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James and the Red Sox

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Since I’ve been a fan since I purchased the 1985 Baseball Abstract on a whim and among other great stuff saw that he published a hilarious attack on bane-of-my-youthful-Expos-fan-existence Bill Virdon, I enjoyed this take on James and the success of the Red Sox:

One of the first things Epstein did was to hire James, as a senior consultant to the Red Sox organization. In the four years since, the Red Sox, who hadn’t won a World Series in 85 years, have reached baseball’s pinnacle twice.

Some of the central themes of James’ work apply particularly well to his own story. For example: An expert is someone who knows what he’s talking about, whether he has any credentials or not. Past performance is the best predictor of future performance. Talent is not in short supply. The qualities that impress people are not necessarily the same qualities that correlate with success. Powerful, wealthy institutions can be run for decades by people who don’t know what they’re doing. And the conventional wisdom is often wrong.

These ideas, obviously, can be applied far beyond the subject of baseball. They’re the sorts of ideas that never fail to annoy and infuriate authority figures, which is why it takes a special kind of person to hurl himself into the face of the solid rock wall of stupidity that defends many a comfortable social institution.

I’ve written this with respect to Billy Beane, but I think the work of James and the success of the A’s and Red Sox is often portrayed as being about “statistics” when it’s much more about not accepting received wisdom when it conflicts with evidence, making evaluations based on performance rather than images, etc. Michael Lewis actually conveyed this every well. Alas, MLB seems to be making more progress than our political class.

One unfortunate thing about James working for the Red Sox, though, is that if he could make his new research public he’d be a blogging natural…

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