The Arts and Sciences of Baseball


Good evening, everyone. Good evening. Oh. that’s great. Thanks for coming. And thanks especially
to those of you who thought to wear a
Major League Baseball cap. I’ve been enjoying seeing
the different teams that are represented here. Unfortunately, no
Royals are represented, which would have a certain
meaning for some of us. But there are enough Boston
Red Sox to make me feel good. So welcome to the 2017
Silas Peirce Lecture. Silas Peirce was the treasurer
of Boston University. I should probably
mention who I am. I’m Ann Cudd. I’m the Dean of
Arts and Sciences here at Boston University. So I’m lucky enough to be
the host for the Silas Peirce Lecture. So Silas– back to Silas– was the treasurer of Boston
University from 1911 to 1922, and he was also a
university trustee way back from 1899 to 1922. And his heirs established
a fund that bears his name, and they had the intention
of providing special lectures at what was then called the
College of Liberal Arts. I imagine that many
of you are graduates of the College of
Liberal Arts, which is now called the College
of Arts and Sciences. The Silas Peirce
Lecture was reintroduced at Boston University–
and there was a hiatus. I’m not sure how long. But it was reintroduced just
a couple of years ago in 2014. The series is open to all
fields of inquiry covered in the College of
Arts and Sciences and somewhat beyond
as you’ll see tonight. And is designed to
highlight different fields across the years. In featuring the
broad range of fields and their intrinsic
relevance to a broad public, the Silas Peirce
Lecture demonstrates the continuing relevance and
value of liberal education. So it’s in this context
that tonight I’m very pleased and honored to
introduce my friend Bill James to deliver tonight’s lecture. Bill’s professional
title is Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations
for the Boston Red Sox. But he’s also a prolific writer
and an iconoclastic thinker. While he does not inhabit
an academic institution or write about the kinds of
topics that typically confer tenure upon professors,
he’s without doubt a public intellectual. And importantly for the
Silas Peirce Lecture, his life’s work illustrates
the transformative power of a liberal arts education. Bill grew up in a small
town in rural Kansas. But following the lead
of an older sister and earning a place
in a scholarship hall, he went to the
University of Kansas where he studied
the liberal arts and majored in
English and economics. Near the end of his four
years, he was, I guess, the last person in Kansas
to be sent to Vietnam. And when he returned, he
found that he had actually graduated from KU. So Bill took a job as a night
watchman at a pork and beans factory, which I admit hardly
sounds like the beginning of a brilliant career. But nothing about Bill’s
life story is typical. In the quiet late hours of the
night in the canning factory, Bill pioneered what is
now called sabermetrics, the statistical
study of baseball, and started a
subscription newsletter– probably what we would
nowadays call a blog– that analyzed the
game and its players and eventually made him famous. His goal was to bring
objective empirical evidence to the study of
baseball, which was then full of more false, quirky
but stubbornly held ideas than there were baseball fans. The result was to
significantly change how baseball is played,
coached, and managed. Not to mention, to bring a World
Series championship finally to Boston after an
86 year drought. Bill’s approach
illustrates more broadly the power of data science
to understand puzzles about everyday life. In 2006, Time named
him in the “Time 100” as one of the 100 most
influential people in the world. I think of this as a
liberal arts story, because it illustrates how
a broad range of disciplines can be brought to bear
on virtually any practice to reveal new and deep insights
that can in turn transform that practice. Bill brings a historical
sensibility and a great deal of philosophical skepticism
about conventional wisdom along with some serious
statistical thinking to a variety of subjects. Mostly baseball, but also
crime, serial murderers, and university
life among others. Some of his books include
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,
Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame,
Baseball, Cooperstown, and the Politics of Glory. Win Shares, probably
the most, the thing he’s most famous for
in terms of statistics. And Popular Crime, Reflections
on the Celebration of Violence. Although they reside
in Lawrence, Kansas– where we were neighbors
for many years– Bill and his artist
wife Susan McCarthy also have connections
to Boston and BU. Bill and his family moved to
Brookline for a couple of years as he’s worked for the Red Sox. And Susan, while here,
completed a master’s degree in art history in our Graduate
School of Arts and Sciences during that time. I’m very pleased to be able to
welcome them back to Boston. Bill’s topic tonight is the
arts and sciences of baseball. Please join me in
welcoming Bill James. Thank you, Ann. Mic working? I’ll do a mic test
by opening water. I wanted to thank Ann
Cudd and Neal Becker for hosting us here. I wanted to thank Nancy
[INAUDIBLE] for her help in arranging this. My wife, Susan McCarthy. I also wanted to
thank Sarah Speltz. I wanted to thank Doug and
Dave, whose last names I forgot to write down. But you’re appreciated
all the same. Thank you for your help
in making this possible. And my wife and I love Boston,
and we love this neighborhood. But I’m always a little
leery of coming here before Patriot’s Day. In fact, my usual rule
is don’t go to Boston before Patriot’s Day. I made an exception to
that for this occasion, and I’m very glad I did as
yesterday was a lovely day. And it was the first
time we’ve been to the opening day at Fenway
in probably eight years or so. It was great. I also walked around just a
little bit in the rain today, and I actually enjoyed that. And I don’t know why this
is, but I noticed in 2002 when I started working
with the Red Sox that I actually enjoy walking
in the rain in Boston. I don’t know why. I don’t, I never walk
in the rain in Kansas. But there is something
that’s actually different about the
rain here, not just the fact that you’re in
the streets in Boston. But there is something
about the rain itself that’s a little
bit different here. That it’s more like a
spray than a shower. And I actually enjoy it. I don’t know why. OK. I wanted to talk today
about what exactly it means to be an academic. I have some
understanding of that, and I wanted to try to reach for
a little better understanding of it. And I thought maybe this
would be an appropriate place to do that. Some of you, I
would guess, would be happy enough to be described
as academics or scholars. I might describe
you as scholars, but the term scholar has a
slightly quaint resonance to it. And I’m guessing that if I
described you as academics, you might not take
offense at that. I would never describe
myself as an academic, because I might be claiming
skills that I don’t actually have a right to claim. But people in baseball do
think of me as an academic. They think, that Bill James,
he’s kind of an academic guy. He’s not a bad guy really, but
he has a lot of peculiar ideas. But he’s OK. He’s just kind of
an academic guy. So I’m an academic, but
I’m not really an academic. So what is an academic? What does it mean to be an
academic other than to be part of an academic institution? I see we’re having a
little issue with mic that if I keep going like
this you hear me at one level, and if I look at you,
you hear me [INAUDIBLE]. I’m going to try
looking at you this way, and we’ll see how that goes. Just letting the
sound guys know. I suppose I should
stop for a minute and explain how I see what
I have done for a living since my view of what I
do for a living is quite different than what most other
people see the work that I’ve done. I can explain what made me
who I am in just a few words. It’s actually really simple. And it doesn’t have anything
at all to do with statistics. When I was a young person,
all sports writing– 100% of sportswriting– began
with a position on the issue. 100% of analytical
sports writing. If a writer was
writing about who should be the most
valuable player, he would write that
Dave Parker should be the most valuable player
or that Mike Schmidt should be the most valuable player
or that Dave Winfield should be the most valuable player. But he would start with
a position on the issue, and he would find all
of the evidence which supported that position. My thought was let’s start
with the question itself rather than starting with
a position on the issue. And that’s the entire
substance of what I– everything that I
contributed to the field follows from that decision
to step back from the, to step back from what I
was, from the beginning of the discussion
just a step or two. But when you begin
with a question itself rather than beginning with
a position on the issue that leads to more questions. What is value for
a baseball player? How do you decide who is more
valuable if you don’t start with a position on the issue? How do you decide what
position you should take? What is the relationship
between the value of offense and the value of defense? Who is really more valuable–
a batter or a pitcher? How do you know? When you reach
those questions, you realize that you don’t
know the answers. By this process, you start
to see your own ignorance. When you start with a
position on the issue, you work with the facts that
are available to you, the facts that are in the public domain. When you start with
the question itself, you run into black
holes of ignorance and where you realize
that there are critical questions to
which you don’t have any idea what the answers are. What made my career
meaningful to baseball was that I made baseball
aware of the things that they did not
know, and this started different trails of research. People started
researching the questions that I had pointed out that
we didn’t know the answers to. And as a result
of that research, we wound up knowing some things
that we didn’t know before. I often get credited with
research actually done by other people,
which is embarrassing. And I try to minimize
that, but all I really did was find a great number of
questions to which I did not know the answers. I also should say– not taking credit for things. I didn’t actually go to Vietnam. I was drafted and I had
orders to go to Vietnam, but they were canceled
at the last minute. Don’t want to understand that. I would certainly
be happy to be– I would not be
happy to be thought of as a Vietnam Veteran. I would certainly be happy to
be thought of it as an academic, but I would never
apply that title to myself for the same
reason that I would never describe myself as a
historian or a statistician. I write a lot about
history, but I don’t have the skills
to be a real historian or an academic historian. And it would be a
false claim if I would run around claiming
to be a historian. The same with an academic. It would be a false claim
if I were running out claiming to be an academic
from my standpoint. So then what are the
traits and skills that one has to have that
make you truly an academic? One thing is that
to be an academic you have to be deeply
committed to whatever it is that you study. I think on this
scale that I’m OK. I think that I have probably
studied my subject– baseball– as deeply
and as seriously as almost anyone in
the room has studied their own field of study. I’m addicted to baseball. When I’m not studying
baseball, I’m doing something else
connected with baseball, and it’s all somehow
connected to baseball. And I think on that
scale, on the scale of being serious about what
you’re doing, I’m probably OK. I’m always trying to figure
out something about baseball that I didn’t know when
I got up in the morning. How exactly though is
that different from just being a baseball fan? There are an awful lot of
people who love baseball and who know a great
deal about baseball and have put a lot of
time into baseball. But who could never
be called academics. Every baseball
professional tries to know as much about the
game as he possibly can. The Red Sox’s first base
and third base coaches are people who try to know as
much about baseball as they can. But no one would describe
them as academics. Or on the other
hand, there’s one guy in every bar room in America who
could list the starting lineup for the 1961 Yankees
and the 1975 Red Sox and the 2010, 2012, and
2014 San Francisco Giants, and can tell you what
everybody on those teams hit. But he’s not an academic. He’s just a drunk
who likes baseball. What exactly is the
difference between us? I’m going to stop
and do a test to see. Can you all hear me. I know that– everybody
can hear me OK? All right. If you can’t hear
me, wave your hand. One thing that defines
that academic, I think, is that an academic
is primarily concerned with the ideas
inherent in real things rather than with the
objects themselves. If I were to sit down with
the Red Sox’s third base coach, for example, and try to
have a conversation about when he should send the runner in and
when he should hold up a stop sign, it would be difficult for
us to have this conversation. First of all, he would know 100
times more about the subject than I would. I have an idea of which
outfielders have strong arms and which do not. But I have a general idea. He would have very
specific knowledge about each and every outfielder. And he would have
built on that knowledge by having studied the video
related to that outfielder before the series began. In the 1960s or 1970s,
it was good enough for the coach to have a
general idea about the throwing arm of each outfielder. But in 2017, it’s different. Now, you really have to know. If the outfielder hasn’t
been throwing well since he dived for a ball in
Toronto a couple of weeks ago, the coach now has to know that. The third base coach
would have not only that kind of knowledge,
but he would also know a wide variety of
things about his runner. He would know how
fast the runner was. But also he would know
whether his runner tends to cut the base sharply
or whether he tends to make a wide cut, wide turn. He would know whether the
runner was 100% at the moment or whether he’s dealing
with a leg injury. He would know whether the
runner can slide well in order to evade a tag or
rather he can’t. Whether he tends to watch
the play and how early he tends to pick up the signal
from the third base coach. I wouldn’t know
any of that stuff. My interest in the discussion
are rather different. I would be interested
in questions like when you are making
a judgment about sending a runner, are you more
interested in the outfielder’s arm strength, or are you more
interested in his accuracy? What we call an
outfielder’s arm actually has several characteristics. There’s arm strength. There’s accuracy. There’s speed of release. You need to know whether
he throws rainbows or whether he throws
on a flat level. And also, you need
to know how fast he is in cutting off the ball,
because while that’s not exactly his arm, it’s very
relevant to whether or not, to the decision the third
base coach has to make. The coach’s real
answer, I suspect, would be it’s just instinct. The coach probably doesn’t know
whether the outfielder takes a 40 degree angle to the ball
or a 50 degree angle or an 80 degree angle. He probably doesn’t think
of it in those terms. And he probably
doesn’t know whether he has three seconds
or five seconds or seven seconds to work with. But he has a finely honed
instinct about how long he has, how long that runner
has to get to third base and how long it’s going to take
the throw to get to third base. And a finely honed
instinct about how to put those together. And it would be difficult for
me to discuss that with him because the things that
I know, the things that I am interested in, are so
different than the things that he knows that they would
scarcely belong together. Also, I’m not that good at
dealing with people, frankly. I’m not that good at
meeting with people. And so I always have to be
careful of whose toes I’m stepping on. I know John Farrell,
and I like John Farrell, and he’s never told me
to stay away from people. We get along well,
but I also don’t want him to be, I don’t want
him wondering of whether I’m messing around in his business. I mean he has his
area, and I have mine, and sometimes it’s better
if we just work that way. OK. A second characteristic
of an academic then is that an
academic is interested in the ideas
inherent in something rather than in the
concrete realities of it. I’m like an academic in that I’m
always more interested in what the ideas are, what the ideas
are that describe the situation rather than in the practical
problems associated with it. Take me a little while
to catch up to my notes. Sorry. I should also say
that some of this will be different in
the next generation. When I started studying baseball
for a living in a serious way, I was living in Lawrence, Kansas
and working as a nightwatchman in a pork and beans factory. It’s a long way from the
people who run baseball teams. It’s not that way anymore. Now, people who study
baseball in a serious way deal with the practical
day-to-day problems, the people who deal with the
practical day-to-day problems of the game on a
day-to-day basis, and the distance between
them is nowhere near as great or will be nowhere near as
great in the next generation as it was in my generation. But anyway, my point is that I’m
like an academic in these two respects. But here’s a third way
that I’m like an academic. I’m perpetually and
addictively trying to learn something
even if it has nothing to do with my profession. I’m one of those people who
no matter what we are talking about will pull out a device
that connects to the internet and start checking
the facts about it. I might just take a,
ask for a show of hands. How many of you
guys are like that? Most of you are. All of members of my family
are like that except my wife not as much. And she’s the only
true academic among us. But anyway. But all my kids and
kids-in-law are like that. They’re all people
who, if they’re watching a movie
about the 1970s, and somebody mentioned something
that happened in the Ford administration, they will
pull out their phones and start checking the
facts related to that. I suspect that a
lot of, I suspect that that’s a
characteristic that tends to be common
among academics and probably not nearly
as common among people in other areas. Excuse me a second. I have a son-in-law who is
not a scholar in any sense. He’s a very nice young man, but
not in any sense an academic. But he can give you
a long list of facts about every band which has had
a hit in any genre since 1995. Sometimes when I speak for
a long time, I have to, I develop a cough. I blame Hillary for this. She has the same problem. So I may have to pause
in the middle of my talk and take questions. That will give my throat
a little bit of a break. So we’ll probably do that
in the middle of a speech. I might push on here
for another minute, but I just wanted to warn
the guys running the mic. In those three respects
then I’m like an academic. One is that I work very
hard at studying my subject. Two is that I’m always more
concerned with the ideas inherent in something
than the realities. And three is that I am always
trying to absorb knowledge. In what ways then am I
not like an academic? Well, one is that I don’t
have the level of respect for the traditions
of the field that I would have to have if I were
having an academic career. I remember the first
time I was assigned to write a term paper when
I was in seventh grade. I was writing a paper
about Sandro Botticelli, and I referred to
what is now believed to be a myth that Botticelli
worked in a stained glass factory as a young man and
that this influenced his work for the rest of his career. I gather that’s not true. Anyway, it isn’t in the
encyclopedias anymore, but it was at that time. So I made a joke
that it was fortunate that he hadn’t worked in
a pigsty as a young man. Well, I had worked in a pigsty
previous summer cleaning them out, so it seemed like a
natural thing for me to say. I didn’t think there was
anything alarming about it. But the teacher told me that
was totally inappropriate, and I shouldn’t say things
like that in a paper. Had I been an academic
type personality, I suspect I would have
paid attention to her. But being a writer,
what I thought is, well, I got a reaction. I better do more of that. And I’m sure that when I
wrote the next term paper, I probably made some even
more inappropriate joke. When I was a student at Kansas
University, I had a class. I remember the professor was
a lady named Myra Henman. She’s gone, so I can
mention her name. And I got the highest
score on the test– on the class– on
all four tests. She gave four tests. Had easily the highest
scores on the test. But she gave me a B
anyway, because she said that my paper showed a lack
of seriousness in the subject. I can remember a dozen other
times when writing papers, professors said
things or did things to encourage me to be more
serious in my approach. Excuse me. But I never paid any
attention to them. And it’s not that I
rejected what they said. It’s that on some level
it didn’t permeate. It just didn’t
work through to me. It’s just something
about it didn’t fit with my natural makeup. I suspect what the
old biddy meant to do was to wake me up
and get me to pay more attention to the rules. But it had the
opposite effect on me. And I was never a great
student to be honest. I’ve never been a
lazy person, but I was kind of a lazy student. I was a B-plus type student. And I think that one of
the things that happened was that after that
experience, I thought, well, there’s no point in my trying to
play this game because I’m just not good at it. So there’s no point in my
trying to follow rules. I’m never going to
be able to do it, so what difference does it make? I think that’s one
of the things that happened that caused my academic
career to be less than– I wasn’t in danger of
flunking out or anything. But it was not a
stellar academic career. If I wanted to go to Boston
University and graduate school, I either couldn’t. Maybe I could have
because Boston University, at that time perhaps, was
not the same level it is now. But anyway, I
certainly couldn’t have had the kind of
undergraduate career that would have
gotten me in here now. Now I’m going to have to go back
to my notes for a little bit. By the way, I’ll
post my speech online if anyone wants to read it
without the cough breaks. My way of thinking about– when I was writing
a term paper– my way of thinking
about the problem was that the teacher is grading
a large stack of papers, and he or she is falling
asleep as they’re doing so or in danger of falling asleep. And my main object
is to wake them up. I just don’t want them
falling asleep on me. When I think about
it, I realized that this is an illogical way
to think about the problem. If the teacher is looking
for things that you did wrong and is falling sleep
on you, last thing you should want to do
is try to wake them up. You should let them sleep. But I didn’t look
at it that way. I looked at it the way a
writer would look at it. We don’t want people
falling sleep on us. If I’m writing a paper,
I want to keep you– writing anything– I want to keep you involved
with it and connected to it. And if I have to say something
outrageous in order to cause that to happen, I may
say something outrageous. I won’t say something
that I know to be false. But as long as I don’t
know it to be false, I always look at things– I’m always more comfortable
defending the idea that something may be true
rather than it actually is true. And it could be true that
Richard Nixon was a good man or that Joseph Stalin
was, I don’t know. Well, if I have to defend
Richard Nixon or Joseph Stalin in order to keep you from
falling asleep, I may do that. I suspect that
this is not a trait that academics share generally. I suspect that
generally most of you are a lot more
concerned with what is true than keeping
people awake while they’re reading your papers. I’m not saying you’re wrong
about that, it’s just not me. I’m just the way I am. A writer indulges
his ego in ways that I suspect are not
popular in academia and which actually are not
popular in baseball either. In baseball, it’s contrary
to the ethics of the game to attract attention
to yourself. I remember about 10 years ago,
60 Minutes did a profile of me. Morley Safer came
down to Florida to spend a couple
of days with me, and back up here,
CBS crews filmed me walking around Fenway Park. People would see us
coming down the sidewalk, and they would dive to the
other end of the sidewalk. It took some people
three years before they would speak to me after that. As a writer, you generally
cooperate with people who want to interview you or
who are writing about you, because it’s just
part of the job. But as a part of a team,
you don’t call attention to yourself. I suspect that as an
academic, I would always be on the wrong
side of this issue. I suspect that
people would always say that I’m not a team
player, or well, there are less nice things that
people say about people who are not team players. I have ways of defending
myself against those attacks, but it’s just the
way I see the world. I just don’t have the level
of respect for tradition of this field that I would
have to have if I were building an academic career. It’s not just
about making jokes. It has to do with
respect for the field. Another way in which I’m
not like a good academic is that I lack discipline. To a certain extent, this is
a conscious choice on my part, or was a conscious choice
on my part years ago. But also to a certain
extent, I regret it as a conscious choice. I have never been very good
at making myself do things that I don’t want to do. I don’t think as
a young man that I had any clear understanding
of what discipline was or any understanding
of the value of it. Maybe young people never do. I don’t know, but
I certainly didn’t. I more or less consciously
rejected the idea of getting things done by
forcing myself to do them, to do the stuff I didn’t like. And I decided instead
to focus my energies on doing the things
that I enjoyed doing. In some ways, this has
worked out great for me. But in other ways– such as my weight– this attitude has
not been helpful. I wasn’t a disciplined person
when I was 20-years-old, and I’m really not a
disciplined person now. And in this way, I’m not
like a good academic. When I look back at the things
that I wrote 40 years ago, I can see that I was
trying at that time to build an academic tradition
in studying baseball in the way that I study it. All these years
later, I can’t really understand how I came
to this position. This has succeeded
beyond my wildest dreams, whether because of
my efforts or just because of the
time and the place. But in any case, my
field of knowledge that I was trying to nurture
now has a very robust level of activity, far beyond what
I could ever have imagined. If you go back and
read things that I wrote 30 and 40 years
ago, it is clear that I anticipated
that there would be such a field of
knowledge, and that I spoke about it as if it existed
when in reality it hardly did. I can’t understand
now how it was that I was bold enough
or arrogant enough to do that as a man in his 20s. In any case, there is a strong
research tradition in my field now. I have great respect for the
traditions of the field going forward from me. There are now 1,000 young
men doing baseball research, which is in the general
tradition of the work that I did years ago. And it is tremendously
important for me to be respectful of their work
and appreciative of their work even when I don’t
understand it, which frankly is most of the time. Well, what you
have to understand is that had there been
such a field of research when I was a young man, I would
have had to do something else. A few years ago, I spoke
to a class over at Tufts, and there was a rude kid
in the back of the room who kept kicking out
remarks which I think were unconsciously
designed to embarrass me. He would ask things like, when
is the last time you actually played baseball? I think the
professor who invited me to speak to the class– Andy Andres– was
kind of embarrassed. But I actually felt a
certain level of affinity for the young man, and I wanted
to give him as much space as I could to say
what he had to say. That was me when
I was a young man. In retrospect, I
would have liked to have been a nice young
man from a good family, and clean and handsome,
and fun loving and always had a
smile on his face. But I just wasn’t. That wasn’t me. I’m sure that would
have been more fun, but I was the rude kid
in the back of the class. Because I was that way– I haven’t seen that kid or
heard from him in the 10 years since I spoke to Andy’s class. But I’m sure that he has found
multiple doors shut in his face since that because
people like us do. If there had been the tradition
of research in our field then that there is now, I would
have had to do something else. Because I would
have felt, before I got to that point at which the
door was slammed in my face, that it was going to be. I would have liked to have
been a baseball writer, a conventional baseball writer. The kind of guy
who goes to teams and asks players after the
game, what were you thinking before you hit that home run? I would have liked that,
and I would have enjoyed it. But I never felt that
I could get that job. And 40 years later, I’m very
certain that I could not have. I just was not cut out that way. I’m the kind of person
who has to make up his own damn rules
if I’m going to be able to get anything done. If I had tried to
be conventional, I would have wiped out. I’ll carry of my notes
for a little bit. I lived in Lawrence, Kansas at
that time and in those days. I still knew at that time,
Lawrence had this sports staff. They still have a
newspaper sort of. But in those days,
the Kansas City Star had a sports staff
of about 40 people. I would have liked to have
been one of those people, but it just wasn’t meant to be. There was one thing
I wanted to mention that Ann kind of alluded
to in the introduction– which I think she picked up from
having seen me speak before– which is the tremendous value
of a liberal arts education has had for me. I know that in my years as
a student, while I wasn’t a good student, I know that if
you divide my life into four year segments, I probably worked
less hard in that four year segment than in any
other four year segment. I wasn’t expecting
you to laugh there. And yet I know that despite
the fact that I was not a hard-working student– I was not a good student– I know that I grew more,
that I learned more, that I matured more,
that I developed more in those four years than in any
other four years of my life. And I don’t really
know how to explain that other than to say that it’s
the miracle of a liberal arts education. That if you take a group of
bright young men, young women, and expose us to ideas at that
age and sharing that process, that wonderful
things will happen. I know a lot of people who
say that their education never really mattered to them except
that they had to have a degree. But I’m the exact
opposite of that. My degree, honestly, has
never meant very much to me. I’ve never had a
resume in my life. I’ve never made a resume. I haven’t applied for
a job in 40 years, and the jobs I applied
for were not the kind where they ask for a resume. They ask if you can
work on Saturday. I didn’t form friendships. I did form lifelong
friendships in college, and I still have
friends from that era, but I didn’t meet
my wife in college, or I didn’t meet
anyone who helped me get started in my field
or anything like that. But if I had never
gone to college, I would never been exposed
to the ideas of Adam Smith, and Paul Samuelson, and
Milton Friedman, and Robert Fogel, and others. And I know for certain
that I could never have done what I have
done with my life if I had not had
that experience. An academic is part of a long
tradition of building knowledge and building understanding
by sharing insights with one another. I believe in that process
as deeply as any of you do. I believe that the world
is vastly more complicated than the human mind and
that the only chance we have to understand things,
to understand who we are, or where we’re going in life is
to work on problems together. I believe in this as
much as any of you do. But I don’t think
I could have had a successful academic career,
because I just couldn’t, as I said, I have to be
that kind of person who makes up his own rules and
goes about it in his own way. Another way in which I’m
not like a good academic is that I never prepared
myself properly as a young man with a solid grounding
in scientific methods. I got the basic
ideas of science. That is, that what you, that you
take the discoveries of others and try to build on them. That you have to prove that each
sentence that you say is true. And that even if
you’re an outsider, you can take the things that
everybody knows to be true and they’re subject not to
the test of whether everybody believes they’re
true, but whether they fit the facts of the world. I got the basic
ideas of science, but I never really
had a strong grounding in scientific methods. I call the field of knowledge
that I work in sabermetrics. This is how improbable
my career has been. If any of you saw, my
daughter watches something called Bob’s Burgers,
which I don’t watch. Lead character’s a guy
named Bill Haber, I guess. And he was talking
in the last show about his, how he measured
his success in his life. And he said, I call
it Habermetrics. Sorry I missed that. When I was young
and arrogant enough, then thinking through what
sabermetrics should become, one of the goals that
I had for the field was that we should
always be people who talk to the world at
large rather than people who talk to one another and
who develop our own language. I totally lost that
battle with the world. Sabermetrics now is
full of its own lingo, and the people who
do sabermetrics mostly talk to one another and
ignore the rest of the world. I don’t think that’s in the
best interest of academia to do that. I think it’s in the best
interest of academia to speak a common
language so that you can have influence
on the discussions of the rest of the world. Ms. Cudd was telling
me about a program that they have called the
three minute dissertation where a student has three minutes
to defend their dissertation and one slide. I think that’s genius. I think that’s a
great idea to do that, because if you’re
asking the student to boil it down to what do you really
know, what use is it to anybody, I think that there’s a great
value in that kind of thing. Well, I lost my battle with
the world in that sense. But in another sense, I won
my battle with the world that I believed
that there was value in approaching baseball
questions by looking not to the players for
answers, but to look by looking to the facts,
by looking to the records. And I went through a long period
where very few people seemed to accept that principle. But I won that argument
with the world. The number of people
who have adopted my way of thinking about
problems in baseball turned out to be vastly
larger than I would ever have believed that it would be. That’s what I mean by saying I
won my argument with the world, and it was education that
enabled me to do then. So I am thankful for
that opportunity. And I’m thankful
for this opportunity to speak for you today. And thankful for the opportunity
to take your questions. I’m also thankful that my cough
held off long enough to get me to the end of the speech. But before I close, I have to
wedge in a commercial break. I have a book coming
out this fall. It’s not about baseball. The book is called
Man From the Train. It tells a truly horrible
story about a murderer who lived 100 years ago. I was talking earlier
in the joke about, in the talk about making
jokes in my papers, but there are very
few opportunities for humor in the
Man From the Train because the story
is simply so dark that it would be
difficult to say anything funny without
being disrespectful. This is my second book
in the true crime genre. But what I do in crime books is,
to me, exactly the same thing that I’ve always
done in baseball. I back off from
what it is that we think we know, and try
to ask basic questions about the subject. What I was always
trying to do in baseball was to move the discussion. A lot of discussions in
baseball are circular. If you read MVP arguments
from 1970 or from 1935, there are the same arguments. Just change the name, and the
argument is just the same. I was trying to throw enough
hard facts under the tires to give the discussion
traction and to enable it to move forward. That’s what I’m trying to– crimes are terribly
important events. They are life-shaping
events to the people who are involved in them in any way,
and they’re important events to the culture at large. I was trying– our public
discussion was pitiful. Our public discussion of
the crime problem in general is a pitiful discussion. What I’m trying to
do in crime books, the same as I did
in baseball, is to move the discussion forward. Trying to push it forward,
just try and throw enough facts under the
wheels to get the discussion to move forward. Well, I appreciate the
opportunity to do that. I appreciate the opportunity
to speak to you tonight. And if you have any questions,
please approach somebody with a microphone, or ask
somebody to toss you– oh, I think I
forgot to thank you. Did I forget to thank you? Sarah, I think I
forgot to thank Sarah at the start of the speech. OK. I did? You did. I did forget? No, you thanked her. Oh, well. Cancel the second thank you. All right. If you have any questions,
ask Doug or Sarah, and I will be happy to
take your questions. We will bring the
microphone to you, and if you can wait
for the microphone, because we’re recording this. We’d like to get your
question as well. So raise your hand
if you have one. If you were, if you right
now were to go back to you as a child, probably my
age, and tell yourself you would have the job that
you got, would you be happy? Oh, I’d be thrilled. I’d be thrilled beyond belief. I’ve been so fortunate. I never– my father
was a school janitor. I never thought I’d be,
I’d have a good job. And to have the jobs that I’ve
had is just a wonderful thing. Anyone? Yes, sir. I was wondering do you think
that the teams that use the metrics [INAUDIBLE] of
developing value in managers? And do you think that Statcast
is sparking more [INAUDIBLE] game? And so how might
that [INAUDIBLE] out? The question is twofold. Do I think– I’m assuming some of
you may not have heard. Do I think that a
good metric will be developed to evaluate managers. And the second part is do you
think the Statcast data will be incorporated into
managerial decisions on a minute-to-minute basis. Is that accurate? Yes. With regard to managers, that’s
a really good illustration of what I meant by trying to
move the discussion forward. I realized that the
discussion about managers was one of the worst
discussions in sports, because it didn’t go anywhere. People would say, he’s a genius. He’s an idiot. He’s a genius. He’s an idiot. That was the whole discussion. And I realized that
what I could contribute to this would be to
try to say, figure out how one manager was
different from another. So I started counting
things like how many different lineups does he
use in the course of a year. How many times does
he start the runner. And making a year-to-year
record of those things. That involved not evaluating
managers, not saying here’s a metric. And I had been committed to
that process for 20 years. Yes, I think people
in the future will have a better
understanding, some better way of measuring whether the
guy’s a good manager or not. But I would always encourage
you not to focus too much on it and focus on understanding first
how it is that one manager. Some managers are really
good at working with people, and some are Bobby Valentine. Sorry, buddy. I would encourage
you to focus on that. As to data being used, yes,
it is being used already some. For example, there’s a
lot of work being done now on where you should
position the fielders and that’s from
the Statcast data. And they work out we think the
odds are the ball will be here, so we’ll put the fielders here. That is being done now. I do think that there will
be more of that over time and that the loop
will get shorter. But there’s so much data
there, that we’re just buried. People are just
buried in the data, and it will take a long time
for us to dig ourselves out. We had a question back here. I see you came to
the Red Sox in 2002? I did. Yes, sir. And did you cross paths
with the Billy Beane when he was offered that kind
of money from the Red Sox, and is there any correlation
between you and Billy Beane and how you look at baseball? I know Billy, and I’ve done
events with him a few times. But I didn’t cross paths
with him at that time, no. To the best of my knowledge,
the scene in Moneyball which shows Billy talking
to John Henry, to the best of my
knowledge, that’s accurate. I asked John if it
was accurate, and he said he didn’t think that guy
looked that much like him. But generally, I think that’s,
the way it’s told in Moneyball is pretty accurate. I didn’t personally
cross paths with him. Yes, sir? Speaking about your
methodology, I’m curious how you compare it to
the sort of scientific process of starting with an
idea, and then testing it, and either proving or
disproving it, or creating a better idea as a
result. Your process sounds a little bit
different than that so I’m just wondering
if you can compare– No, I have imitated the
scientific methodology as best I am able to do
given my limited training and scientific methods. Again, I can’t claim to be
a scientist because I might be making a false
claim, but I have always tried to use scientific methods
to the best of my method. Yes, sir? I like the correlation
between your work on crime and your work on baseball. Baseball, you did great
work because there was this massive unexamined
statistical position in baseball that you put
together in a meaningful way. You’re doing the
crime thing, saying you want to do that same thing. And the crime stuff, the
facts are generally out there particularly if
they’ve been to trial. And for a 100 year
old case, what’s left to discover that’s
unexamined that you can do your technique to? Well, it looks a lot different
because of the nature of the information
you work with. But the intellectual
process, I think, it seems to me to
be a lot the same. It’s finding the question. What you’re trying to
do is find the question which will move the
understanding of the event and find the answer
to that question. And your understanding
of large events is connected to and to an extent
based on your understanding of tiny little events. And what we do in baseball
is accrue knowledge of tiny little events
to such an extent that they eventually
inform the large events. But you don’t want to
focus on the little stuff. But you have to ask yourself
the big questions too. If you want to really– the much greater writer
who has my name– William James– writes about
connecting the little questions to the big questions. And to me, that’s a
very powerful concept that in order to
organize the discussion, you have to learn to
understand the relationship between the big questions
and the little questions. And you have to find some way
to draw a line between them. You also have to
understand that when you draw that line
between them, you’re going to get something wrong. We’re never exactly right. When we make that connection
between the little issues and the big ones, we
get something wrong. But that’s still essential
to building understanding. We have a question here. I appreciated your
distinction between taking a stand on an issue and
asking a question as to what is the issue. But I think you might be almost
overly self-effacing when you explained your success in
creating a field of knowledge to brashness. You acknowledge elsewhere
that you anticipated a need. So I guess I’m wondering as
a kind of aspiring academic and writer, once you have
these sort of questions, how do you go about
finding an audience? The first thing you have to do– that’s a really good question. I appreciate it. The first thing you
have to do in building an audience for a new
field of knowledge is to force yourself to pay
no attention to your critics. It’s hard to do
that, because there’s an established way of thinking
about everything, most of which is never examined, and
just grew up over time, and it’s just there. You have to force
yourself– but when you write about
something new, you will wind up saying,
that’s nonsense. I don’t know why
people believe that. But it’s not right. And the people in that field
will train their guns on you, and you have to learn
to screen them out. Not being disrespectful to them. Maybe I was disrespectful. I don’t know. But that was easy for me. I’d been taking
shit all my life. It wasn’t a problem for me. One reason I wound up where I
am is that it was easy for me to take that kind of
criticism and ignore it. But it’s hard for a lot
of people to do that. Yes, sir? Thank you. I really appreciated what you
said earlier about beginning with the questions themselves
rather than a position, and how you said
by this process you start to see your own ignorance. And to me, that is the value
of a liberal arts education, and I can’t help but hear those
words through my years of today and of our current moment– Thank you. –which I think you’re
also talking about. So my question to
you is when you say that we should
be people who talk to the world and this idea of
William James of not losing sight of the bigger questions. We’ve seen the dimensions
of baseball remain the same, but the industry of baseball
and the industry of sports and the ability of all of
us to go deeper and deeper into the smaller questions. I’m wondering if– you’ve moved
the conversation into a deeper direction. I’m wondering if you with
your interest in law and crime are now interested in
moving it elsewhere? The baseball research has
gotten so far ahead of me that I’m old. I have a hard time keeping up. And there’s still. One thing that’s hard for you– you’re right about ignorance. One thing that’s hard
for a young person to do is to learn to value ignorance. The thing is that ignorance
is all around us all the time. There’s lots of
ignorance, and whenever you can find people saying
something that isn’t true, you can make money off that. I don’t mean just
make money, but you can build your reputation by
proving that that’s not true. And there are
opportunities to do that all the time all around us. So I just reached
a point at which what I was doing in baseball– I still work in that
area, and I still try to contribute where I can. But the younger people are
a lot more sophisticated in terms of technique
and stuff than I am. So I’m trying to get people
to think a little more clearly about famous crime stories. I’m going to switch
back to baseball. Yeah. People who have
taken up your method use a lot of
statistical evidence. Has the steroid era
affected the material that they’re working from? Well, the steroid era is a
great monkeywrench, of course. However, the first thing
we do in sabermetrics is make everything relative
to everything else. So it really affects
us, in a sense, less than it does everybody
else, because it’s normal. Whereas a fan– the drunk in the
bar that we were talking about earlier– he expect standards to
be the same across an era and is disturbed when
the standards change. But we never expect
that to begin with. We adjust everything
immediately. So in a sense, it
affects us less than it does everybody else I think. Would you agree with, Andy? I would. Yes, sir? Hi. I’m curious what it was about
baseball that you thought made it particularly susceptible
to your style of analysis, and how you think
that analysis– I think we’re seeing it a
little bit in other sports– but how you think it’s
transferable or is accepted in other sports? Well, baseball is a
very, very orderly game. I mean the players
take turns batting. In basketball, the player,
they don’t take turns shooting, you know. They stop at base one, or
base two, or base three. And when there are
three outs, they stop. It’s a very orderly game, and
it had records back 100 years from where I started. So those things made
it perfect for me. But you’re presenting it as
if it was a rational decision. I was just a kid. I didn’t make
rational decisions. I loved baseball. I was an obsessive baseball
fan, and I worked about baseball because that’s what I
loved, what I cared about. Is that, have I answered? Yeah. The second part too though. Do you think that it will
be or is being transferred to other sports also? And how successful
would that be? It is. Whether because of me
or not, I don’t know. But it has spread everywhere. There is a Bill
James of everything. The people who
work in basketball are actually really
good, and in some ways, they’re more
sophisticated than we are, because they have to be to
deal with the fluid mechanics of the game. The game is changing so
rapidly that it’s really tough to sort things out. But the basketball
analysts are really good. The Celtics have been
ahead of the curve on that for a long time. When I lived here 10
years ago, the Celtics had a analytical guy,
a really smart guy– Michael Zarren– who was there
every day working with them. He doesn’t get a
lot of publicity. He and I used to go to
breakfast out in Worcester, talk about stuff. But basketball analytics
particularly are really smart. In football, a lot of it
was done inside the business by the coaches. They were studying films a
long time before I came around, so a lot of good analysis
had been done before I started doing baseball. Yeah? Go ahead. All right. So you talked a lot
about sabermetrics and the outside
world to an extent. And then within the greater
sabermetrics community now, it seems like, it
doesn’t seem like it is that there’s been
a sort of brain drain from the publications
to the teams now. It’s becoming more
and more centralized and less democratized. Yes. That’s right. The last major
public breakthrough was probably, what,
pitch framing, something along those lines. Do you think– and this is
sort of a meta question– do you think that is a bad
thing for the academic tradition you’ve created that
the data is becoming more and more proprietary and
that it’s not as democratized? And do you think there’s a
way to further democratize it, or is that even
a desirable goal? What you describe is happening
certainly is happening. You’re right about that. The people who, now
lots of young people write blogs or contribute
to blogs, and they can get hired by teams. And when they do that,
they make a living. Not a bad thing at all. That’s a good thing,
make a living doing this. So in a sense,
it’s a great thing. It does create problems for
the academic institution. The academic institution,
if they’re not careful, there’s some fields. And if I say, this is probably
wrong, so just ignore me. But there’s something
like chemistry in which Dow Chemical spends a
billion a year or $10 billion a year or something
doing research, and they’re not going
to publish what they do. So it is a constant
challenge for the chemist to stay up to date, and
it’s a constant fight. There are other fields where
that’s not as much true. We are transitioning
toward that being a field in which it’s
more true, and it’s, guys making a
living, that’s great. I’m glad they are. Yeah? With the proliferation of
sabermetrics to the point where every team has
their own department with multiple analysts
is there still a way for small market
teams to win now that that competitive
advantage may have dried out? Yes, there is. First of all, small
market teams need to take advantage of the
ignorance in the game, and there is never a
shortage of ignorance. Seriously. There will always
be stupid stuff that people believe that you
can gain an advantage by not believing it. That’s no less true now
than it was 15 years ago. Also, there’s an
inherent conflict between a wealthy organization
and an organization that looks for small edges. With the Red Sox– and
I’m awfully glad that we’re a wealthy organization– but it does, the fact is that
we can win without always being on the right. We can win by doing
conventional things. Kansas City can’t win by
doing conventional things. They have to find edges. So there’s very
much a place for it. Yeah, I’d like to– I’m curious about what are your
feelings on the [INAUDIBLE]? How has that really
affected [INAUDIBLE]? You know I decided
a long time ago that I was writing about the
real game and not the fantasy game, and I would
just stay with that. And I don’t– also when I
started working with the Red Sox, we were banned from
playing those fantasy games. So I still don’t play
them and don’t play them and don’t pay attention to them. So. We only have time for
one more question. We have time for
one more question. Yup. Here’s right here. I guess I win. Bill, I have a question
for you, and I apologize that this is not baseball. But as a Philadelphia native,
who’s followed the Eagles, Phillies, and Flyers, one
thing that’s astonished me is the remarkable success
of the New England Patriots. I’d like for you, I wish you
could comment on that perhaps to talk about whether they– is this a case where
their data analytics is just so far superior
to every other team or do you sense intuitively
that there is more to it? I’m curious if you
can comment on that. I think they’re a
smart organization. And around the country,
a lot of people are not fond of the Patriots. I don’t know if you know that. And legends about
the Patriots pushing the envelope with regard
to ethical practices permeate the culture. I don’t know that
there’s that much to it. I think they’re mostly
a smart organization and that they’re probably strong
enough and hard-hearted enough to do what is reasonable
even if it’s hard. I think. I’m going to try to sneak
it one more question. Yeah, it’s going to be
David’s because he’s the chair of my
largest department. All right. Going to ask a
non-academic question. I wondered if you could comment
on your experience as a fan. Being a fan means
shouting at the TV or shouting at the field
about the bonehead decision that somebody made. And you’ve changed the
decisions that players make and the coaches make. And I wonder if your
experience as a fan has become more satisfying
and less complaining or if the bar just
keeps going up? Well, with the Red
Sox, we don’t– when you’re sitting with the
executives, you don’t cheer. You can’t boo the umpire. There’s really a good
reason why it’s that way. And I actually found that
to be sort of relaxing. You go to a game, you expect
to cheer and boo and stuff. But not being able to do that
I found it’s kind of relaxing. However, like yesterday, I went
to the opening day with my wife and we were sitting
out in right field and nobody would
have known who I was. I could boo the umpire which I
find to be a tremendous relief. I go to KU basketball games
and booing the referees is one of the things I enjoy most. I’m the loudest booer
in my neighborhood just for the exact
reason you ask that I can’t normally do that. So I do it when I can. OK. On that non-academic
note, first of all, let me thank you all for coming,
and for your great questions. Been a lot of fun. And now please join me
in thanking Bill James. [APPLAUSE] Thank you.

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