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Book Review: Moneyball – Winning Cheap

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

As titles go, Moneyball is a bit of a misnomer. When one thinks of the term “moneyball,” one might be inclined to think of playing baseball by spending lots of money. But the reality is that Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller, is about a general manager’s (Billy Beane if the Oakland Athletics) quest to put a winning team together by spending AS LITTLE money as possible (required because the Athletics ownership is portrayed as incredibly tightfisted). This is not in itself noteworthy, as there are plenty of sports franchises with low payrolls. What makes Beane so interesting is that he actually managed to DO it, winning more games than any team but the Atlanta Braves across the several seasons leading up the book’s publication and went to the playoffs every year from 2000 to 2003, all while dealing with one of the lowest payrolls in the MLB. All of it culminates in the 2003 season, wherein the Athletics break the AL record for most consecutive wins. The book splits its time between Lewis’s time with the Athletics management team (specifically GM Beane and his assistant Paul DePodesta) during the 2003 season and his research into the history of sabermetric analysis, which is the method by which Beane goes about trying to determine what players could be drafted, signed, or acquired via trade that would both help the team and not break the bank (or even shake it a bit).

Sabermetrics in Summary

The basic argument of sabermetrics, a statistical evaluation system more or less founded by Bill James and named after the Society of American Baseball Research, is that the offense’s job is not to hit but rather to not make an out (scoring runs is its secondary objective). Therefore, anything that increases the likelihood of making an out, such as bunting, sacrificing, and stealing bases, works against a player. Anything that gets a player on base, such as hits or walks (not considered statistically important until the emergence of sabermentrics), is valued. Older statistics such as batting average, total hits and total RBIs, are considered to be old-fashioned, giving way to more statistically indicative numbers, especially on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Statisticians such as Bill believe that these newer methods of evaluation, even when applied backwards to past teams, reveal far more accurately whether a player has contributed or will contribute to a team’s offensive success.

Criticism of Sabermetrics

Moneyball portrays other teams as either ignorant of, or at least not particularly interested in, sabermetric performance evaluation, and thus Beane seems to have an advantage over other teams, even those with much higher payrolls, such as the New York Yankees. The book is the story of one general manager using sabermetrics to try and find those players that other teams forgot about or passed over that he can get cheap. For Beane, himself a “victim” of older methods of evaluation (he was a high school phenom who was convinced not to go to college by the Mets and never learned how to deal with failure), trying to do this often causes him to take flack from those around him, both within the organization (in the form of the scouting department, longstanding proponents of the older, “five tool” style of evaluation) and without (from other managers, who consider him ruthless and conniving, and from the press, who think his strategies can’t translate to playoff success). Lewis describes the MLB front offices and scouting departments collectively forming a Club, and the press as its Women’s Auxiliary. They see sabermetrics as attacking their way of doing things, and so they lash out against it. Other general managers don’t like working with Beane, and the press constantly disparages him. Their biggest argument is always that, if sabermetrics is such a successful means of evaluation, then why haven’t the Athletics won the World Series since 1989?

To the press’s credit, Billy Beane never comes up with a satisfactory answer to that. All he can say is that with so few games, luck becomes more of a larger factor than in the regular season, and that anything is really possible. That may be true, but if sabermetrics is designed to minimize luck (as Beane says), it is reasonable to argue that it is a system that can’t bring home championships. And while from a business perspective winning regular season games might lead to economic success, repeatedly falling short of a championship will inevitably hurt ticket sales in future seasons (assuming you don’t own a franchise like the Boston Red Sox, which sells out every home game regardless of the product put on the field). Most sports franchises can be depicted as sine-waves: high periods and low periods. Teams only have so many good years before they naturally begin to decline, and it’s championships during the good years that maintain ticket sales through the bad times. Sabermetrics, if the only example is the early 21st Century Oakland Athletics, might not be such a terrific system after all.

Billy Beane: Revolutionary

Sports go through revolutions, same as political systems or religions. The first major revolution was racial integration, allowing a previously excluded group to play in the major leagues. The next was gender integration, as symbolized by IX, and the realization and acceptance that the drive for athletic success lies as much in the female psyche as it does in the male psyche. Right now, we are still dealing with the chemical revolution: the integration of chemical additives into athletic training, and the determination of what is a fair and healthy additive and what is not, and how best to police its use. For Billy Beane, Moneyball is the story of his experience with the final sports revolution: the integration of technology into athletics. Lewis finishes his book with a description of athletic organizations rejecting sabermetrics in part because they think of sabermetricians as skinny, hunched-over intellectuals typing into computer screens all day. He describes it as a classic case of jock versus nerd, and there is some truth to that. Any time a revolution happens, turmoil and upheaval follow in its wake. The same is true of Moneyball. Beane suffered incredible backlash due to its publication, but that’s because it was a new idea being introduced with force into the populace. Whenever this happens, those in power (other general managers and the press) seek to squash it before it takes permanent hold and forces them to change or die (not literally).

Beane’s personality also does not help his case. As smart as he comes off at times, he also comes off as maniacal. He tries incessantly to insert himself into the middle of an Expos-Red Sox Cliff Floyd trade so that he can force the Red Sox to give him Kevin Youkilis, whom he has coveted since Youkilis was draft-eligible. The Expos manager seems to sniff out Beane’s plan and does not push the three-way deal, and the Floyd trade goes off cleanly. More importantly, he seems to talk himself out of signing a $12.5 million, five-year deal with the Red Sox, for reasons that still make no sense, even after reading through the entire book and getting a crash course in Beane’s psychology. He had the opportunity to be paid more than any GM in history, work for an ownership that would both spend big money to sign players AND believed in the value of sabermetrics (John Henry had long been a Bill James fan and was a frequent fantasy baseball champion), and get to deal with a press “so reliably venomous that it was impossible to distinguish the poison directed at the new regime from the poison they’d aimed at every other person who had the temerity to pass through Fenway Park” (294-295), meaning that the fans would be unlikely to turn on him if his strategy did not immediately work out. This sounds like an ideal environment for a general manager, and yet Billy Beane declined it without ever giving a satisfactory answer. His character is somewhat maddening.

Boston: The Revolution at Work

Despite the success of the Athletics, much of it might be because they were using sabermetrics before anyone else did. Now other teams are using it, AND they have higher payrolls, meaning it is that much harder to find bargain players. The Red Sox are one such team that has both learned from Billy Beane’s example (they hired Theo Epstein, another statistics-savvy Ivy Leaguer like Paul DePodesta) and put the money into realizing the idea. To this end, they began employing Bill James as a consultant as of 2003. The combination of sabermetric evaluation and paying top-dollar for players has led to two world championships and a rebuilt farm system that has produced aces, All-Stars, rookies of the year, and MVPs. Boston might be the best example of sabermetrics being used effectively. While most fans will probably never see the stats that guide Theo Epstein’s moves, it is quite likely that the 2004 Nomar Garciaparra trade was based in a sabermetric analysis of what Nomar was bringing to the team offensively and whether that could be replaced with lesser players who could also improve the team’s defense. The move paid dividends in the postseason, and the rest is history.

This is not to say that sabermetrics is the be-all and end-all method of evaluation. There are still players out there who scouts drool over, who they see as potential superstars at a young age, and then go on to great success. Hanley Ramirez was always lauded for his “five tools” (hit for average, hit for power, field, run, throw), and he has gone on to a batting title, three All-Star selections, and a Rookie of the Year award. This is a player for whom the old methods of evaluation have proven correct. And not every draft choice of Billy Beane has been a goldmine. While Youkilis has won a Gold Glove and been named to two All-Star Games, and Nick Swisher (his first pick in the 2002 draft) has won a World Series with the Yankees and made the All-Star game, Jeremy Brown, another first-round draft pick in 2002, never had more than a cup of coffee in the majors. Like “five tool” evaluation, sabermetric evaluation is not the same as fortune-telling. Nothing will ever prove definitively whether or not a prospect will work out or a free agent will help or hurt a team. That’s the problem with analyzing humans: as much as we tend to behave in patterns, sometimes we don’t. A player who bats .333 for a year doesn’t get one hit every game. That’s never happened before, not even close (the longest hit streak ever comprised just over one third of the season, and even THAT hasn’t been managed in nearly 70 years). Hitters sometimes get a hit, sometimes they get more, sometimes they don’t hit at all. If enough players get enough hits at the same time, that team will generally win. The best recipe for success probably lies in some combination of evaluative methods.

Does Moneyball Stand the Test of Time?

The Oakland Athletics have declined mightily since Moneyball’s publication. Since 2004, they have only made the playoffs once, getting swept in the ALCS by the Detroit Tigers. Their recent seasons have been unspectacular at best, not breaking the 95-win mark at all since 2003. Since 2006, they have finished in third or fourth place in their division every single season. As of Monday, they are in third place in their division, eight games back and 14.5 out of the Wild Card. As I said before, teams go through high and low periods periodically. The Athletics are definitely in a low period now, and fans are probably wishing that those early-decade teams had brought home a ring or two to go with all their 100-win seasons.

It can be said that we are living in the post-Moneyball era of baseball. Most teams now accept sabermetrics and at least employ one sabermetric analyst. The Oakland Athletics’ decline can be as much attributed to richer franchises USING sabermetrics as it can to some kind of conceptual error IN sabermetrics. Still, Moneyball is an amazing piece of sports journalism. Lewis tells a story of a revolution in baseball and clearly sets out both how the revolutionaries succeeded and how the baseball world tried to stop them. It is a fascinating look at baseball as it was at the turn of the new millennium. It is incredibly well-researched and well-paced. You will be fascinated by characters like Billy Beane and Bill James, and you will understand their feelings of rejection by their peers. Lewis presents a strong, concise point, and he uses the 2002 Athletics as his argument. It is incredibly convincing, and I think baseball since publication has proven him right. Reading Moneyball, I could feel myself getting angry at some of its posits. That’s a sign of good writing, when it elicits an emotional reaction. As I read on, I became more and more swayed by Lewis’s and Beane’s (even though Beane is not an author, his strategy is what Lewis defends) arguments. As I watched a baseball game the night I finished it, statistics began to swim in my mind next to the players on screen. Moneyball will change the way you think about baseball. No greater accomplishment in sports writing can be achieved.

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