Walter Isaacson: A corner newsstand isn’t a place you’d expect to find something that will change major league sports forever, yet there it was. In 1977, a one-inch box ad in the back of the sporting news beseeching readers to part with $3.50. For that, they’d receive a mimeographed booklet titled Baseball Abstract, featuring 18 categories of statistical information that you just can’t find anywhere else. No where did the ad mention that the author, Bill James, was a security guard at a Van Camp’s pork and beans plant in Lawrence Kansas. With degrees in English, Economics and education, James’s lifelong passion was baseball.
The booklet provided the first of many tours of Bill James’s mind taking the reader deep into the thick weeds of carefully curated statistics. James would connect and theorize. “Which pitchers and catchers,” he would ask, “allow the most stolen bases?”
Male: He’s safe.
Walter Isaacson: James would then offer a detailed breakdown. Witty and cleverly written, it was purist baseball marinated in mathematics. Few had seen anything like it. The booklet sold just 75 copies, yet its scant readership included some fascinating names. Norman Mailer subscribed, so did William Goldman, the screenwriter who created Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Princess Bride. Another early Bill James follower was a young radio host and future broadcasting legend, Bob Costas.
Bob Costas: I actually think I was one of the very first people with a substantial platform who was clued into Bill James. I was reading Bill James when he was mimeographing his observations out of his home in Kansas, and he would send them to a handful of people who were interested.
Walter Isaacson: Also among that handful was Sandy Alderson, then the General Manager of the Oakland A’s. Where most of baseball ignored Bill James’s mathematical gibberish, Alderson devoured it and he impressed it on his prodigious Assistant General Manager, the 31 year old Billy Beane.
Billy Beane: So when I came into the front office from the field, Sandy introduced me to Bill James. Now, I had heard of Bill James. I hadn’t really read to the extent that Sandy had. So, once I started reading Bill James, it sort of opened a brand new world to me because I had come into the front office as a traditional route, which was as an ex player.
Walter Isaacson: That brand new world housed ideas and strategies that trashed more than century of conventional baseball thinking. Sacrifice bunting, the numbers revealed, was a poor percentage play that should be discouraged. Stealing bases, they showed, was overrated. A modestly paid player who draws a lot of walks can be of more value than a high priced slugger. It was blasphemy. Yet in 2002, Beane would parlay this unorthodox thinking into 103 wins, the same number as the New York Yankees whose payroll was more than three times greater.
Within two years, Michael Lewis would turn it into a legend in Moneyball. Rival teams who had ridiculed analytics would soon find themselves on the phone to MIT and Silicon Valley looking for help. This is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. I’m Walter Isaacson.
Male: Always a thrill when the home team takes the field.
Male: They’re looking for expert guidance.
Male: What we’d like to do this morning is to put these two ideas together.
Male: Owns a lifetime batting average of better than 300.
Male: In the miracle data goes along with the chart.
Male: The results, they’re more than satisfactory.
Male: That symbol right there means baseball at its best.
Walter Isaacson: Previous generations can be forgiven for not recognizing analytics as a noun and for never imagining it would apply to sports. Yet analytics have prompted what some call the Three-Point Revolution in basketball. In football, it has dramatically increased the number of fourth down conversion attempts. In a close hockey game, it’s caused coaches to pull the goalie for an extra skate or far sooner. Yet, there was something about the mathematical nature of baseball that made it the gateway sport for analytics. Jackie MacMullan is a Senior Writer and Sports Analyst at ESPN.
Jackie McMullan: Baseball is by far the most user friendly analytic sport. It’s a game of numbers, always has been, always will be. Most fans of baseball accept the numbers. That’s how you’re judged. When other sports have had steroid problems or illegal substances, the reason people in baseball get so upset is because the numbers tell you who you are. Who can tell me how many points per game Lebron James or Michael Jordan have averaged in their career? We don’t need to know that. We measure them in other ways. The numbers matter a little bit, but nothing like they do in baseball.
Walter Isaacson: Yet, the mathematical heresy Bill James would one day inflict on the game might never have been possible if it hadn’t been for an English born newspaper man with a problem. By the late 1850s, baseball fever swept through an otherwise divided America. Newspapers scrambled to provide the latest game results to ravenous fans. In those days before photographs appeared in the papers, game stories were captured in small boxes listing runs and outs.
That didn’t satisfy Henry Chadwick, a writer from the New York Clipper. Born in Essex, England and raised on cricket and rounders, he moved to America and fell under the spell of the new game. Chadwick believed that publishing key statistics might help baseball mad readers visualize how each game played out. He added columns beside players’ names noting foul outs and one-bounce catches, which in those days counted as an out.
In creating the modern box score, Chadwick translated the game into the language of numbers, numbers that held powerful secrets that would one day be used to turn losers into winners. It started with a cocky player manager who had decided that he’d had enough of being shown up by the best hitter in baseball.
Male: You all know this next fella, it’s Ted Williams and he’s on deck just itching to get up there for that good cut.
Walter Isaacson: In 1946, American League teams struggled in vain to find Ted Williams’s weakness. The Boston Red Sox slugger back from World War II was the league’s most feared hitter.
Male: There it goes. That’s a Ted William wallop.
Walter Isaacson: Among the confounded was Lou Boudreau, Player Manager of the Cleveland Indians. That summer during the break in a double header, he hatched a plan, numbers confirm what Boudreau and the entire baseball world had come to believe. As a left-handed pull hitter, Williams inflicted most of his damage on the first base side of the field. What if that could be used against him?
During that second game, the time came for Williams to take his first at bat. On Boudreau’s signal, every Cleveland fielder but one took station on the first base side with only the left-fielder covering in the deep shortstop position. Williams laughed. The Chicago White Sox Manager, Jimmy Dykes, had played the shift on him five years earlier when Williams smacked the ball down the deserted left field lot. This day in a rare feat of Cleveland leaning karma, Williams grounded straight to the Cleveland shortstop. Lou Boudreau would toss the ball for the out. Bob Costas.
Bob Costas: They were almost daring Ted Williams to bunt or daring him to hit the ball to the opposite field. More often than not, Ted just tried to hit the ball hard through it or over it. So, I don’t have the stats as to how effective Boudreau’s shift was in terms of Ted’s batting average against his batting average against the rest of the league, but it must have had some at least observable, if not dramatic, positive effect or Boudreau wouldn’t have kept doing it.
Walter Isaacson: Was it the right strategy? Nobody knew. Boudreau had only gut instinct to guide him. Without hard numbers, his experiment was soon abandoned. It would be a half century before a new generation of data minded managers would resurrect the shift. It would take a new breed of baseball crazy math nerds to embolden them.
August 10, 1971, a self-described motley crew of 16 men are gathered in the library of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. They had come at the invitation of Bob Davids, a writer with a PhD in international relations and a lifelong fascination for baseball statistics. This was the founding meeting of the Society for American Baseball Research or SABR.
Among its early members was Bill James, the pork and bean security guard from Lawrence, Kansas who would invent the word sabermetrics to describe their theories. James’s theories were deeply rooted in a belief that the baseball world was looking at the game all wrong. Sabermetricians ditch batting average and earn run average in favor of dense dry sounding acronyms such as WAR, wins above replacements, and VORP, value over replacement player.
Walter Isaacson: ESPN’s Jackie McMullan sympathizes with those fans of major sports, including basketball, who are slow to warm up to analytics.
Jackie McMullan: It’s like Einstein’s chalkboard when he was figuring out E=MC2. That becomes this quantified shooter’s impact, and that kind of stuff you lose the average fan. So, we can use that metric for our purposes and teams use them, but there’s a limit to what the fans want to hear. For instance, in baseball, there’s many, many analytics people that feel the RBI now is the most useless statistic in baseball. They don’t think it’s worth anything anymore. Try telling that to a guy that’s been taking his son and grandson to Fenway Park or to Dodger Stadium since they were little. They don’t want to hear that. They think that RBIs have value.
Walter Isaacson: Number crunching was not the exclusive domain of the math geeks of SABR. Other teams who sensed the value of those stats used their own creative, albeit less sophisticated, methods of tracking, archiving and studying plays including a pair of future Hall of Fame managers. Bob Costas.
Bob Costas: I’m old enough to remember watching Whitey Herzog and Earl Weaver keep track of stuff on index cards. Whitey used different color pencils on a chart of the field to chart where every player hit the ball. Now, they were ahead of the game in terms of the way they were thinking about it, but they didn’t have the wherewithal to feed all this information in and then instantly get a conclusion spat back out.
Walter Isaacson: By 1998, Billy Beane, now the General Manager of the A’s, set about building on Sandy Alderson’s culture of analytics. He realized that he needed an assistant who didn’t think the way he did, and he found just the person. He was Paul DePodesta, a Harvard Economics grad working in the Cleveland Indians front office. A dozen years later, Brad Pitt would play Billy Beane on the film version of Moneyball. Jonah Hill would play a character based in part on DePodesta who chose not to lend his name to the movie.
Walter Isaacson: Back in 2002, rivals with deep pockets had stripped the cash strapped A’s of its star players. Beane and DePodesta with the sabermetrics treasure trove almost entirely to themselves set out to capitalize on their findings.
Billy Beane: The case going on at the time then, and actually for a long, long time, was that baseball player skills were essentially mispriced. On base percentage, if you looked at the correlation between a team’s on base percentage and the amount of runs scored, it had the highest correlation to winning games, actually, on base percentage and actually pitchers and team ERA. The thing about team ERA was that everyone knew that to be a good team, you had to have pitching.
So, it really wasn’t undervalued. In fact, it was the highest priced commodity of the game was starting pitching. So, it didn’t really help us as a small market team, but the on base percentage being, again, a mispriced skill and one that was really pretty easy to identify players … Again, Bill James and some of these guys have been saying it for years, and we were able to sort of take advantage of that.
Walter Isaacson: Baseball had always put a premium on hitting. Yet a hit, it’s just one of at least seven ways to reach base safely. There’s the base on balls, a hit batter, reaching on an error among others. Beane and DePodesta realize that few saw the value in average hitters with an uncanny ability to reach base.
Male: Ball four. Take a base.
Walter Isaacson: That was Billy Beane’s opportunity. Bob Costas.
Bob Costas: A walk is more valuable than a strikeout is negative. If you offer me a guy who walked 30 times and struck out 30 times or a guy who struck out 100 and walked 100, I’d take the second guy 100 times out of 100.
Walter Isaacson: As the A’s came to prove they could keep pace with teams that had many times their payroll, the legend of Moneyball was born. Ironically, the success of Michael Lewis’ book would strip Billy Beane of his advantage.
Billy Beane: Because it was public information and everybody knew it, it wasn’t an advantage that lasted very long because I think the book Moneyball came out in 2003. On base percentage was, I’m just guessing here, it was probably seventh or eighth in terms of how it was valued. Then really very quickly it was in the space of a year, year and a half after the book came out, it became the highest valued skilled and the highest priced skill out there. So, player skills were properly valued, so we kind of had to go back to the drawing board after that.
Walter Isaacson: Moneyball vaulted sabermetrics and eventually sports analytics into popular consciousness and transformed the business of baseball. It was just a matter of time before it began seeping in to other sports.
Kirk Lacob: I grew up as somebody who wanted to be either in the Tech Industry or in sports, and somehow I found both.
Walter Isaacson: Kirk Lacob is Assistant General Manager of the NBA champion, Golden State Warriors. When his father, Joe, acquired the team in 2010, there were few expectations to manage. The last time the team had won the league title, Gerald Ford was President. A Stanford graduate, Kirk Lacob was uniquely qualified to merge digital thinking with pro basketball.
Kirk Lacob: That is one of the reasons we’re so successful is we’ve not operated solely as a sports franchise. We’ve tried to operate as a company that’s disrupting something that’s trying to build something unique and ultimately successful over a long stretch of time. So, yeah, I feel very much that it is in our DNA to be part of Silicon Valley.
Walter Isaacson: The Golden State Warriors became an early adopter of SportVU, a data gathering system first developed for the Israeli Army. Six highly advanced cameras installed in the arena’s rafters track every movement on the court collecting positional data on all of the players, the ball and the refs 25 times per second. Channeling the Silicon Valley mindset, Lacob understood that analytics isn’t just about amassing data. It’s about asking the right questions.
Kirk Lacob: It’s harder to kind of visualize the questions you want to ask, or you tend to think they’re going to be overly complicated. When in reality, we can ask any question. It may take longer to answer some of these because of the dynamic nature, but if you’re asking the right questions, you’re certainly going to be eventually put on the right path. I think that was absolutely something that people worried about in basketball. I think I’ve said this many times before, but asking the right question isn’t always that easy.
I actually love to make the analogy to the Douglas Adams’s book, and people often laugh when I say this, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where they built a whole supercomputer to answer what the question was, life, universe and everything. It spit out the answer 42, and everyone said, “Well, what does that mean?” It said, “Well, you need a smart computer to help you figure out what the right question is,” and that has always stuck with me.
Walter Isaacson: Using SportVU technology, those right questions lead to advanced metrics that the Warriors used to build a dynasty. Golden State became a made-in-the-valley success story, reaching the finals in each of the last four seasons, winning championships in 2015, 2017 and … 2018. By then, analytics had long since spread beyond basketball to football, hockey and soccer. At about the same time the Golden State Warriors were reaching their stride, one of the lowliest teams in Major League Baseball was about to teach a lesson in Moneyball 2.0.
Walter Isaacson: In June 2014, readers of Sports Illustrated had good cause to imagine its editors had taken a leave of their senses. That year, the Houston Astros were the worst team in baseball. On the cover was rookie right-fielder, George Springer, in a Houston Astros’ throwback uniform, the infamous rainbow jersey. The headline read, “Your 2017 World Series Champions.”
Ben Reiter: The fact that Houston was so bad drew our attention kind of as a dumpster fire might draw your attention.
Walter Isaacson: Ben Reiter, author of that cover story, is a Senior Writer with Sports Illustrated.
Ben Reiter: Well, the Astros weren’t just bad, they were historically bad. They lost 106 games, then 107 games, then 111 games. They were nicknamed The Disastros or sometimes the Lastros. They were putting up local television ratings of 0.0, which means that Nielsen couldn’t confirm a single Houstonian had tuned in to any of their games. This was the worst baseball team in 50 years, but something to us at Sports Illustrated and to me in particular didn’t add up about it.
Walter Isaacson: Though the cover was tongue-in-cheek, Reiter and his editor, Chris Stone, were intrigued by the new brand of decision making in Houston under General Manager, Jeff Luhnow, and Analytics Specialist, Sig Mejdal.
Ben Reiter: There’s a lot that’s unique about Astro ball. For a long time in baseball, at least in the Moneyball era, the question was either or. It was, “Are we an analytics driven organization, or are we a traditional organization? Are we driven by scouting and human judgment, human intuition, gut instinct?” That was really the choice for a decade or more. The Astros didn’t answer it as an either or question. Their answer was, “We are both. We are certainly the most analytics driven organization out there, but we also still believe in our people. We believe in our scouts. We believe in things that humans can see that even our extremely advanced statistics can’t quite capture or measure.”
So, they set about creating a regimented system of combining the two inputs to get the best really out of both man and machine. That was really their great insight. That was the insight that we at Sports Illustrated identified back in 2014 was something new and something fresh.
Walter Isaacson: What happened in 2017 is now the stuff of baseball lore. Not only did the Astros win the World Series, that rookie on the 2014 cover, George Springer, was named the series MVP. With that, Ben Reiter became the number one clairvoyant in sports.
Ben Reiter: People often approach me looking for predictions now and I tend to think it’s always in jest, but sometimes it’s not. People ask me for investment advice. One guy at a book signing for my book Astro Ball even approached me and asked, “Hey Ben, when will I have a child?” I kind of laughed. I was like, “I’m not sure.” He looked at me like, “No, seriously. When will I have a child?” I kind of looked at him and I said, “You know, my understanding is that that’s up to you.”
Walter Isaacson: Houston’s Jeff Luhnow had infused Moneyball with a human equation, a gospel also preached by Kirk Lacob at Golden State, which helps dispel the myth that sports analytics is about creating a sure fire winning formula. What it is doing is providing the tools to aid decision making in an increasingly high stakes business. Billy Beane.
Billy Beane: Data creates transparency with your decisions. Now when you do things, you objectively have to explain why you’re doing them because people all have access to that same data. You just can’t, say, make a decision, have it affect a lot of people and say it just came from the gut, because people have, again, access to what the answer should and should not be. Again, that goes back to data. Now people running baseball teams and sports teams are doing it because they deserve to be, not just because, again, they might have worn the uniform.
Walter Isaacson: Sports analytics would certainly have come about without Bill James and the sabermetricians of the 70s, but without them, it might have unfolded much differently. They were a quirky group of thinkers with the right ideas at the right time. They came together on the eve of the digital revolution when technology would mine data with breathtaking speed and complexity. It was also a time when the business of major league sports exploded.
Today, star players sign nine-figure contracts with teams valued in the billions of dollars. That high octane environment transforming gut decisions with empirical data is simply good business, but that logic isn’t enough to have found Bill James a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame where he might be inducted as an executive or as a writer. Despite endorsements from Bob Costas, Jackie McMullan and Billy Beane, baseball hasn’t forgiven him for disrupting more than a century of conventional wisdom.
But that doesn’t bother Bill James who jokingly refers to himself as a practitioner of outside baseball. Enshrined or not, he has lead a generation of digital thinkers who have helped the Sports Industry redefine the phrase calculated risk.
I’m Walter Isaacson, and this is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.