June 20, 2007


The Boston Red Sox's Sultan of Statistical Analysis (DAN ACKMAN, June 20, 2007, Wall Street Journal)

Since Mr. James was hired by Red Sox owner John Henry in 2002, the team has yet to win the division. It did, however, win the World Series in 2004, beating the Yankees in seven games to win the pennant. A year earlier, the Sox lost to the Yankees in seven games. Two years later they had fallen to third place in the American League East.

What accounts for this year's dominance? "We think we have a good organization, and we thought we had a good organization last August when we couldn't win a game to save our soul," Mr. James says. With "Moneyball," Mr. James's style of analysis has become associated with relatively poor teams. The Red Sox, however, are one of the richest.

"There is a certain backwardness to it, yes," he concedes. But he adds that Boston is "committed to the challenge to figuring out the best way to do things. Nobody in the organization is traditional."

That would include Mr. James, who started writing his Abstracts while working as a night watchman at a pork-and-beans factory in Lawrence, Kan. Even as his fame grew as a writer, Mr. James says he never imagined working in baseball management. Unlike Theo Epstein, who interned for major-league clubs in college and was hired as the Red Sox general manager at age 28, Mr. James says he was never the type to put together a résumé and go find a job. Even today he allows that "there are very good reasons why Theo is the GM and I am not."

Now age 57, Mr. James says he does better working in an organization than he suspected. Still, even after moving to Boston two years ago, he spends a lot of time alone. "A lot of my friends think that I don't like people. The reality is I do like people -- I just need time to myself to work. So I tend to turn off my cellphone," he says.

With the success of the Athletics and of "Moneyball," baseball analysts like Mr. James were given more credit for helping teams draft and trade players more intelligently. In 2006, Time magazine named Mr. James one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Inexplicably, Time dropped him from this year's list even as the Red Sox moved from third place to first. Go figure.

Mr. James is known for claiming that some statistics (such as runs batted in) are less important than was commonly believed, while others (like on-base percentage) are more important. Both are now conventional wisdom. Is there some wrongheadedness still in vogue? "I do have an answer, but I can't tell you what it is. . . . I do think we know at least some small things that not everybody in the world knows."

Even if the analytical tools he helped create are now widely employed, Mr. James says that just as some teams stay richer, others can stay smarter. "In reality, knowledge is a very dynamic universe -- and what is most valuable is not the body of knowledge, but the leading edge of it."

Mr. James does allow that "when a team has resources, there is a powerful tendency to solve problems by spending money. It is less attractive to experiment." The Yankees' recent signing of pitcher Roger Clemens for $28 million a season is "probably" an illustration of the idea, he says.

It seems possible that one of the things the Jamesian sort of analyses has done is to buy good GMs some leeway and some time for moves that make analytical sense to work themselves out even when the results aren't showing up on the ballfield yet. Just a few instances from the Sox: fans weren't upset when Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon were low-balled, because it was understood that while they were still performing at a high level there was little likelihood they would be even midway through their next contracts; likewise, players like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Coco Crisp, JD Drew, etc., are allowed to struggle for awhile because fans believe that they'll eventually trend toward where the numbers say they should. This could also be why midseason firesales only garner one or two prospects these days, rather than a bunch. Fans just know better who the next generation of good players is, so you have an easier time selling them on a deal when you dump a big salary. You no longer have to empty the farm system to get a Von Hayes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 20, 2007 2:18 PM

Good grief, you must be the only person on the planet who thought that that JD Drew contract was anything but insanity, but one would have thought you would have seen the light by now. Even JD & Scott Boras couldn't have thought it made any sense.

Since Boston has an infinite amount of money, the point of Moneyball for them is radically different than it was for the A's a decade ago. The A's had to find players that could contribute to winning in ways that no one else had identified, so that they were therefore cheap enough for the A's to acquire. Boston can identify players who will contribute to winning and then outbid everyone else for them. And free agents only leave Boston when the team decides not to pay them--every free agent star Oakland had left because the A's couldn't afford them anymore.

The reason teams don't dump prospects is due to their increased exposure because of the internet. And because small-market clubs are much more desperate to dump guys making $5-7+ million than they were in the past to dump guys making much less, so they're willing to take much less in return.

Posted by: b at June 20, 2007 4:14 PM

His average OPS over the last three years is .940 and he's been the best rightfielder glove-wise. Adjustments to the AL are quite typical. He'll be fine. Notice the fans have largely given him a pass?

Posted by: oj at June 20, 2007 7:23 PM

Leading your (over-rated) division by 10 games has a way of making fans ignore the dogs on the roster.

In brilliant timing, the hometown newspaper of JD's former employers is greatly amused at his current struggles (which of course don't exist in your parallel universe):

Posted by: b at June 21, 2007 3:48 PM

He has had the predictable struggles of a guy going from the NL to the AL. It often takes several months to convince themselves they're getting breaking pitches in fastball counts because all 9 hitters are good. Just moving him to leadoff has turned him back into a premiere hitter: .423 OBP, .739 SLG last 6 games.

Posted by: oj at June 21, 2007 5:32 PM