A segment of the baseball populace will snicker at the news that the Red Sox have signed Bill James, founder of the science known as sabermetrics, as a senior adviser. What's next? Slide rule giveaways? Jerseys with plastic pocket protectors? Mind you, this would be the same segment that still believes batting average best defines hitting performance, that the sacrifice bunt is an effective offensive weapon and that the golden age refers to the Paleozoic.
Wake up, purists, and smell the mothballs. Hiring James, who began publishing his famous Baseball Abstracts in the 1970s and who created revered stats such as runs created, is neither heretical nor revolutionary. The Rangers and the Orioles of the 1980s, the Padres and the Red Sox of the '90s, and the Blue Jays of last season all employed statistics experts. Running a baseball team is part art and part science. The art involves interpreting a player's character, desire and other largely subjective criteria. The science is finding objective truth in the sport's sea of statistics. Partly because of James's influence, that science has become increasingly essential. "Some one still has to see the player," says Toronto G.M. J.P. Ricciardi, "but the facts can outweigh the scout. The guy with the facts is objective."
Ricciardi lives by such words. While an assistant in Oakland in 2001, he traded for minor league third baseman Eric Hinske sight unseen because Hinske's stats revealed a player with a discerning batting eye and an ability to get on base. Last spring one of Ricciardi's first trades as Blue Jays G.M. was landing Hinske, who went on to win AL Rookie of the Year.
Another of Ricciardi's early moves with Toronto was hiring Keith Law, a writer for the stat-heavy Baseball Prospectus, as a consultant. Law, who has an MBA from Carnegie Mellon, "constantly challenges you" with his perspective, says Ricciardi. It was Law, not any scout, who advised Toronto to take minor league pitcher Corey Thurman in the Rule 5 draft, partly because Thurman, though only 47-44 in six seasons in the Royals' organization, showed impressive ratios of hits and strikeouts to innings. Thurman, 24, had a 4.37 ERA in 68 innings last season. "He was the best Rule 5 of the year," Ricciardi said. "Keith saw him coming."
James, 53, will provide similar help to the Red Sox. And as the most influential stats analyzer in baseball history he could spawn a more widespread reliance on sabermetricians. James won't sign or trade players, but he'll offer objective analysis on potential moves. Every team should welcome such wisdom as a way to minimize risk in a $3.5 billion industry.