The Man Behind The 'Moneyball' Sabermetrics

Bill James was working at a Kansas cannery when he came up with an idea that would transform baseball. The movie Moneyball tells the story of that idea and how the Oakland Athletics ran with it. James talks about the film and how his idea changed baseball.

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NEAL CONAN, host: In the new film "Moneyball," Brad Pitt plays the general manager of the Oakland Athletics who wants his field manager, Philip Seymour Hoffman, to adopt a radical theory, symbolized by an argument over who should play first base.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")

BRAD PITT: (as Billy Beane) You can't start Pena first tonight. You'll have to start Hatteberg.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Art Howe) I don't want to go 15 rounds, Billy. The lineup card is mine. That's all.

PITT: (as Billy Beane) The lineup card is definitely yours. I'm just saying you can't start Pena at first.

HOFFMAN: (as Art Howe) Well, I am starting him at first.

PITT: (as Billy Beane) I don't think so. He plays for Detroit now.

HOFFMAN: (as Art Howe) You traded Pena?

CONAN: "Moneyball" is based on a book by the same name, by Michael Lewis, which describes what happened when an actual team decided to base its decisions about ball players on new ways to think about the game, ideas developed by a guy working at that time as the night watchman at a pork and beans cannery in Lawrence, Kansas. Bill James now works as a senior adviser to the Boston Red Sox. He'll join us in a moment.

We'd especially like to hear from those of you in baseball. If you've seen the picture, do they get it right? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Bill James joins us now from a studio at Kansas Public Radio in Lawrence. Bill, it's been a while. Nice to have you back.

BILL JAMES: Thanks for having me on, Neal.

CONAN: And I wonder, do you think they got it right?

JAMES: In terms of the look and feel of the places that we work and the meetings that we sit through and the things we talk about and - they couldn't possibly have gotten it any more right because it - the movie looks and feels and sounds exactly like it really does when - in baseball for (unintelligible).

CONAN: There's a meeting in the film, a couple of meetings with the old scouts who are providing their advice on the players that Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland Athletics, ought to sign up for the next season. Is that - they're sort of like dinosaurs for comic relief. Is that really what those meetings are like?

JAMES: The - well, they've changed a little over the years. But the - if this movie wins one Academy Award, it should be for casting, for whoever cast those scouts, because I tell you, for sure, if you put me in a room with 10 scouts and those guys playing the scouts, nobody in the world could say which were which. They were perfect.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: It was amazing.

CONAN: And the - I thought one of the interesting ways was the way they intercut between the actors playing ball players - and, boy, they look very, very convincing, in some cases exactly like their counterparts in real life - and scenes from historic games.

JAMES: Right. Of course, if you're going to cut actual footage with recreations, you have to be really careful about the recreations. They did use a lot of recently retired athletes to play the roles of the players, and sometimes they worked really well, and then sometimes it's like, wow, isn't that Royce Clayton playing Miguel Tejada? He's too skinny for that role, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: But it's a lot of fun to watch anyway.

CONAN: You're going to yell for Miguel Tejada.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And that's interesting because these, unlike so many baseball movies, this is a movie about real players and real managers using their real names and what they more or less said.

JAMES: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: And among them some things - as I understand it, in the premiere of the movie, which you attended, you were sitting nearby Scott Boras, the famous agent, and there's a very unflattering remark about Scott Boras in the movie.

JAMES: Yeah. Well, you know, Scott is an aggressive negotiator, and people do, from time to time, characterize that in a - in an unpleasant manner. And probably a baseball movie without somebody calling Scott Boras a bad name would probably not be exactly accurate, but I don't think Scott stormed out in anger or anything. I didn't see it anyway.

CONAN: The other part, though, these are your ideas, your approach to the game, which you developed back in the "Baseball Abstract." It's interesting we see some images of one of those old - these were like leaflets, pamphlets that you printed up and distributed yourself.

JAMES: I did. And can I tell people, Neal, that when I sold 75 copies of the first book, one of the people who bought them was Neal Conan.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's right.

JAMES: That is right.

CONAN: I think I have them all in a trunk somewhere. I don't know where it is. But...

JAMES: I don't know where are mine either.

CONAN: The - they were revelatory, yet you've also said it took 25 years for people to understand you were just trying to tell the truth and not trying to change the way they thought.

JAMES: Well, that's right. And also the movie, perhaps, gives me more credit than I deserve. The - which, you know, I appreciate it. I'm always happy to have it. But there were a lot of people doing analytical work about baseball and a lot of people trying to move the markers and get people to think in terms of making statements that match the evidence rather than just ignoring the evidence and saying whatever we thought was true.

CONAN: Part of it was, as you thought about questions about what actually meant - it took to win ballgames, you came up with different kinds of calculations that have become fairly commonplace today. But that allowed people to say, oh, this is just fantasy baseball. This is just statistics.

JAMES: Right. That's right. That - and there are a lot of people who don't understand how statistics work and can't think along those lines and consequently tend to perforce, reject whatever conclusions come out of that line of thinking, and there's really nothing you can do about that. You can, you know, argue to those people for generations, but the only way you could ever possibly convince them would be to reeducate them, which, you know, you don't have time to do that. So yeah, it's a waste of time to argue with those people.

CONAN: Well, you wasted lot of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: I did. That's right.

CONAN: There's a film - there's a moment where - as you also may know, I did work a little bit in, sort of, around the edges of baseball, nothing like what you did. But the - they did hate you, Bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I never felt that they hated me as much. Well, that's a good storyline, but I survived it if they did.

Well, you were challenging the way people were thinking. In the film, it's presented as an argument over are walks as good as hits.

JAMES: The - yeah. The key to scoring runs in baseball is getting people on base. And for a long time, people wanted to deemphasize that and argue that you can score just as many runs by stealing bases and hitting in the clutch and those sort of things. Well, stealing bases adds some runs but very few, and you lose most of the runs that you gain by having runners caught stealing. And hitting in a clutch is unpredictable and unreliable.

The way you really score more runs is by getting more people on base. And it took 30 years after myself and other people started writing that until there was a general agreement that it was true.

CONAN: And the - another idea is don't waste outs. Don't bunt.

JAMES: Bunting is usually a waste of time. The - generally, yeah, I mean, if you think about it, bunt is the only play in baseball that both sides applaud. The - if the home team bunts, you get a base. The home team applauds because they get an out, and the other team applauds because they get a base. So what does that tell you? Nobody's really winning here.

CONAN: Nobody really wins. We're talking with Bill James, the famous baseball analyst who inspired some of the ideas behind the book and the movie of the same name called "Moneyball." If you'd like to talk with him about the film, give us call: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And it's interesting, Michael Lewis has been quoted recently since the film came out as saying this window has closed.

The - Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics in those years in 2002 had a real intellectual advantage by using these ideas, but they have since become so widely accepted that the same factors that made the ball field tilted and unfair in those days still make it unfair and tilted these days, which is that some teams can spend an awful lot of money to hire ballplayers and some teams can't.

JAMES: Well, that window has closed. But, you know, there will never be a shortage of ignorance. I mean, there will always be things that people don't understand, and you just have to move on to the new areas of better understanding and master those to have the advantage that you had 10 years ago. And that's in the nature of any progressive field, you know? The things that worked 10 years ago aren't going to work anymore. I mean, that's true, but it's a limited truth. And there are still great advantages to be had by understanding the game better just as there were 10 years ago.

CONAN: You still work to understand the game better?

JAMES: I - every day, I understand more and it helps me understand how little I understand.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Because there are intangibles, you've been spending your life trying to measure them, find ways to measure them. But there are such things.

JAMES: There are many things that you can't measure. But the great fun of what I do for a living is figuring out ways to measure things that people previously considered intangible.

CONAN: Is there any way to get it all down to a single number?

JAMES: Absolutely not. I mean, you can make one number of it, but the key is get it all. I mean, you don't get it all. You just get what you get.

CONAN: You just get what you get. And as you've progressed through dealing with this, you know, excuse the expression, in the abstract, to applying these theories in real life now as an adviser to the Red Sox, have you found areas where you're saying, whoops, I got that wrong?

JAMES: There are a lot of things that I see differently than I did 12 years ago or 20 years ago. For example, years ago, I used to think that the game, that the optimal strategy was to push the defensive limits of a player to get as much offense on the field as you can. I no longer think that's true. I think that the cost of trying to stretch a player's defensive skills probably outweigh the benefits of doing that. I was just totally wrong on that issue years ago.

CONAN: In other words, if - you could teach somebody to play first base, and if he wasn't such a great first baseman, so what?

JAMES: Well, the - if you have a player who can hit, who can play third base pretty good or second base not very well, are you better off playing him at third or second? I used to argue you're betting playing him at second because he's a better hitter there compared to the other guys. But I realize now that that's probably - because you're not dealing with the entirety of the player's contribution with marginal contributions and making comparisons, that that's probably the wrong answer.

CONAN: We're talking with Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, now a senior adviser to the Boston Red Sox. His latest book is "Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. And how much of the year do you spend in Boston?

JAMES: I travel to Boston about six to eight times a year, usually for a week or two weeks. So, you know, I spend a lot of time there. We lived there for a couple of years, but just - my wife is getting her master's degree.

CONAN: And so you moved back to Kansas?

JAMES: We are back in Kansas.

CONAN: And I - it is true you were the night watchman.

JAMES: I was a night watchman at the time - there's a picture of me in the movie, which I, you know, I think they did good research to find the silliest looking picture they could find. But yeah - I suppose everybody thinks that way about their driver's license photo. The - I was a night watchman at that time. I haven't done that since 1979, and I still hear about it but in a nice way.

CONAN: I used to be a delivery boy at one point, but nobody mentions that. We're talking with Bill James. Let's see if we get Greg(ph) on the line. Greg's with us from Swansboro, North Carolina.

GREG: Hi. I found the movie yesterday, and it was wonderful. I haven't read the book yet, but now I want to read the book. I am a Red Sox fan. So I don't really understand statistics. I teach kindergarten, but I certainly did appreciate that. I never really thought about baseball in the terms that were presented in the movie, but now I really look forward to reading the book.

JAMES: It is a very good book. Michael Lewis is a wonderful writer. And I read almost everything he's read except "Moneyball," but I would rather see my own world with my own eyes. But I - the rest of his books are wonderful.

GREG: Well, I look forward to reading it, and I've enjoyed listening to you. I just kind of got out of school and turned it on. I thought, oh, I need to call, because the book - the movie was fantastic.

JAMES: Thanks.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much for the call.

GREG: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Would you agree that the movie is fantastic?

JAMES: It's a very good movie. It's extremely entertaining. The - there are a lot of scenes in the movie that seem to be setting up a storyline, and then just totally disappear. And in an odd way, this works because you're constantly being set up for cliches that never mature, so you're always a little bit off guard. It works very well as a movie. My friend Rob Neyer says he's seen it twice, and both times at the end of the movie, the audience was applauding.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Did they really have a soda machine in Oakland where the players had to spend a dollar for - they didn't even have that at the depth the Minor League ball where I worked.

JAMES: Is that right? I do not know whether that's true or invented, honestly.

CONAN: This is an email from Michael who emails, bunts, especially squeeze plays and stolen bases, add a great a deal of excitement to what is often a pretty slow game.

JAMES: Baseball does become slow sometimes. It's totally unnecessary. The - you can play baseball fast. You can play it slow, and for some reason, we have chosen to play it slow, you know, which is unfortunate, but nothing you can do about.

CONAN: There is also the question of statistical anomalies, things that were outliers, I think that they're called. In the film, the Oakland Athletics proceed to win 20 games in a row, which was the American League record. They broke that. Your club you work for, the Boston Red Sox, is in the process perhaps of an historic swoon.

JAMES: Well, the Red Sox still are a game ahead in the wild card hunt, and I have a lot of confidence in the team.

CONAN: I'm sure you do. But as you look at these, how do you justify them statistically? Just anomalies?

JAMES: Well, the Oakland A's, who were a very, very good team and were in the playoffs regularly in - at the time the movie is set, would wipe out every fall in the playoffs, usually in three straight games. And it's painful but there's not very much you can do about it because in a short series anything can happen, you know? And anomalies are not that anomalous in a short series. In a short series, anything is as likely to happen as anything else just about. The - so that is something that we deal with constantly in baseball.

CONAN: Does their failure to win the World Series, the last game of the season, as Billy Beane puts it in the movie, does that call into question the theories?

JAMES: Well, you'll have to decide that on your own. The - if something is true, it's true regardless who wins the last series of the year.

CONAN: And as far as you're concerned, it's true.

JAMES: Well, I don't claim to be right about everything. I think we're right about some things.

CONAN: If there was one contribution that you look back on and say, this was what opened people's eyes, what do you think it was?

JAMES: One thing that got a lot of attention was the Pythagorean theorem of baseball, which is that there's a predictable relationship between the number of runs you score and the number of runs you allow and your won-loss record. At the time that I was first advocating that idea, people were really skeptical about it, but it's one of those things you can easily check it out and turns out to be true. So I think that played a key role - it's reflected in the movie - played a key role in opening people's eyes to the fact that this kind of theories actually did connect to the real game.

CONAN: So observable reality did change people's minds.

JAMES: I hope so.

CONAN: Bill James, thanks very much and congratulations.

JAMES: Thank you.

CONAN: Bill James is a senior adviser for the Boston Red Sox, and he joined us today from a studio at Kansas Public Radio in Lawrence. He's a senior adviser to the Red Sox. His latest book is "Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence."

Tomorrow, as more Americans die from prescription drug overdoses than in car accidents, we'll talk about what can be done to reduce prescription overdoses. Join us for that conversation. You can find us now and like us if you'd like to on Facebook. Just go to facebook.com/nprtalk, all one word. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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