Wednesday, June 20, 2007

When I became a stathead 

My father's side of the family didn't have many children -- my own family includes a brother and sister, making ours the largest. Dad's two brothers never married. So my cousins from his oldest sister were often around as big brothers for me, the oldest, even though they lived 40 miles away. I looked up to Gary, the younger one, in particular.

This became harder as Gary went through high school and experimented with drugs. I have never known what happened exactly, but apparently something he took triggered a psychological reaction from which he never really recovered. He lived with my aunt all his life, unable to hold regular work, and eventually died several years ago.

Still, whenever I was in town (the town of my parents' origin, not my own Manchester) I would try to stop by and see Gary, and share the passion of the Red Sox. Around 1980 or 1981, when I was in graduate school, I flew back to see family and stopped in on him. He had a book that looked homemade, and in it were a bunch of numbers and some writing. It was opened to a page titled "Boston Red Sox". It was a copy of the 1980 (or 1981 -- I really think it was 1980, but I can't be sure) Baseball Abstract by Bill James. As I read, I started to see numbers that I didn't associate with baseball before, like runs created or isolated power.

"Oh King," Gary said, "have you seen this book before?"


"You should read it. There are a lot more statistics in baseball than you see on TV."

Now, like some other guys who go into quantitative fields (which was why I first went into econ), I had been brought up on calculating batting and slugging averages. (I had kind of heard of on-base percentage, but not really.) As Gary and I talked after that, he revealed some intricate knowledge of the process of creating runs, breaking down getting on base, advancing runners, scoring runners, preventing runs, etc. We both admitted that while we first and foremost hate the Yankees, the guy that we didn't want to play an important game against was Earl Weaver, because that guy was smart. And Gary read things James had written about the Orioles and Yankees as well as the Red Sox. The conversation lasted the rest of the game.

I went back to Claremont a couple of days later. I found a copy of the Abstract, and bought it that year and every year thereafter. I still have nearly all of them (a second set, as my first set was water-damaged in storage years ago. I'm still missing a couple of issues.)

At that moment, my understanding of baseball changed. A shift in how one looked at the world of baseball. And in passing, a realization that the statistics we focus on sometimes in other areas, like economics, do not say what we think they say. It's motivated much of my work, including some writing I'm doing this summer. (As they say, watch this space.)

As years passed, any time I visited Gary's house we would talk baseball and Bill James. While Gary's gone, Bill James has gone on to help our Red Sox win the World Series a few years ago and become one of the 100 most influential persons, according to an interview with him this morning in the Wall Street Journal. One of the great things about James is that he is not a stathead; he's a writer who can talk and analyze baseball as it is, and understands the limits of his own insights.
People think they understand how to win in baseball much more than they really do ... The scouts see a lot of things that I can't see. And some of the things they see I have learned to see. But some of the things they see I can't see at all. And I'm not suggesting it's not real, it's just that I can't see it. There is no reason for there to be a conflict. The conflict exists only when people think they know more than they do.
Some years ago I quoted James saying this:
I thought that if I proved convincingly that X was a stupid thing to do, that people would stop doing X. I was wrong. People would just keep saying X.
For a writer, an analyst, or a professor, those are valuable lessons to learn. I give thanks to Gary for introducing me to that world.