|Tuesday, November 5
Updated: November 7, 2:32 PM ET
Red Sox hire James in advisory capacity
By Rob Neyer
Next week, the Boston Red Sox will officially announce either their first big move of the offseason, or their first pointless move of the offseason.
In the short term, it will depend on whom you ask. In the long term, it will depend on how much Bill James contributes to the management of the Red Sox, and how many games they win.
On November 15, the Red Sox will hold a press conference to announce they've hired James as their "Senior Advisor, Baseball Operations" (or something similar). And while James certainly isn't the first sabermetrician to work for a major-league team, nor even the first to work for the Red Sox, he certainly is the most famous.
James made a big splash in the 1980s with his annual Baseball Abstracts, and has written many baseball books since, with the latest the groundbreaking Win Shares (STATS Publishing, 2001). For 20 years, James' writing has influenced the game, with his fingerprints easily visible on teams like the Athletics and Blue Jays, not to mention every baseball broadcast.
Yet through it all, James remained an outsider. As Red Sox owner John Henry says, "I don't understand how it took this long for somebody to hire this guy."
In part, it's taken so long because James wasn't enthusiastic about "working in baseball." For years, he did work as a consultant for player agents who needed help preparing and presenting arbitration cases. James worked against the teams, not for them. He found that work rewarding, both financially and intellectually, and he wasn't willing to work for an owner while he was also working for the players. What's more, for a long time he considered his status as an "outsider" helpful in his work: get too close, and you might lose perspective.
James couldn't be happier. "It feels great," he said. "I grew up thinking, more or less non-stop, about what I would do if I was running an organization. By 1980, I found that being able to say what I had to say, being able to put my opinions on record, was a great release. Now, being faced with actual problems and the actual potential to contribute to success or failure is kind of intimidating, but I'm looking forward to it. And it helps that I have immense confidence in the people I will be working with."
James has worked for another team. A native Kansan and a Royals fan since the franchise's inception, James hired on as a consultant with the club in the late 1990s, and prepared reports from time to time. However, the relationship was neither long-lasting nor fruitful. Like many teams, the Royals liked the idea of having a sabermetrician on board, but they didn't really have any idea what to do with him.
The Red Sox seem to have an idea. President and CEO Larry Lucchino has been a proponent of the objective approach of baseball analysis for more than a decade.
"When I became president of the Orioles in 1988," Lucchino said, "one of the first people I hired was Eddie Epstein. He'd already been consulting for us, but I created an office for him, and tried to integrate his work into the rest of the organization. And I remember having, around that same time, discussions with Sandy Alderson about the importance of on-base percentage and the misleading nature of batting average. Eddie was a principle proponent of this point of view, and he spent a lot of time proselytizing. Eventually, I became convinced of the validity and importance of that line of analysis."
Red Sox assistant GM Theo Epstein (no relation to Eddie) is also a believer. Widely considered a rising star in baseball management, Epstein says, "What Bill offers us, more than a particular set of sophisticated statistical formulas, is a way of thinking. Bill doesn't start with an assumption and then find data to support it, like a lot of people in baseball do. Bill starts with a question, and then he does the research objectively and doggedly, and let's the truth empirically come to him."
And then there's Henry. These days, every baseball owner enters the baseball business having made his fortune in some other business. Some of them apply what they learned in their other business to baseball, which usually doesn't work. Some of them forget everything they learned in their other business, which usually doesn't work, either.
Henry, though, is perhaps unique among baseball owners, in that the philosophy that led him to great success in the world of investments is exactly the philosophy that could work in baseball. Henry speaks so eloquently on the subject that we've reprinted a portion of his e-mail to us:
Usually when making investments, it is implicit that investors believe they have some degree of knowledge about the future. So Wall Street has more fortune tellers than any other industry. I feel I've had an advantage over the years because I am clear about a couple of things: 1) it is part of the nature of life itself (and markets are simply manifestations of people's expectations) to trend, and 2) I will never have a complete or full understanding of anything. Therefore, all investment decisions should be based on what can be measured rather than what might be predicted or felt.
Perhaps. But if there's criticism, it's likely to be blunted by the overwhelming support that James apparently has in the front office.
However, the Red Sox have yet to hire a new general manager. Of the serious candidates mentioned to this point, none are particularly known for their statistical acumen. That said, it's unlikely the Red Sox will hire a new GM who's not at least somewhat amenable to the sort of work that Bill James does.
As Lucchino said, "We've got a list of 10 or 12 attributes that guide us in our search for a general manager, and one of the ones near the top of the list -- in fact, I keep this on my desk to remind me -- reads: "Acceptance of, at least openness to, more modern quantitative analysis of player evaluation and performance, and equal comfort with more traditional observational approaches."
So you've got the assistant general manager (Theo Epstein), the President and CEO (Lucchino), the owner (Henry), and presumably the general manager ... all of them aboard the Sabermetric Express.
And now they've got Bill James. The Red Sox' top executives believe in sabermetrics, they've got one of the biggest budgets in the game, and they've got the man who, though he didn't invent sabermetrics (aside from the word itself, which he did invent), did create a generation of sabermetricians.
"I didn't think a chance this good would come along," James said. " I thought I could get involved with an organization if I wanted to. But I never expected a situation this good to arise."
If there's ever been a time and a place for objective analysis to make its mark on a baseball franchise, this might be it. Wouldn't it be a kick, if it took hiring a "figure filbert" for the Red Sox to finally win another World Series?
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Scribner's, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.