Tuesday, November 17, 2009

We Need the People's Abstract: Or, Waiting for Bill James

I was revisiting Michael Lewis's Moneyball the other day.  At one point, Lewis describes the emergence of baseball statistician Bill James, well-known author of the annual Baseball Abstract, whose initial hand-typed, 64-page tome - 75 self-published copies sold in 1977 - led to a publishing career and a global revolution in the way that professional baseball players are analyzed by fans, the press, owners, and players themselves.

James was obsessed with baseball and incensed with what he perceived were statistical crimes foisted by the baseball establishment (including the press) upon fans, players, and owners alike. One of James' pet peeves with the then-existing state of baseball statistics was the focus on fielding errors.  The error, James argued, was merely an opinion by an observer about how a fielder handled the baseball once he got to it - by itself, a useless statistic.  For example, a outfielder with skill and speed who managed to get to a line drive but dropped it (although keeping the batter to a single) would be charged an error, while a slower, less skilled outfielder who was late to the ball and allowed it to roll to the wall (giving the batter a double or triple) would not be charged an error. In the first example, the fielder is charged an error and the batter is not credited for a hit; in the second, no error and the batter is credited with extra bases. The pitcher's statistics are impacted as well.  Did it make sense to statistically penalize the first outfielder and let the second skate?  Not to James, who envisioned other ways to measure the performances of these players on this particular play, and by extension to measure the aggregate value of these players' skills over the course of a year or a career.

Of Bill James' guerrilla attack on the American Pastime's traditional notions of player value, Lewis makes a larger observation:
[I]f gross miscalculations of a person's value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over-or undervalued, who couldn't? Bad as they may have been, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players were probably far more accurate than anything used to measure the value of people who didn't play baseball for a living.

Bill James set about finding new ways to measure value in baseball and was able to explain why it mattered.  After three decades, his methods and his vocabulary have reached widespread acceptance in the baseball community, and his contributions to baseball thought led to his selection as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2006.

Outside of baseball, there is more chaos than clarity.  To paraphase Lewis, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players are probably far more accurate than anything used to measure the net value (or cost) to us, individually or collectively, of an economic measure, governmental program, or political position.  Statistics are fired at us every day with the subtlety of paint bombs - splashy, messy, and occasionally painful - from government sources, think tanks, and the media:  Unemployment numbers, health care costs, mortgage default rates, gross domestic product, the trade deficit, the costs of war in Afghanistan.  But there is no authoritative voice on these issues, and no authoritative statistics - at least, nobody we can all agree is authoritative.  We can't even agree whether the most recent unemployment statistics showed 10.2% unemployment, or 17%, or somewhere in between.  

Who can tell us which statistics are meaningful, and what has value, and give us a common language to discuss these issues?  We need somebody outside of politics, untethered to media, unfettered by ties to a think tank (even a non-partisan think tank won't do).  We need someone we can trust to finally summarize the key issues in 64 succinct, statistically supported, thematically coherent pages - call it the People's Abstract.  We need Bill James.

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