Dan Okrent discovered Bill James (or, does a once-obscure baseball fanatic now ghost-write the corporate strategy for America’s leading newspaper?)
Tuesday, December 30th, 2003
I know this is old news for some baseball fans, but I was just (finally) reading Michael Lewis’s Moneyball (amazing!), and noticed that Dan Okrent, the New York Times’ recently named ombudsman (or public editor), was one of Bill James’ first readers.
Bill James? He’s the guy who, writing in his spare time while working as a night watchman in a bean factory, pulled the rug from beneath many of baseball’s hallowed truisms, enchanted millions of readers and revolutionized the way winning teams like the Oakland As and Boston Red Sox are managed.
And what might this have to do with Okrent’s new job helping to clean up the NYT post Jason Blair? I know this will only appeal to a handful of media geeks, but… here goes…
My old colleague Matt Welch, who was raving about Bill James and his science of sabermetrics when we worked together in the 90s, has been nudging me to read Moneyball since June. As Matt argued then, there are lots of useful Jamesian lessons for “Overcoming Invisible Ideologies and Conventional Pieties in a Hidebound Industry”… which, as Matt suggested, could apply the business of publishing just as it applies to baseball. (Here’s Matt’s review of Moneyball, and posts 1 and 2.)
So, here’s Lewis on Okrent and James:
In 1980, a group of friends, led by Sports Illustrated writer Dan Okrent, met a La Rotisseri Francaise, a restaurant in Manhattan, and created what became know, to the confusion of a nation, as Rotiserie Basball. Okrent can plausibly be said to have “discovered Bill james. Okrent was one of those 75 people who, in 1977, ran across the one-inch ad in the Sporting News James took out and sent off his check to Lawrence Kansas. Back came an unpromising mimeograph. Then he read it. “I was absolutely dumbstruck,” he said. ” I couldn’t believe that a) this guy existed and b) he hadn’t been discovered.” Okrent flew to Lawrence to make sure James indeed existed then wrote a piece about him for Sports Illustrated. It was killed: James arrival on the national sporting scene was delayed by a year, after a Sports Illustrated fact-checker spiked the piece. “She went through it line by line,” recalled Okrent, “saying ‘Everyone knows this isn’t true. Everyone know that Nolan Ryan attracted a bigger crowds when he pitched, that Gene Tenaece was a bad hitter, that….'” Conventional opinion about baseball players and basball strategies had acquried the authority of fact, and the Sports Illustrated fact-checking department was not going to let evidence to the contrary see print.
Which brings us to October 2003. Sure, it is quite possible that NYT hiring of Okrent had nothing to do with his sabermetric credentials. But one could imagine that Okrent, who understands how a grass-roots movement of outsiders can revolutionize a staid industry sunk deep in its own prejudices, might appeal to NYT’s owners.
The connection was obvious to Matt before Okrent was hired. Here’s Matt in Canada’s National Post, writing in June about Moneyball:
What lessons can we learn from this tale? That the pursuit of better information will eventually unearth discrepancies and irrationalities, even in a field as seemingly well-studied as baseball. That the gatekeepers of information and judgment will instinctively and defensively protect their turf, rather than question their own legitimacy. That intelligence and passion can still win in the end, especially if they take advantage of the networking power of the Web.
The most obvious application for these lessons is in other sports, especially under-measured ones like professional basketball (already, several people have attempted to become “the Bill James of the NBA”). But any industry addicted to its own traditions, conventional in its hiring practices, and hostile to outsider analysis, is vulnerable. Especially if it attracts the attention of fanatical observers who publish their own Web sites.
Any good Jamesean knows to avoid small sample sizes and results-based analysis, but I for one can’t help notice that Moneyball came out just as The New York Times editor Howell Raines was being drummed out of office at least in small part because of the hounding of a thousand individual outsiders. It’s a bad era to be a gatekeeper. Thank God.
To augment and retread Matt’s points, then; read Moneyball and you’ll see that:
a) Long-established businesses can completely misunderstand the engines that drive their profits and losses.
b) Businesses too easily ignore insights that their fans/customers offer for free.
c) Businesses that trade on ego can be very slow to consider new statistics about their players/participants, long after the tools become available to more objectively analyze those statistics.
d) Collaborative efforts by amateurs can create vast bodies of knowledge and distilled insight that overshadow anything imagined by closed-system corporations.
e) It can take a long time for self-evident truths, even when plainly published and proven successful, to be accepted integrated in an industry. As one Moneyball reader, a baseball journalist, explains why the baseball industry is so slow to accept James’ insights: “Most of the men who make baseball decisions have a vested interest in the status quo, because without the status quo their knowledge isn’t as valuable.”
f) Disaggregating information (what attributes actually make a double? does hitting or pitching win games? what pitching stats actually reflect great pitching) can yield vital clues about the real keys to winning. As traditional labels/categories are broken into new fragments, new strategies can be assembled that eliminate numbers of expensive traits and, by extension, the jobs players and coaching positions… which yields much cheaper, more effective organizations.
g) Even in competitive marketplaces, business cultures that are built around misapprehension, mislabelling and miscounting can thrive. As long as the competition inhabits the same warped culture, inefficiencies go unpunished by the marketplace.
h) Watch out for guys with laptops.
i) At the individual level, baseball seems to be about artistry and flair and ego, but in aggregate, it’s a game of numbers. The team that best understands the numbers and executes most cost-effectively wins… in the long run.
j) Most of what we think of as music/narrative, is actually noise/randomness. The marginal results of skill are almost invisible to the naked eye. In a baseball game, luck accounts for 4 runs, skill accounts for only one run. This means most of what commentators are chattering about is luck AND only over the course of a long season does skill win out. To put it another way, in a five game series, even the poorest team has a 15% chance of winning against the best team. (page 242) This perspective reinforced by Nassim Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life.
Matt’s right. Moneyball‘s lessons can apply to publishing. I don’t have the time right now to drag out the relevant quotes, or analogies but may do so later and update this post. I’m on page 88 right now…
Read Moneyball and connect the dots. I think it is probable that NYT management already have, or else there’s some weird cosmic convergence at work with Bill James at the vertex. Remember that NYT is one of the owners of the Red Sox, the team which hired Bill James as an advisor in November 2002. And the Sox’ reliance on James was profiled (last summer?) in the NYT magazine, but I can’t find it online. So is James helping write the game plan at NYT these days? Someone who reports for a living should call up and ask whether Sulzberger has ever met James.
I’ve been pretty pessimistic before (here and here) about Okrent’s chances of changing the NYT. Learning of Okrent’s evangelism for Bill James, I’ve gained respect for Okrent… and the folks who hired him.
Update: I’ve finished the book. It’s the best written book I’ve encountered. Wow, Lewis is a narrative wizard. And, sure enough, on the final page Lewis thanks Okrent for reading the book in draft.