When the Boston Red Sox broke its nearly century-long losing streak and won its first World Series in 2004, many people think the team had one man to thank: Bill James.
James is an author and the father of sabermetrics, the in-depth statistical analysis of baseball players to determine what supporters say is a more accurate measure of value to major league organizations. Increasingly adopted by major league teams including the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox, the principles of sabermetrics have changed the face of the national pastime and were featured in the 2011 Oscar-nominated movie Moneyball, which starred Brad Pitt.
James will deliver the annual Simkins Lecture on Thursday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. in Room 207 Hiner Hall on Longwood’s campus. The event is free and open to the public, but seating will be limited.
"We are thrilled that Bill James has accepted our invitation to deliver the annual Simkins address," said Dr. John Miller, associate professor of English and Longwood Lecture Series co-chair. "The success of the Red Sox over the last decade has really made Bill James a household name among the throngs of baseball and movie fans, not to mention the legions of fantasy baseball players out there who rely heavily on statistics."
When the Red Sox hired James in 2003, the team was a perennial cellar-dweller in the American League East that had not won a World Series since 1918—famously cursed by trading away Babe Ruth. During James’ 12-year run in the front office of the organization, the organization not only broke the curse but also won three World Series titles and made the playoffs seven times.
With rosters built on players who drew walks, stole bases and generated runs, the Red Sox established itself as a model franchise, but the philosophy that has guided the team’s success has humble origins.
James began crunching baseball statistics while working as a night watchman in the late 1970s. Working only from box scores, he had a novel idea: The fundamental statistics of the game—RBI, batting average, ERA—were woefully inadequate to determine a player’s true value. His first self-published manuscript, which was little more than pages stapled together, brought scant attention, but as James plugged away he found more and more support among a group of dedicated baseball fans. His work grew—as did his ambition—and by 2003 his work was so well-respected that the Boston Red Sox hired him as a special consultant.
As James’s philosophy became more widely known, one of the first teams to adopt his principles was the Oakland As, managed by former player Billy Beane. That story was told in the 2003 best-selling book Moneyball and in the Oscar-nominated 2011 movie of the same name.
"Plenty of people dream of being able to overhaul an entire industry in one fell swoop, but Bill James did just that," said Miller. "His story speaks to the ability of one person to innovate and to see beyond the status quo. It’s a real lesson to Longwood students to believe and trust in themselves and to push to break down barriers."
In-depth data analysis has applications in a diverse set of careers and disciplines. From health care to higher education, data is driving decisions that are shaping the 21st century. That makes James’ philosophy widely applicable.
"James’s philosophy is stunningly simple yet quite elegant," said Dr. Wade Znosko, assistant professor of biology and co-chair of the Longwood Lecture Series. "He advocates gathering as much data as possible and then analyzing it in clear, accurate ways to make the best possible decision. That reverberates through all walks of life and in all careers—and Longwood students would do well to adopt those principles as they move into the next phase of their lives."
The annual Simkins Lecture Series was established in 1979 to honor Dr. Francis Butler Simkins, a historian who was one of Longwood’s most revered and respected faculty members. Simkins began teaching at Longwood in 1928 and remained a beloved member of the community until his death in 1966. The series brings one eminent scholar or professional to campus annually.