Moneyball's Bill James on why analytics and football will always be strange bedfellows

Despite the best attempts of data junkies, football doesn't lend itself to number crunching

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Image: The MLB logo with the American Flag as part of it during the third inning of a baseball game between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, Monday, July 4, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Bill James changed baseball; that is fair to say. A sport that was first mentioned in American history in 1791, a sport that had an ingrained way of thinking and has captured the minds of millions of people.

Then along comes a man from Holton, Kansas, a town with a population just north of 3,000 people, and changed the entire sport with what are now referred to as 'sabermetrics'. It comes from the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research.

James has almost become the official spokesperson for sabermetrics and Moneyball, made famous by Michael Lewis’ book and the subsequent film of the same name. James is happy to play that role.

"I worry about whether I was properly chosen to play that role, but I have been selected to do that job and I'm happy to do it."

Even though the public has a poor understanding of the concepts behind it, James accepts and understand that. "Maybe it’s like sausage-making," he says, "they're not supposed to know what we're doing."

Before he shot to fame, James worked as a boiler-room attendant, where he would bring mountains of books on baseball and study them endlessly. Those who argue against the use of statistics, analytics and sabermetrics might use this kind of behaviour to denounce and ridicule him. He's over-thinking it, they might argue.

However, James says finding the order of things is what comes natural to him.

"I don't know if there was a lot of deep philosophising [in the boiler-room], but thinking about where things fit together is really the key part to making progress, and we are all a little reluctant to do it because we are all reluctant to say I'm smarter than the other guy."

Image: The logo for the Oakland Athletics is seen stitched onto a pair of socks during a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

While you might think that studying baseball, or basketball, or football, or “European football” as James says, to the nth degree might lead you to run out of facets of the game to study, James disagrees

“Ignorance is inexhaustible," he argues. "If we study these things for 1,000 years, we will be no closer to understanding them than where we are now."

Unlike common sense, there is no shortage of conventional wisdom. Eating up what we are told by mainstream media and swallowing it whole is what the masses do. But James is interested in understanding why, and even more importantly, how people get us to believe in what they are selling us.

Take Donald Trump, for example, who was written off from the very start.

"We have been presented with a long line of experts, who told us at every step of the way what Trump was doing wrong. He screwed up this again, and he did that wrong, and he did that wrong, and it's been a year and a half of explanations of what he was doing wrong."

"He [Trump] has some sort of understanding that has so far escaped the analytical community, and it will be an interesting process watching the analyst trying to catch up."

Something was missed, someone was not paying attention. There was no Bill James on the case trying to unearth the truth. Forget conventional wisdom. Give us the numbers and the correct answer, and not one spoon-fed to us without ever forcing us to think. It leads you to think, what else are we missing?

"What we are doing is studying things that people say to try to figure out if it's true or if it's just something that people say. People say ignorant stuff all the time."

Can the same ideas that lead James to success be transferred to other sports? Analysing every available scrap of data has been all the rage in recent years, as teams look to get fitter, faster and stronger. They want to win smarter.

From Klopp to Pep, Soccer has its own visionaries, but James says it is far more difficult to implement than in traditional American sports.

"It is difficult, and the reason is that soccer is not static. Baseball, football, basketball - the three American Sports are static sports. They move from one state to another. In baseball, we take turns hitting. This guy hits and then that guy hits. In soccer, if you took turns kicking the ball, it would be really easy to measure who was good at it, but you don't. You don't move from state to state to state in soccer, and that makes European football much harder to analyse than baseball.”

And as analytical as James is, he also offers inspiration in what he says. Find what you are interested in and follow it to wherever it takes you is his advice.

“I am not a disciplined person. I'm not really a likeable person, I'm not good at dressing up and making an impression on people. If I had to count on other people to recognise the value in what I was doing, I would have had to wait but I didn't wait for other people to say do it, I just did it.”

James is now the Senior Adviser on Baseball Operations with Boston Red Sox, and the organisation he works with pays close attention to the blogging scene because, as James puts it, “that’s where the clever people come from."

"It's just that you have to be tough-minded enough to ignore the people who tell you that that isn't interesting."

And if you think you’re just adding to the noise?

"There is never too much of it. There's always a shortage of people who are thinking about how these things fit together."

Almost 30 years ago, Bill James wrote the Baseball Abstract, and released an advertisement in the Sporting News to let people know it was available. It sold 75 copies. Despite that, he never doubted what he was doing.

“There are people who are interested in what I'm doing, I always believed that. I always believe that 100%. It has proven to be a surprisingly large number, and it keeps growing and growing.”

He has been named by TIME as one 100 most influential people in the world, and he has written over two dozen books on his chosen topic. You could say that the "surprisingly large number" certainly does keep growing.