The Red Sox' Stat Man And The Numbers Game

Bill James Tells 60 Minutes Mets' David Wright Would Be A Top Pick On His Dream Team

This story was first broadcast on March 30, 2008. It was updated on May 10, 2009.

We offer a brief escape from the economic gloom: a different numbers game - the numbers used to conjure up winners - otherwise known as baseball.

It's a pastime that has an almost religious belief in statistics. Find the right permutations and you can be a master of the universe, or at least of the diamond.

Which brings us to Bill James, the wizard hired by the Boston Red Sox six years ago who helped bring a congenital loser two World Series championships after 86 years of drought.

As we reported last spring, James invented something called "Sabermetrics," loosely defined as the analysis of baseball through objective evidence.

Whether it actually works or not is open to debate but baseball, with its unshakeable reliance on superstition, believes the Red Sox have found themselves one extremely lucky charm.



60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer found Bill James at spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., a shambling giant who strolls unnoticed among the stars and the star-struck fans, about as athletic as a night watchman at a pork and beans factory, which is exactly what he was.

Asked if he tried playing baseball, James admits, "I did play baseball but I have no athletic ability whatsoever."

"What position did you play?" Safer asks.

"I played where anybody else wasn't playing," James says.

He still does. The Red Sox created a new position, Senior Adviser for Baseball Operations. He's an unlikely guru, who for 30 years had been declaring that many of baseball's hallowed beliefs were "ridiculous hokum."

"I remember by the time I was 14 or 15 I'd begun to realize that a lot of baseball's traditional wisdom didn't actually make sense," James says.

He says he realized that baseball was going to be his life when he "failed at everything else."

Growing up in Mayetta, Kan., rooting for the old Kansas City A's, James, consumed by baseball, couldn't help but adapt college courses to his first love. "I went to a state university in the Midwest and they tried to teach me economics. And I took everything that they tried to teach me and applied it to baseball," he explains.

He tried a variety of jobs, finally ending up as the night watchman at the Stokely Van Camp Pork and Beans plant in Lawrence, Kan. To pass the time while watching the beans simmer, he brought a stack of box scores to work. Thus began the theory of sabermetrics.

"There were certain things that Major League Baseball traditionally believed that I argued were nonsense. One, that you could evaluate a pitcher by his won-loss record. Two, that I -- serious disagreement on what drove an offense," he says.

Like batting averages: the oldest way to measure a hitter, James believed that players who got a lot of walks and wore down pitchers were overlooked. So he embraced a new statistic, "on-base percentage," which has become part of baseball's Bible.

As for pitching, he has said that won-loss records do not tell how good or how bad a pitcher is. "The most accurate thing is to focus on the strikeouts, the walks, the home runs allowed. And to evaluate the pitcher on that level," James explains.

So James stresses another statistic: the strike-out to walk ratio. He says for decades managers used outdated formulas or intuition in making decisions. So night after night, he crunched numbers until he came up with new statistics based on facts that would either support or debunk tradition.

  • CBSNews

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