Yet, James notes, these chance observations of players are informing baseball decisions at the highest levels. Teams are making ludicrous personnel decisions and deciding who does and doesn’t get to be a professional baseball player based on the very flimsiest information. This outrages James, especially in an era of skyrocketing baseball salaries. If players are going to be paid exorbitant sums, it makes sense to figure out exactly what they’re worth. A grotesque market failure, a gross misallocation of precious resources, is at the heart of professional baseball.

Moreover, James is exasperated by the fact that good data actually is available. Rapid advances in computer technology during the 1970s and 1980s have lowered the cost of acquiring and analyzing baseball statistics, certainly for wealthy MLB teams. But the teams choose to squander this opportunity, relying on bad conventional wisdom and outmoded heuristics to decide who should and shouldn’t become a professional baseball player.

Removing Luck from Baseball Analysis

James begins publishing annual treatises, in which he highlights the uselessness of commonly-cited baseball statistics like errors, runs batted in (RBIs). Another of James’s key insights is that much of the data that managers, scouts, and GMs use to evaluate players’ skill is based on luck and subjective opinion. In publishing his annual baseball abstracts, James attempts to strip as much luck out of baseball analysis as possible.

Bill James’s baseball analysis also points out the absurdity of that statistic revered by baseball’s old guard: the RBI. A batter earns an RBI when they score a hit that results in another player scoring a run. By definition, it is a product of luck: a batter has to have the good fortune to be at bat when other players are already on base. The batter will, of course, have had nothing to do with their teammates getting on base before them. It is a matter of luck to even have the opportunity to score an RBI. A batter who hits a single with a runner in scoring position and a batter who hits a single with no one on base have performed the same athletic feat—but one will be credited with an RBI, while the other won’t. 

The Runs Created Formula

James wants to see exactly which plays most contribute to a team’s offensive production. He sets out to construct a model to predict how many runs a team might expect to score, based on their accumulated walks, singles, doubles, stolen bases, and other offense-generating plays. He pores over statistics from previous baseball seasons to see which components of offense are most correlated with runs. This allows him to assign a statistical “weight” to each, in effect determining how many runs (or portions of a run) a walk, hit, or stolen base is worth.

Bill James’ Moneyball ideas are distilled down to a “Runs Created” formula:

Runs Created = (Hits + Walks) x Total Bases/(At Bats + Walks)

After statistical analysis, James finds that this formula is remarkably effective in predicting a team’s run production. It shows that walks are a valuable (yet overlooked) part of offense, while batting average matters hardly at all.

Rejection by Baseball Insiders

Although James starts out with a small audience in 1977, his annual treatises on baseball, The Bill James Baseball Abstracts, reach a growing and influential audience throughout the 1980s. People are compelled by his sharp and pointed critiques of the ludicrous measures by which baseball teams measure success, and begin urging major league clubs to take James’s ideas more seriously. People with backgrounds in economics, mathematics, and statistical analysis are especially drawn to his rationalistic approach to analyzing something that everyone thinks they already understand.

Despite this, there is a marked hostility on the part of baseball insiders toward those they perceive as baseball outsiders, particularly this new army of data-focused, statistics-obsessed observers who dare to tell the big clubs that they are doing their jobs all wrong.

The small cadre of people who actually run professional baseball teams is determined to exclude outside voices and opinions, even if that means losing games. They prefer to do things their way than take advice from a bunch of pencil-pushers droning on about on-base percentage and runs created formulas. They are profoundly uninterested in using baseball statistics in an analytical way, particularly Bill Jame’s Moneyball strategy. In fact, in the early 1980s, the earliest participants in what later becomes the phenomenon of fantasy sports are more interested in getting their hands on good baseball data than the teams themselves—even though these fans stand to gain far less from such knowledge.

On the rare occasion when major league teams of this era do try to implement sabermetric principles in the front office, these attempts are met with hostility by baseball’s old guard, including sports journalists and ordinary fans. When the Boston Red Sox hire a James-inspired number-cruncher to advise the general manager on personnel decisions, the sports media in Boston treats the hiring as a scandal. They point to this person’s unathletic appearance, his non-baseball background, and his residence in New York City (home of the hated Yankees) as disqualifying factors. They excoriate the Boston GM for being under the sway of a computer geek who (to them) doesn’t know the first thing about baseball and claims to avoid even watching the games. After public outcry in Boston, the team is forced to fire this sabermetrician, and temporarily stop their Bill James Moneyball strategy.

Exasperated James acolytes find their ideas rejected across the league. The ideological conservatism of baseball’s ruling elite seems to have a stranglehold on the game. Despite his growing popularity with the general public, James finds that he has made no headway with the most influential part of what he thinks would be his natural audience—the people who actually run professional baseball teams. 

But he does have one devoted reader, who will eventually put his ideas into practice at baseball’s highest level—Billy Beane.

Bill James’s Moneyball role is behind the scenes. Without his ideas about metrics, the business of baseball might have always stayed the same. Luckily for Bill James, the Red Sox are calling his number.

Bill James: How Sabermetrics Changed Baseball

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  • How Billy Beane first flamed out as a baseball player before becoming a general manager
  • The unconventional methods the Athletics used to recruit undervalued players
  • How Sabermetrics influences American baseball today

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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