Red Sox advisor advocates for the “Power of Ignorance”

By Max Rothman

There are only so many places where a math whiz and a baseball diehard can rejoice as one.

A Bill James symposium makes the cut.

“We are all condemned to float endlessly in a vast sea of unanswered questions — a sea of ignorance,” James said.

James, a U. Kansas alumnus who popularized statistics — and indirectly, unconventional strategies — in baseball, delivered “Battling Expertise with the Power of Ignorance” on the KU campus Tuesday afternoon before a diverse audience. Thick lenses and backward caps alike ogled the man that Time Magazine named in 2006 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

But James does not think much of titles.

“Self-designation is dangerous for public figures,” James said. “It indirectly places limits on what one can attempt within a definition. Saying that I am this or that adds limits but not abilities.”

With a full beard, a slight hunch over the podium and a mathematical prose, James is an atypical icon. Beginning with “The Bill James Baseball Abstract” of 1977, he captured the minds of just a few baseball enthusiasts. Eventually James’ works expanded to a national scale and eventually swayed the perception of baseball, the childhood love that he never let slip away.

He coined the term “Sabermetrics”, after the Society for American Baseball Research, to define his array of statistics founded upon objectivity.

“My reputation is based entirely on finding the right question to ask,” James said.

He does so by breaking down an unknown and locating the point of potential subjectivity. Through numbers, James aims to reach as close to objectivity as mathematics allows.

One of his examples went like this: Which characteristics define a winning and/or successful baseball team? So called “experts” have said that players’ hit their prime at ages 28-32. They also say that teams gain an advantage stealing bases and bunting the runner on first base over to second base.

James countered these claims, stating that the risk of stealing a base or bunting — a potential out — is not always worth the attempt. He also argued a player’s true prime with statistical evidence.

“27-year-old players hit 68% more home runs in the Major Leagues than do 32-year-old players,” James said.

Another more recent assumption is that in every season, no matter the team, 100 of the 162 games in a regular season are predetermined. Some say that it is inevitable that a team will lose 50 games and win 50 games. The outcome of other 62 games decide whether the season was a success or a failure.

James calculated that this claim is both inaccurate and misleading. He said that only about 40 games in a season result in a blowout, thus, 122 games are toss ups. Obviously, financial and talent pools skew these numbers. However, James repeatedly noted that his numbers rely on arbitrary factors and that he has no official credentials, other than credibility itself.

But despite his apparent bashing of the conventional wisdom of scouts, James does hold a certain respect for the tiring trade.

“I admire the ability of scouts to look at a young hitter and note things about his swing that may predict what he will be able to adjust to at higher levels of competition,” James said. “I also lust after those really cool radar guns.”

But trusting the subjectivity of the eye often pales in comparison to the truth of the objective number.

John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and Baseball Abstract enthusiast, felt the same way. In 2002, he hired James as a Senior Advisor of Baseball Operations. The move was controversial, but paid its dividends. After all, it was partly James’ idea to sign David “Big Papi” Ortiz and trade for Mark Bellhorn, two once unheralded players who played key roles in Boston’s 2004 World Series title, its first since 1918.

He is still writing and digging for the next great baseball metric. So long as James and his followers continue to ask questions, baseball will continue to crawl toward complete objectivity.

“You don’t learn anything by focusing on stuff that you already know,” James said. “In order to advance the sphere of what is known about baseball, you have to learn to identify your own ignorance.”

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