I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the brilliant baseball statistician Bill James – I never had until Sunday, when I saw him profiled on the TV program 60 Minutes (click here to see a clip!) However, many baseball people “in the know” know Bill James, because he revolutionized some of the stats used in baseball that we now take for granted, like OBP (on-base percentage). James, who for years was a night watchman in a pork and beans factory in Kansas (no joke!) before he became a special assistant to the Boston Red Sox, has come up with a bunch of stats for looking at baseball players and examining their worth that MLB general managers now take for granted when analyzing players. But it took the traditional hierarchy in baseball years to acknowledge James, and even to this day he is not universally embraced by baseball’s power structure. (Two of the thoroughbred industry’s more statistically minded pedigree advisors, Roger Lyons and Bill Oppenheim, are also from Kansas. Maybe it’s something in the water!)
Let’s look at on-base percentage. The OBP, which James said should be one of the key factors in analyzing a player, is now widely used for evaluating “the talent,” whereas in the “old days” only batting average was the stat used to determine how good a player was. James argued that how many times a player gets on base (hits, walks, hit by pitches) is actually more important than a player’s batting average alone because a player could have a .320 batting average – great in baseball – and a .340 OBP – while another player could have a .400 OBP while his batting average is .280! He, quite rightly, argues that getting on base is more important than how you get on base!
Here at Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., we, like James, have come up with some stats over the years for evaluating stallions that we feel are better indicators of a stallion’s worth than the standard industry stats. When ranking stallions by stakes production, for example, we recognize unrestricted stakes only. Including restricted stakes, as is generally done, can be misleading. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to rank the G1 Kentucky Derby along with a minor stakes at Arapahoe Park or a sales stakes (restricted to horses that are entered in a particular auction). Our stats try to filter for quality, so they are more meaningful.
Another stat that we pioneered is listing leading sires by “First-Time Unrestricted Stakes Winners.” This stat allows breeders to monitor the number of new quality stakes winners a stallion is coming up with each year, instead of looking at a total number of stakes winners in a given year.
Similarly, we also provide lists by leading sires and broodmare sire of G1 winners, again a simple concept that easily allows you to filter the stallions siring winners at the highest levels.
The same way of thinking is behind the Werk Nick Rating, which is calculated by only using unrestricted stakes winners.
Watching the Bill James episode on 60 Minutes made me realize the parallels between the innovations he introduced to baseball and the way innovation takes place in the thoroughbred industry. New concepts often come from an individual or small enterprise. When a new concept has real benefit, it will be embraced by the marketplace and eventually become mainstream. This holds true for the Red Sox, who now have World Series in the bank, thanks in part to James’ innovations. And I’m pleased to say the same about some of the innovations we have introduced at WTC over the past 25 years, which have benefited breeders at all levels.