Forty years after Bill James first published his annual Baseball Abstract, the sabermetric pioneer returned to the SABR Analytics Conference to pose a series of insightful questions about the future of baseball analysis on March 10, 2017, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Following his talk, James was honored with the inaugural SABR Analytics Conference Lifetime Achievement Award for his enormous contribution to the game of baseball.
- Audio: Listen to Bill James’ talk: “Are We Doing The Best Work We Are Capable of Doing?” (MP3, 39:55)
James is the best known baseball analyst in the world and a prolific author of many books, including the Historical Baseball Abstract, Win Shares, Politics of Glory, The Bill James Gold Mine, and the annual Bill James Handbook. He is a founding member of the SABR Statistical Analysis Research Committee and was a recipient of the Henry Chadwick Award in 2010. Since 2003, he has been a Senior Advisor on Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox. The team has won three World Series championships during his tenure.
Here are some highlights from his talk:
ON USING DATA TO RIGHT WAY
- “Analysis does not start with data, analysis starts with a question, like ‘Does clutch hitting actually exist?’ or ‘Does the pitcher actually control the number of hits he gives up as a percentage of balls in play?’ If you can find a question that is up in the clouds, and you can connect the data to the question that is up in the clouds, that’s analysis. If you start with data and go with wherever that data leads you, that’s just farting around with statistics.”
ON ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
- “The importance of the work that you do, and the value to your career, depends on the size of the question you ask. It depends more on that than it depends on whether you get the answer right or not. Hate to say it, but it’s true. I’ve been wrong about at least as many things as I’ve been right about, but I’ve been able to have a good career because I’ve been able to find the big questions, and stay with the big questions, and suggest answers to them. The impact you have depends on how big the questions you are trying to answer are.”
ON DOING YOUR BEST WORK
- “In order to do the best work that you are capable of doing, and having the biggest impact on your career, you have to reach that point where arrogance and humility circle around and meet.”
For more coverage of the 2017 SABR Analytics Conference, visit SABR.org/analytics.
Originally published: March 11, 2017. Last Updated: July 27, 2020.