Bill James Shows How To Maintain Trustworthiness

The Bill James Baseball Handbook is full of useful facts, stats and analysis for baseball aficionados as usual this year. Bill hasn’t written as much this year as he has in the past, but his contributions are provocative, informative and sharp. James has been a major influence on my approach to ethics, even though he has devoted his considerable analytical skills to baseball, only occasionally crossing over to other realms (like true crime) with mixed results. Readers here encounter James’ concepts most frequently when I reference signature significance, but in a broad sense, reading his work over the years also heightened my appreciation of the dangers of confirmation bias and the importance of challenging conventional wisdom.

James has an unusual article in this year’s Handbook: an apology. In “OPS and Runs Scored,” he begins by saying he has “40-year-old egg on his face,” It was that long ago that the baseball stat world, in part because of James’ work, began lobbying for OPS to be the standard by which a batter’s effectiveness was measured. OPS is a stat that combines on-base percentage—how often a player reaches base via walk or hit (any being hit by a pitch), a statistic that logically is more revealing than a batting average—-and slugging percentage, which indicates power by dividing bases (a home run is four bases, a single just one) into at bats.

Bill explains that the OPS stat was sold as having an arithmetic relationship to runs scored, a straight-line relationship that meant that if a team increased it OPS by 10% it would score 10% more runs. The apology is based on the fact that James, he says, accepted this conclusion and advanced it himself like everyone else in the sabermetrics community—and the conclusion was wrong. He writes that he is very, very, very ashamed to admit that he never checked himself, but relied on what he was told. The claim was “completely wrong,” he writes. When he finally did check the relationship between OPS and runs score, he found that it was a geometric relationship, not arithmetic. If a team increases its OPS by 10% it won’t score 10% more runs. It will score 21% more runs. That’s a big difference. You have to square the OPS to get the right result in predicted runs scored.

Well, the stats don’t matter here; what matters is what Bill did. He is trusted by people like me because we rely on him to cut through bias, lazy reasoning, conventional wisdom and sloppy assumptions. He has unique gift: he thinks outside the box; he doesn’t let peer influence and presumptions of correctness stop him from looking at problems from new angles. In this case, he had violated his own standards. He didn’t follow the methods that not only make him unique, but that make him trustworthy.

James’ response was to admit it, to express remorse, and to fix the problem. He didn’t blame anyone but himself. This is what makes Bill James trustworthy: not that he’s never wrong, because he is, but that when he is wrong and realizes it, he doesn’t double down, he doesn’t make excuses, he doesn’t change the subject. He is interested in facts and truth, not false perfection.

That is how to make sure the people who trust you keep trusting you.

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