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Why Kansas' Bill James, King Of Baseball Analytics, Loves The National Pastime

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Rebekah Hange
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KCUR 89.3 file photo
The scene at a Royals game in 2018.

Bill James is uniquely poised to enjoy major league baseball — more so than possibly any other fan. 

“It’s true of anything, that the more you know about it, the more you understand it, the better position you’re in to enjoy it,” James told host Gina Kaufmann on Thursday on KCUR’s Central Standard.

And the Kansas native knows a lot about the game. In the late 1970s, he invented a field of baseball analysis he named sabermetrics after the acronym SABR (Society for American Baseball Research).

Instead of looking at simple statistics like batting average, James encouraged the consideration of things like wins against replacement, which looks to quantify how valuable a player is to a team. Sabermetrics took off among fans, sportswriters and even the teams themselves; think "Moneyball."

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Credit Erica Hunzinger / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Bill James, a baseball statistican and senior advisor to the Boston Red Sox.

Since 2003, James has supported the Red Sox as the senior advisor on baseball operations, and he’s authored dozens of books about analyzing the game. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

Sabermetrics can’t accurately be described as baseball statistics, though it’s tempting because it involves compiling vast amounts of facts and figures, like the speed of the ball and the speed and position of players.

James said statistics have always been around in the game, but no one was really learning anything from the numbers (i.e. stolen bases, home runs, etc.).

“Statisticians make records of things, people in my field study the records to try to resolve questions that we don’t know the answers to,” he told Kaufmann.

No such thing as clutch

Imagine sitting at Kauffman Stadium with the sun beating down on your baseball cap. It’s the bottom of the ninth and the bases are loaded. The Royals need four runs to win the game. Can a clutch hitter step in and win it? Is that a real thing?

Sabermetrics says it’s not.

Prior to the 1970s, it was widely thought that a player could, in a high-pressure situation, purposely produce a game-deciding hit — i.e. be a clutch hitter. Those hits do happen, but the idea that the player has that sort of control is thought to be an illusion.

“Literally nobody who works in baseball anymore still believes that. The argument is whether there is some small thing ... as a clutch ability,” James said.

The writers of The Onion and "The Simpsons" have teased James that his analysis sucks the joy out of the national pastime. In August, The Onion fake-quoted James about a new sabermetrics model, saying it can “pinpoint the exact moment in which baseball goes from an exciting spectator sport to a numbing slog, devoid of all mystery and drama.”

James told Kaufmann he appreciates the shoutout.

But his fascination with the game — a game he says he enjoys almost more than anything else — has a broader appeal. What he loves about the game and the work he does with it, he said, is that baseball is a small universe.

The world as a whole, in his view, is too complicated to understand.

“People think they understand politics or they understand international relations. You don’t. They’re too complicated, they overwhelm the human mind," James said. "Baseball is a small enough world that you can sort of understand it.”

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter @annekniggendorf.

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