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Baseball and the Science of Effective Business Building

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Over the last thirty years, baseball statistician Bill James has revolutionized the way that players, managers and fans think about statistics in baseball. By carefully analyzing statistics, James has dispelled numerous myths and has shifted the Boston Red Sox management’s decision-making process from one based on intuition and “gut” to a rigorously fact-based approach.

What has been the result? After decades of loss and heartbreak, the Red Sox have won two World Series Championships in the past 5 years.

Bill James’ analyses have dispelled many myths and have helped both the Red Sox and much of the industry focus on proven measures of performance. For example, James was a leading force in emphasizing the significance of on-base percentage over a player’s batting average. On-base percentage, James argues, is a more significant statistic, since batting average fails to account for bases gained from walks.

Regarding batting strategy, James says that the order of the line-up is inconsequential to overall performance, and that the concept of a “clutch” hitter is nonsense.

On the subject of a player’s lifetime performance, James concluded that the “prime” years of a baseball player’s career are his mid-late 20s. The Red Sox took James’ recommendations into account when deciding against re-signing star player Johnny Damon.

Regarding pitching strategy, James argues that “closers” – pitchers traditionally brought in during the final inning(s) of a game – should instead enter at critical moments when a team’s lead is at stake (e.g. perhaps in the 6th inning), rather than waiting longer.

What does all of this have to do with business building and entrepreneurship?

James makes a compelling case that all businesses – not just professional baseball teams – can benefit from careful statistical analysis. Such analysis can dispel unfounded theories, identify significant measures of performance, and illuminate creative, counter-intuitive strategies to bolster a business’ competitive advantage.

James’ fact-based analytical approach is especially valuable for emerging companies who are competing against larger, more established businesses.

If Bill James were to analyze your industry or your business operations, what myths would he dispel? What performance benchmarks would he stress? What strategies would he recommend?

  • Bill James was profiled on CBS’ 60 Minutes last Sunday. You can read more about the episode and watch a clip here.

  • An excellent book on this topic of statistical analysis is Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning by Thomas H. Davenport and Jeanne G. Harris. It's available for sale on Amazon here.

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Bob Bentz says

Bill James' analysis of relief pitchers in baseball makes so much sense. Why not bring in the ace reliever when the opponent is threatening or has its best hitters up. Yet, managers all continue to do the same thing--just have closers who can pitch only the ninth inning and only when their team is ahead. The reason: a manager doesn't want to do anything new that might risk his job and criticism in the press. I suspect most business managers think the same way.
Posted at 10:43 pm
pkennedy says

Bob, thanks for the comment -- I think you're absolutely right. Hopefully Bill James' philosophy will spread from baseball to the boardroom.
Posted at 10:56 pm
Dominic says

I cannot but agree. My experience with small businesses is that you must use standard metrics and develop new ones that gives you an indication of performance. Like the saying ,what you can't measure you can't Control.
Posted at 11:52 am
Rev Godson Mosha says

Bill Jame's analysisi is wonderfu. I believe it is aplicable to all Entrepneurial and corporate economic undertaking nao aonly to baseball
Posted at 2:37 am

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