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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.

Bill James
Bill James

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."

What will James do?
So what will Bill James' role with the Red Sox be?

"We're going to have to walk before we run," says team president Larry Lucchino. "This is just the first year of what we hope is a long-tem relationship. We'll use Bill in a variety of ways, but starting out his primary role will be as a baseball-performance evaluator and predictor."

Assistant GM Theo Epstein says, "I think he's going to be most valuable in the areas where we do a good job of keeping him up to speed with current information. For instance, we might point out to him that there is a certain opportunity for a trade, or a certain way we can use a player. Then he comes back with an initial reaction based on a quick study. Next, we might play the devil's advocate by giving a traditional baseball response to his commentary, or asking if there's a general rule that we can take from this conclusion. And then he goes off and does a tremendous amount of research, after which we may end up with something very useful that we didn't know before."
-- Rob Neyer

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.

Mr. Henry, meet Mr. James
The reporter isn't supposed to be a part of the story, but in this case it can't really be avoided.

Last summer, I contacted John Henry after reading quotes of his, in the Boston Globe, indicating that he had at least a passing familiarity with sabermetrics.

We spoke for quite a few minutes, during which I discovered that Henry had been a fan of Bill James for many years, since the early 1980s (when James was writing his annual Baseball Abstracts). During that same conversation, Henry discovered that I'd worked for Bill James for a few years, during the early 1990s. Henry asked me if I were still touch with Bill. I said that I was. Henry asked me for Bill's phone number. I gave it to him.

Later that day, I sent an e-mail to Bill, letting him know that I'd given out his phone number, and apologizing if he'd rather I hadn't done that.

Bill's reply? "Any time a billionaire asks you for my phone number, go ahead and give it to him. I'll sort things out later."

And so he did.
-- Rob Neyer

People in both baseball and the financial markets operate with beliefs and biases. To the extent you can eliminate both and replace them with data, you gain a clear advantage. Many people think they are smarter than others in the stock market, and that the market itself has no instrinsic intelligence -- as if it's inert. Similarly, many people think they are smarter than others in baseball, and that the game on the field is simply what they think it is, filtered through their set of images and beliefs. But actual data from the market means more than individual perception/belief. And the same is true in baseball.

You know, there are a core of institutional investment managers, primarily in Europe, who manage billions of dollars for clients, who have waited for me to fail for more than twenty years. They have an inherent bias against the notion that data or mechanical formulas can lead to success over time in markets. They have personally watched my success now for more than twenty years. Yet, if anything, they are now no more convinced than they were twenty years ago that I am going to be successful in the future using data over analysis. I am not legendary (on Wall Street or off). Bill is, and I assume the inherent bias against him within baseball will increase now that he has taken sides.

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

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