Pioneering James marvels as influence spreads far

Thu Nov 6, 2014 3:58pm EST
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By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - For most of his 40 years spent analyzing and writing about baseball, Bill James, the godfather of the sport's data-driven "Moneyball" movement, was an outcast.

This week the 65-year-old Boston Red Sox advisor shared the stage with technology CEOs a third his age at Europe's largest tech conference, Dublin's Web Summit, watching on as sport was acknowledged as being a part of their world.

"It's absolutely amazing. The central gamble of my life was that the number of people who were interested in these things that I was interested in was larger than the world thought it was," James told Reuters in an interview.

"I knew they were wrong and I was willing to gamble that they were wrong but I didn't have any idea how wrong they were. The number of people interested in it was vastly larger."

James began challenging baseball's conventional wisdom in the 1970s and recalls how at a time when nobody had a computer, his wife Susie would sit and figure out statistics from box score accounts of games.

The turning point, he said, came in the early 1980s when at the beginning of the computer revolution, his annual statistics guide The Bill James Baseball Abstract, heretofore a photocopied newsletter, was published nationally across the United States.

After two decades of "deep resistance," baseball executives began applying the so-called sabermetric principles James was preaching - most famously by Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics as chronicled in Michael Lewis' best-selling "Moneyball" book and later portrayed in an Oscar-nominated film starring Brad Pitt.

Now he sees similar principles proliferating through other sports. On Wednesday, he was on a panel with Manchester United head of athletic development Tony Strudwick who told an audience that collecting and analyzing data was the coaching way of the future when managing 500 million pounds ($792 million) worth of assets.   Continued...