FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The tale Boston owner John Henry likes to tell regarding exactly how his club wound up turning baseball's foremost statistical analyst into the Red Sox's foremost statistical analyst goes like this:
As the club was shuffling through its deck of general manager candidates last fall for the umpteenth time, then-assistant GM Theo Epstein joked, "Why don't we just go get Bill James to be our general manager?"
|Grady Little (right) and the Red Sox are getting a read on Theo Epstein's approach.(AP)|
Meaning, this was the first time he had heard James' name mentioned in conjunction with an actual, meaningful front-office job in the game. An interested and knowledgeable baseball owner for years, Henry has been very aware of James' thoughts, ideas and his influential Baseball Abstracts that were hugely popular throughout the 1980s.
The intent of Boston's still relatively new ownership group was to inject a fresh approach, spawned in part by analysis of some of the game's vast network of numbers, into an organization that hasn't won the big one since 1918. It took awhile, but the group -- including Henry, former Baltimore and San Diego executive Larry Lucchino and former Padres majority owner Tom Werner -- finally hit upon what it hopes will be a winning combination: The Red Sox hired James in November and installed Epstein as their GM a few weeks later.
And, as you might expect, Epstein's version of the courtship between the club and the man who has come to be known as the Father of Modern Baseball Statistical Analysis is a bit different. Less breezy, and less informal.
"It was John Henry's idea," Epstein said. "He said, 'If we're going to hire somebody, why not get the best?' So we made a couple of phone calls, exchanged some e-mails and, next thing you know, he was on board."
While the hire has caused some in the industry to look sideways, as if the Red Sox are conspiring with some Nutty Professor, the best question might be: What took so long?
Maybe the game has changed very little in 100 years, but the way we view it is changing every day. Survey today's baseball landscape and it is abundantly clear James' fingerprints appear in front offices throughout the game in the way clubs now analyze players, identify trends and view specific situations.
In Oakland, general manager Billy Beane inherited an office filled with volumes of James' books when he took over from Sandy Alderson in 1997.
In Atlanta, Braves president Stan Kasten once inquired as to what James could do in the NBA world with the Hawks.
In Colorado, Dan O'Dowd blew away the Rockies' management when he interviewed for their GM job after the 1999 season, offering detailed evidence on-base percentage was one of the keys to winning in Coors Field (so far, that hasn't gone too well).
In Chicago, White Sox GM Kenny Williams created a systems and analysis department when he replaced Ron Schueler after the 2000 season.
In Toronto, GM J.P. Ricciardi -- a Beane acolyte who came to Canada from Oakland -- is spreading the gospel of OPS (statistical evaluations of players taking into account on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) while rebuilding the Blue Jays.
Throughout the industry, a growing number of baseball executives have been turning to the pages of Bill James both for new ideas and for backup of their own ideas.
So if the office shelves are lined with Bill James' books, why not actually bring in the man himself?
"I'm actually surprised it took someone that long to hire a Bill James," Beane said during a conversation in his office at Oakland's spring complex in Phoenix. "Obviously, I've read a lot of his stuff and respect him. Someone with his ideas either has or will ultimately revolutionize how teams are put together."
In Boston, it's already happening. The Red Sox have junked the current notion that to win, you must have a dominant closer. Finding Ugueth Urbina's 40 saves in 2002 essentially meaningless -- they didn't translate into a postseason appearance so, really, what was the difference between Urbina and Pittsburgh closer Mike Williams, or between Urbina and Colorado's Jose Jimenez? -- the Red Sox decided to part ways with him and construct a closer-by-committee system.
While the next six months will be the ultimate judge as to its success or failure, the philosophy is pure James.
"My challenge is to do what I can do to create for the organization ways of thinking about problems we face," said James, who professed surprise when Boston contacted him last summer about this position. "Theo constantly faces the challenge of 'What is this player worth? What is he worth in dollars, or what is he worth in trade? What is the plan for him?'
"What I'm trying to do is to create ways of thinking about those problems that are orderly and constructive."
His work, including essays on the value of relievers, the creation of batting lineups and the inherent value of OPS, has caused some of those within the industry to think in different ways for the past several years. Thinking outside the bun, as a certain taco chain might describe it.
Essentially, what James does with numbers is use them while attempting to quantify a player's contribution to his team in a various categories. The word for it is "sabermetrics" (derived from SABR -- the Society for American Baseball Research).
"It's something I believe in," said Williams, the White Sox general manager, this spring. "There are other variables that need to be analyzed when you're talking about whether a player can help you. And none are over scouting, in my opinion. Scouting is your lifeline."
The White Sox this winter employed both areas -- scouting and statistical analysis -- in trading for pitcher Bartolo Colon and in inviting to camp pitcher Esteban Loaiza, whose reputation has fallen on hard times since he last had an over .500 season for Texas in 1999.
In Loiaza's case, he was 9-10 with a 5.71 ERA with Toronto in 2002. But the White Sox noticed that in 19 innings against Tampa Bay, Loaiza was hammered for 35 earned runs, 45 hits and a 16.58 ERA. Williams' point: Loaiza's 2002 ERA would be reduced by more than a run if the outings against the Devil Rays were subtracted, so perhaps the potential is there for him to be better than some think. And certainly, they decided, he was worth a chance.
"Then, you look deeper at the matchups, and we struggled against the AL West last year -- Oakland (2-7) and Anaheim (3-6) particularly, and he's done well against them," Williams said.
Loaiza was 2-0 with an 0.55 ERA against Oakland last summer and, though he didn't pitch against the Angels, he is 2-0 with a 4.46 ERA against them over his career.
In Colon's case, while he was a 20-game winner last season (10-4 for Cleveland, and 10-4 for Montreal), there are sabermetric alarmists who argue Colon's skills are in the early stages of diminishing because his strikeout-to-innings pitched ratio is declining. Where he fanned 212 batters in 188 innings for Cleveland in 2000, he struck out only a combined 149 hitters in 233 1/3 innings for the Indians and Expos last season.
"But I remember not long ago the complaint about Bartolo was that he tried to strike everybody out, that he was always going for the strikeout," Williams said. "Now, he's pitching. He's not so totally consumed with strikeouts.
"That's why I created a systems and analysts department. I wanted not only raw numbers, but I wanted them analyzed. I wanted to dig deeper into numbers and what they mean."
Oakland scouts actually are sent out each year with actual lists of players who fit the Athletics' prototype -- high on-base-percentage guys (who, of course, might become available and won't be too expensive). As they do their work in the field -- scouting upcoming Oakland opponents, prep work for the July trading deadline -- they also watch the players on the list.
Erubiel Durazo, the first baseman acquired by the A's during the winter meetings in December, was one such player. Beane has liked him for years, and the hope in Oakland is Durazo will give the A's production at designated hitter and, sometimes, at first base.
"In Ruby's case, he has a lot of things in his basket," Beane said. "He had a high on-base percentage (.390 career), a high slugging percentage (.528 career), he was available and we could afford him. There are not too many guys like that."
But while incorporating Beane's philosophy -- a mix of his own ideas, some from James and some formulated by survival instincts dictated by Oakland's small-market standing -- the Athletics have specialized in finding those kinds of guys. Through the years, outfielder Geronimo Berroa, first baseman/outfielder Matt Stairs and pitcher Billy Taylor have been players who perhaps wouldn't grade out highly on a scout's report but who can be found with effort under the James-influenced microscope. Currently, second baseman Mark Ellis fits that profile.
Then again, "there are some guys out there that my daughter could scout -- (Eric) Chavez, (Tim) Hudson, (Mark) Mulder, (Barry) Zito," Beane said. "It's not brain surgery."
No, it isn't -- and while the Revenge of the (Computer) Nerds is playing in baseball with increasing frequency, it also is worth pointing out the two American League clubs that played for the AL pennant last fall, Anaheim and Minnesota, don't spend much time fretting about where the decimal points fall in the latest computer analysis.
"We've got certain ways of doing things that we think is the effective way for what we do," general manager Bill Stoneman of the world-champion Angels said. "Everybody in the game does it differently. That doesn't mean it's right or wrong. Everybody's got an idea, and you just follow your ideas."
The Angels do not have a systems and analysis department, nor do they employ someone whose sole task is to crunch numbers.
"We trust our eyes, and we trust our baseball judgment, and we trust our ability to look at baseball statistics and figure out what they mean," Stoneman said. "You look at a David Eckstein and his .360 on-base percentage (.363 in 2002), and you ask yourself, 'How did all that happen?' Once you all look at him, you figure it out."
The on-base percentage was what stood out when the Angels claimed Eckstein off waivers from Boston in 2000. He had a .364 OBP at Triple-A Pawtucket when he was waived -- and an eye-popping .440 at Double-A Trenton in 131 games in 1999. The Angels' Gary Sutherland, a special assistant to Stoneman, kept bringing up Eckstein's name -- they didn't need a statistics team to flag him.
"His on-base was over .400 every year except the year we claimed him," Stoneman said. "That was one thing in the mix. It's not like we ignore these things."
In Minnesota, the AL Central champion Twins have placed more emphasis on pitching and defense over the past several years than OPS. Case in point: They won with Jacque Jones batting leadoff for most of last year. Though his on-base percentage was .341, he also struck out 129 times in 577 at-bats.
"I don't put stock in those numbers," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Our top two guys may have walked 30 times between them (close -- Jones and Cristian Guzman combined for 54 walks in 1,200 at-bats). We just play. I put stock in watching players play, and in their heart. Those numbers lie a lot.
"It's great to have a guy with a .480 on-base percentage. But how many times does that guy go up and not swing with guys on base, and not drive them in?"
Indeed, heart is one quality that cannot be quantified, no matter what the latest in computer technology says. And Gardenhire hit on one of the major arguments baseball people offer against placing too much emphasis on a James study.
"I think there will always be a place for some recognition of intangibles," Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr. said. "As I'm overly fond of saying, 'This is not Rotisserie League.' We don't put the numbers into the computer. We actually hand out the balls and the bats at 7:05 and tell 'em to go play.'
"I'm sure by any measurable statistics, (Mariano) Rivera gets Gonzo (Luis Gonzalez) out in the ninth inning (of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series). But those are real people playing, real guys pitching, who have to get real guys out.
"All the answers are not contained in the numbers. They just aren't. Not when you're doing it with real people out there, real human beings."
Certainly, there is suspicion whenever anybody deviates from the norm. And despite the fact some of James' ideas have become accepted in the industry, actually adding him to the payroll is something new. James has been employed by clubs before, but more on a consulting basis to produce a study here or there -- he says he is not at liberty to say by whom, or by how many clubs -- but never in as high a profile capacity as this.
Epstein brushes that off.
"A lot of organizations have guys who do statistical analysis," he said. "It's a question of how open they are. We choose to be very open here. We have no secrets. Bill knows our scouts."
In fact, the Red Sox recently changed their scouting grading scale to coincide with the statistical analysis readings, thus allowing the scouts to work in better harmony with James.
"It's semantics, but we had one scale the scouts worked with and one scale the analysts worked with," Epstein said. "Changing that helps them to speak the same language."
This isn't the first time Boston has hired somebody solely to study numbers, it should be noted. When Dan Duquette was GM, Boston employed a New York City water meter reader named Mike Gimbel. He didn't watch games, but he had a long and complicated formula for rating players.
That was all well and good, but the problems occurred when Boston's clubhouse chemistry went south and when Gimbel outlandishly predicted Boston would win its division in 1996 and 1997. They were third in '96 and finished 20 games out in '97.
Failures like Gimbel's only heighten the suspicion some in baseball have of numbers guys -- though to compare Gimbel with James is like setting a local Hot Dog on a Stick stand next to the Sears Tower.
"You can't have blinders on," Arizona's Garagiola Jr. said. "You can't say numbers are just for seamheads, or the real truth is here. Neither is correct. The bone I pick with some of these things that are written is that there seems to be a disdain with the scout, and that's just wrong ...
"I was looking through the Baseball Prospectus the other day and reading the section on us. They were talking about some formula that predicted Junior Spivey will have a year this year similar to the year Charlie Neal had after his 1959 season (with the Dodgers). What does that mean?
"What gets me about some of the commentaries you read is what I think is a kind of superior, almost patronizing tone that suggests if you don't understand or embrace all of this, you're some blockhead who fears it and retreats into the cliché of, 'Well, can he really play?'
Epstein is quick to say that isn't Boston's point.
"I just want to stress that we're not re-inventing the wheel," he said. "We certainly don't think we're smarter than anybody else. We're cross-checking ourselves. If there's a different way to do things, then let's at least explore it.
"If you spend $100 million every year on your team, it would be irresponsible not to look for every competitive advantage."
James works out of his Kansas house and, the way the relationship currently is structured, he's scheduled to travel to Boston quarterly to meet with the front-office staff and scouts to further analyze the information he researches and analyzes throughout the year.
"It's been a lot of fun," James said. "They're really good people to work with. It's fun to be involved with an organization that has a lot of energy. There are a lot of ideas floating around. People are excited about the job.
"It's still evolving very much. We're still trying to figure out how I can make the best contribution."
Ultimately, it is Epstein's job to compile and study the various pieces of information that arrive from the front. It will be up to him to decide, in various cases, whether the numbers should outweigh the advice of a scout, whether the scout's word should be taken over the cold, raw numbers or whether the best way is to find a meeting place somewhere in the middle.
"We're not really veering off track," Epstein said. "Our philosophy is, we have some important decisions to make involving a lot of money. When we make those decisions, we want all of the information we can possibly get.
"Scouting reports: We want the best scouts. We want to know all about a player, his makeup. And statistical analysis, if that's what we're doing, why not get the best possible analyst? That's all we want, the best information out there.
"If we're talking about players, I ask Bill Lajoie (Epstein's special assistant). Who wouldn't want his opinion? He's been in the game for 50 years and he's sharp as a tack. Lee Thomas (another special assistant), Bill James ... we don't rely on one person. We ask them all, and put it all together to try and find the truth."