What I have tried to do with my work is to make baseball more fun.
-The Bill James Newsletter, 1985
When you think of intellectuals influencing the course of human affairs you think of physics, or political theory, or economics. You think of John Maynard Keynes's condescending line about men of action-how they believe themselves guided by their own ideas even when they are unwittingly in the thrall of some dead economist. You don't think of baseball, because you don't think of baseball as having an intellectual underpinning. But it does; it had just never been seriously observed and closely questioned, in a writing style sufficiently compelling to catch the attention of the people who actually played baseball. Once it had been, it was only a matter of time-a long time- before some man of action seized on newly revealed truths to gain a competitive advantage.
By the time he became the general manager of the Oakland A's, in 1997, Billy Beane had read all twelve of Bill James's Abstracts. James had something to say specifically to Billy: you were on the receiving end of a false idea of what makes a successful baseball player. James also had something general to say to Billy, or any other general manager of a baseball team who had the guts, or the need, to listen: if you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done. A full decade after James stopped writing his Abstracts, there were still two fresh opportunities for a team willing to take them to heart. One was simply to take the knowledge developed by James and other analysts outside the game, and implement it inside the game. The other was to develop and extend that knowledge. The Oakland A's had done both, though it would be wrong to say that, in using James's ideas, they aped James. As the Elias Sports Bureau had proven when they tried to rip off the Abstract, it was impossible to ape James. The whole point of James was: don't be an ape! Think for yourself along rational lines. Hypothesize, test against the evidence, never accept that a question has been answered as well as it ever will be. Don't believe a thing is true just because some famous baseball player says that it is true. "Anyone who thinks he is aping me, isn't," said James.
As late as June 4, 2002, the day of that year's amateur player draft, there were still big questions about baseball crying out for answers,- a baseball diamond was still a field of ignorance. No one had established the most efficient way to use relief pitchers. No one had established to the satisfaction of baseball intellectuals exactly which part of defense was pitching and which fielding, and so no one could say exactly how important fielding was. No one had solved the problem of fielding statistics. And no one had figured out how to make the amateur draft any more than the madness it had always been. James hadn't worried too much about the amateur draft-probably because the players' statistics, before the Internet came along, weren't available to him to analyze. But in a newsletter he wrote for eighteen months in the mid-1980s, to a tiny audience of subscribers, he had argued persuasively that the South was overscouted and the Great Lakes region was under-scouted. He also looked into the history of the draft and discovered that "college players are a better investment than high school players by a huge, huge, laughably huge margin." The conventional wisdom of baseball insiders-that high school players were more likely to become superstars-was also demonstrably false. What James couldn't understand was why baseball teams refused to acknowledge that fact. "Anti-intellectual resentment is common in all of American life and it has many diverse expressions," he wrote, advancing one theory. "Refusing to draft college players might have been one of them."
Still, James had never tried to show how the statistics of a high school or a college player might be used to make judgments about his professional future. The question of whether college performance translated into a professional career simply hadn't been answered, at least not publicly. Privately, Paul DePodesta, the head of RAD for the Oakland A's, had made his own study of it.
As a result of that study, the Oakland A's front office, over the silent shrieks of their own older scouts, were about to implement a radical new idea about young men and baseball. Lives were about to change, of people who had no clue that they were on the receiving end of an idea. As the scouts poured into the draft room, and stuffed their lower lips with chaw, a catcher with a body deemed by all of baseball to be unsuited to the game sat waiting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Jeremy Brown had no idea why what was about to happen to him was about to happen to him.