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A Word With Early 1980s Sabermetrics Writer Bryan Johnson

I thought I finished up my mini-series on sabermetrics in the '80s a couple weeks ago with my post on Bill James and Glenn Dickey of the San Francisco Chronicle. But then Bryan Johnson left comments on a few posts I'd done gathering excerpts from his baseball columns for the Toronto Globe and Mail in the early '80s.

Johnson is credited by James with discovering the Johnson Effect: the tendency of a team to revert back to the wins-losses total one would expect from its ratio of runs scored to runs allowed. Here's James's explanation of it from 1985: "The Johnson effect states that when a team wins more games than it could be expected to win in view of the number of runs scored and runs allowed . . . that team will tend to decline in the following season. When a team wins significantly fewer games than could be expected in view of its runs scored and runs allowed . . . that team will tend to improve in the following season."

A while back I did a post here gathering excerpts from columns in October 1982 and April 1983 in which Johnson set out this principle. Since Johnson was apparently the first journalist to write regularly about advanced statistics, Bill James's ideas, sabermetrics, and all that, I figured people would want to read the story of how he came to write his column and why he stopped. So I asked him to tell it, and here he is with the explanation:

 

I had been a drama critic prior to those columns. From there, I became a foreign correspondent, sent to our Beijing bureau. Along with me, I took an early copy Bill James' abstract -- in its then-primitive form -- and began a correspondence with Mr. James.

When I returned to Toronto, I became a feature-writer, but convinced the paper to let me write a once-a-week "alternative" column on baseball. That's basically what you ran across in your search. The truth is, I always loved baseball, but was a bit of a "snob" when it came to my career. I considered myself a "serious" journalist, who dabbled a bit in the baseball world as a hobby. I did NOT want to be a sportswriter. And I was really desperate to get back to Asia, and resume my career as a foreign correspondent.

In 1985, I cut what must be one of oddest deals in journalism history: I agreed with the Globe's editor to write about baseball full-time, but only for the six-month baseball season. Every winter, I'd be sent to Asia as a foreign correspondent. A strange compromise, obviously, but one in which we both got exactly what we wanted.

As it turned out, the deal lasted only briefly, because Ferdinand Marcos called a "snap election" in the Philippines, my favorite country. I raced to Manila after the 1985 season, covered the hotly-disputed election...and the People Power aftermath, in which Cory Aquino became president.

I was offered a book contract, took a leave of absence from the Globe to write "Four Days of Courage", which was published in 1987. The Globe then asked me to open a new India bureau, and I never wrote about baseball again.

 

Johnson adds: "I took a lot of flak for advocating sabermetrics: not only from some readers, but especially from the hard-boiled denizens of the Globe and Mail sports department." He's been living in the Phillipines since 1990, and says he is now "teaching English, mostly writing, to Korean and Japanese students."

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