Beasts of Record

Bill James, the now near 70-year-old who spent his career changing the way people think about statistics in baseball, has a few things to teach.

No one working in Major League Baseball today thinks like they did 30 years ago. Bill James changed everyone’s mind.

That’s how important he is. I think, at the end of the day, we’d all like to do that in the fields we care about most.

In his early days, when maybe 10 people were actually reading his self-published work, he was working to change the perception of common stats that measured a player’s performance. Like batting average.

When you hear, “that player is a .300 hitter” what comes to mind? All-star? Top player in the league?

When you hear, “he’s a .275 hitter” what do you think? Mediocre player? Pretty good?

I’ll let Bill James explain:

“One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks. It might be that a reporter, seeing every game that the team plays, could sense that difference over the course of the year if no records were kept, but I doubt it. Certainly, the average fan, seeing perhaps a tenth of the team’s games, could never gauge two performances that accurately — in fact if you see both 15 games a year, there is a 40% chance that the .275 hitter will have more hits than the .300 hitter in the games that you see. The difference between a good hitter and an average hitter is simply not visible — it is a matter of record.”

While everyone can tell you the difference, no one can actually see the difference. You can think it, you can read it, but you will never actually be there for it.

I imagine all the millions of fans who talk about .300 hitters in a completely different light. The brand and image a .300 hitter has compared to a .275 hitter is drastic. For those who know baseball, you know. They practically live on two different planets. One is an all-star, the other is not.

In reality, the difference is barely even noticed.

Investors love to compare baseball to the markets. The statistical observations, streaks of success, and long enduring season all have their commonalities with markets. You will often see traders and investors quoting the great baseball players or comparing their craft.

Warren Buffett is probably the greatest investor ever. But, what if we could see all the other professionals out there and compare their returns to his. I’m sure the second best or third best, the ones without the same marketing or publicity machines, are probably pretty close. So close, most of us probably could not tell the difference between them, especially without Warren’s brand or digging deep into their actual account statements.

Yes, the record says one thing, in this instance, that Buffett is best, or that one batter is better or worse, but they fail to explain just how much worse or how much better they are. Or just how hard it is to actually see the difference. That is rarely discussed.

We are beasts of record without much regard for perception.


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