If you were to make a list of 10 people in the 20th Century who had the ability to rethink whole industries, you might come up with names like Sam Walton or Herb Kelleher. One guy you might not think of, but who should make the list, is Bill James. James has helped to single-handedly rethink the game of baseball, one of the great bastions of not-invented-here thinking. Here is an interview of James that is pretty interesting. Hat Tip to Cafe Hayek, who also has some thoughts on James the economist.
James sounds a lot like Hayek, and more recent authors like Virginia Postrel, when he says things like this:
If I were in politics and presented myself as a Republican, I would be
admired by Democrats by despised by my fellow Republicans. If I
presented myself as a Democrat, I would popular with Republicans but
jeered and hooted by the Democrats.
I believe in a universe that is too complex for any of us to
really understand. Each of us has an organized way of thinking about
the world"”a paradigm, if you will"”and we need those, of course; you
can't get through the day unless you have some organized way of
thinking about the world. But the problem is that the real world is
vastly more complicated than the image of it that we carry around in
our heads. Many things are real and important that are not explained by
our theories"”no matter who we are, no matter how intelligent we are.
As in politics we have left and right"”neither of which explains
the world or explains how to live successfully in the world"”in baseball
we have the analytical camp and the traditional camp, or the
sabermetricians against the scouts, however you want to characterize
it. I created a good part of the analytical paradigm that the
statistical analysts advocate, and certainly I believe in that paradigm
and I advocate it within the Red Sox front office. But at the same
time, the real world is too complicated to be explained by that
Or this, closer to the sports world:
Honestly, major league baseball"”and all sports"”would be far better off
if they would permit teams to do more to make one park distinctive from
another"”even so far as making the bases 85 feet apart in one park and
95 in another. Standardization is an evil idea. Let's pound everybody
flat, so that nobody has any unfair advantage. Diversity enriches us,
almost without exception. Who would want to live in a world in which
all women looked the same, or all restaurants were the same, or all TV
shows used the same format?
People forget that into the 1960s, NBA basketball courts were
not all the same size--and the NBA would be a far better game today if
they had never standardized the courts. What has happened to the NBA
is, the players have gotten too large for the court. If they hadn't
standardized the courts, they would have eventually noticed that a
larger court makes a better game"”a more open, active game. And the same
in baseball. We would have a better game, ultimately, if the teams were
more free to experiment with different options.
The only reason baseball didn't standardize its park
dimensions, honestly, is that at the time that standardization was a
dominant idea, they just couldn't. Because of Fenway and a few other
parks, baseball couldn't standardize its field dimensions in the
1960s"”and thus dodged a mistake that they would otherwise quite
certainly have made.
Standardization destroys the ability to adapt. Take the high
mounds of the 1960s. We "standardized" that by enforcing the rules, and
I'm in favor of enforcing the rules, but suppose that the rules allowed
some reasonable variation in the height of the pitching mound? What
would have happened then would have been that, in the mid-1990s, when
the hitting numbers began to explode, teams would have begun to push
their pitching mounds up higher in order to offset the hitting
explosion. The game would have adapted naturally to prevent the home
run hitters from entirely having their own way. Standardization leads
to rigidity, and rigidity causes things to break.
I love it. Maybe those guys who want to use baseball as a paradigm for life had something after all.