Excerpted from AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Inside the Baseball Revolution by Brian Kenny. Copyright © 2016 by Brian Kenny. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
I remember speaking with Red Sox co‑owner Tom Werner just after the 2003 season. The Red Sox own NESN, the New England Sports Network, and they were making me an offer to be the studio host for Red Sox coverage. Already at ESPN, I was passing on the offer, or at least waiting for it to double (hey, I have kids). Werner was still feeling the sting of the loss to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. I told him not to get caught up in that, that the age of pagan curses was over, and the triumph of science was about to begin. Their ownership group (Werner, John Henry and Larry Lucchino) had brought in Bill James and Theo Epstein. They were the first team to back sabermetrics with money and were making one shrewd move after another. Werner sounded unconvinced.
I remember telling him, "You're not going to just win a championship, you're going to win multiple championships." He laughed and said, "Wow, I hope so." He may not have fully known what he had unleashed, but to a trained sabermetric observer on the outside, it was clear. The Red Sox "curse" was mismanagement and bad luck. Now they had brought in sabermetric thinking just before the rest of baseball caught on. It was the last offseason of easy pickings, and they cleaned up.
The Sox hired James in November of 2002 and immediately set out on a sabermetric spending spree. Invisible to the mainstream media, it was the talk of the sabermetric community. I would get phone calls from my friend Max Kellerman -- my ESPN boxing partner and fellow hardcore Yankee fan -- saying: "Did you see who they just got? Another good move. They have Pedro and Manny, and now they're smart. This is awful."
I remember being in two fantasy leagues one year. One was an expert league, and the draft was brutal. All my favorites -- my undervalued sleepers -- were jumping off the board way too early. I stayed true to my draft strategy, and I was fine, but I got no breaks. A few days later, I had my other draft. This was with a bunch of co‑workers, many of whom were also very good at fantasy baseball, but also with two or three guys who just weren't at the same strategic level. One guy was drafting only Cardinals. Another was drafting with his kid and making some inexplicable moves for the fun of it. All it took was two or three rubes, and it was bargains galore. Good players were left on the board too long, and there was talent stockpile building. I started cleaning up. There was way too much talent falling my way. I couldn't believe the team I was able to put together. This was essentially the Red Sox in 2003. The window was closing, teams were getting on the sabermetric bus, but Theo and Bill had one free pass and slid on through.
Between mid-December 2003 and mid-February 2004, Boston added David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, Bill Mueller, Mike Timlin and Bronson Arroyo. This was just the Sox picking up the scraps. The Twins had given up on Ortiz, and Millar had given up and was going to Japan. Yes, Boston had Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez, two supreme talents, but here's what production the Red Sox got from a few of their starters in 2002, and then from the shopping spree for 2003:
That's a serious upgrade at four positions. All for a combined $9 million in salary for the year. The media was busy lauding the "chemistry" of these guys a year later, when they won a World Series championship. They had forgotten the massive upgrade James engineered in about the time most executives take to move furniture into their office.
The early 2000s were an interesting time. The A's were hardcore sabermetric, and the Yankees were the kings of on‑base percentage. But the A's were poor and "couldn't win in the playoffs." Yankee dominance was easily explained away by money. Front offices were still not fully immersed in the new way of economic thinking -- Bill James Thinking -- and now the Red Sox had the Godfather himself. The next offseason they got Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke -- the arms race was on, and the Sox went big-game hunting -- but those first weeks of the new regime were classic Bill James.
With no holes in their lineup, the Red Sox won at least 95 games six of the next seven years, plus two world championships.
The Red Sox triumphed, by the way, with a fully operational Yankee Death Star operating in their division. Yankees playoff failure in those years obscures one of the more dominant runs in baseball history. The Yankees may not have won titles, but they were averaging 97 wins a season between the time Epstein and James were hired in Boston and the next Yankees title in 2009. The sabermetric Red Sox had to duel with a neighboring baseball superpower, and yet they still thrived. Of course, once the Red Sox had won, there was still plenty of resistance to sabermetrics. The media strained not to hand much credit to James. John Thorn observed, "Red Sox failures (bullpen by committee) were attributed to him, while successes (2004 World Series title) ascribed to others."
For those who weren't there, here are the phases of sabermetric acceptance:
1. "It's the stupidest thing we've ever heard" (1960-1989).
2. "It doesn't work" (1990-1998).
3. "OK, it makes low-spending teams better, but you can't win with it" (1999-2003).
4. "OK, you can win with it, but only if you already have Pedro and Manny" (2004-2011).
5. "We've always been an organization that values information" (2012-2014).
6. "We're hardcore into analytics!" (2015- ).
Billy Beane was the first GM (other than Branch Rickey of course), to use Jamesian thinking full-bore in his baseball job. I say "Jamesian thinking" because it is much more than "using numbers," it is using data and a rigorous, logical thought process. Beane didn't come up with this on his own, he was led there by his then boss, Sandy Alderson. Alderson wasn't a major league player, he was an ex‑marine and Harvard Law grad who had an open mind and valued logistical information. How did Alderson learn these things? He read Bill James. How did he then train Billy Beane? He told him to read Bill James.
So yes, James did not bring about the revolution on his own. It took many different people. But most all of these talented people who brought about the new way of thinking in baseball did so by reading James.
So let's step back: The leading baseball intellectual is brought into the industry after decades on the outside. The team he joins is shrouded in melancholy loser-dom. Within two years of his hiring, the team wins its first championship in the age of electricity. Two years later, they win another World Series. Six years later, they win another. So, how many "Bill James's Thought Process Leads Red Sox to Unimaginable Success" stories do you remember reading in those years? I don't care if James was a crazy eccentric who was ignored by everyone, wouldn't you figure a few writers would be pointing out that James being hired and the Red Sox winning were at least quite a coincidence? Writer Jim Baker (a former James assistant) said, "In the wake of the Red Sox winning it all, there was precious little mention of Bill James and his role in their success. Either the media didn't understand the extent to which he contributed, or they did and couldn't bear the thought of it."