This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
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When a book is described by prominent baseball writer Rob Neyer as “the single most influential baseball book ever,” you don’t expect a review to pronounce it “the best book ever written on business.” And yet, this is precisely what happened in 2004, soon after Michael Lewis' Moneyball – a book focusing on some state-of-the-art drafting procedures introduced at Oakland Athletics by its general manager Billy Beane – hit the shelves.
In essence, under Beane’s management, the A’s essentially went into fantasy mode and started preferring stats and data to eye tests and conventional wisdom. Even though it initially seemed like a sure recipe for failure, this new evidence-based approach to assembling a baseball team has, in the meantime, became the standard method, especially in the case of low-budget teams.
Unsurprisingly, just two years after “Moneyball” was published, the guy who introduced this analytical approach to drafting, Bill James, was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and it is not an exaggeration to say that Michael Lewis’ book contributed to this belated recognition.
Just five years after that, “Moneyball,” a movie with the same title and starring Brad Pitt, was released to achieve both box office success and wide critical acclaim. . Directed by Bennett Miller, the movie appeared on many critics’ top-10 lists for the best films of 2011, and, even though it didn’t win an Academy Award, it was nominated for no less than six. As good as it is, at least if you ask us, it is still not better than Lewis’ book (which, after all, is more faithful to reality)!
In case you don’t have the time to read it in its entirety – nor two hours to enjoy the movie – don’t hesitate to set aside just 12 minutes of your time, for we feel that this summary is bound to pique your fancy. Especially if you like baseball and stats.
Back in 1980, Billy Beane was basically what Harold Baines had been three years before or what Ken Griffey Jr. would be seven years after – not only a highly coveted prospect but a can’t-miss No. 1 draft pick. His God-given talent and physical abilities were such that he excelled in three sports during high school – baseball, football, and basketball – and Stanford University tried to recruit him on a joint baseball-football scholarship. Moreover, even though Beane batted .501 in sophomore and junior years at high school, Stanford saw a future quarterback, the best replacement there could be for none other than Hall of Famer John Elway, then in his sophomore year at the school.
Since everybody believed that Beane would choose to attend Stanford and not sign with a professional team, Beane fell to the 23rd pick in the 1980 Major League Baseball Draft. He was chosen by the Mets, who had also selected the first draft overall, right fielder Darryl Strawberry.
The Mets, via their longtime baseball scout, Roger Jongewaard (the guy who would preside over the picks of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez) had courted Beane for quite some time and considered choosing him with their first pick, despite the risk of not having him for some time. Having three first-round picks in that year’s draft, the Mets had the luxury of risking with their second pick, and it was Jongewaard’s job to try and convince Beane to join them sooner rather than later.
The offer was not negligible – $125,000 – but Billy Beane and his mother were tough nuts to crack: she insisted that her son would go to Stanford, while he was adamant to obey her wishes. Jongewaard eventually took Beane to see the Mets clubhouse, where a receiving party of players – Lee Mazzilli, Mookie Wilson, Wally Backman – and a Mets uniform with his name on the back awaited. This did the job: though reluctantly, Beane accepted the offer, promising his mother to attend classes at Stanford during the off-season.
Stanford begged to differ. Once they learned that Beane chose to play for another team, he was not welcomed in Stanford’s classrooms anymore.“Just like that, a life changed,” writes Lewis. “One day Billy Beane could have been anything; the next he was just another minor league baseball player, and not even a rich one. On the advice of a family friend, Beane’s parents invested on their son’s behalf his entire $125,000 bonus in a real estate partnership that promptly went bust. It was many years before Beane’s mother would speak to Roger Jongewaard.”
The Mets were so convinced that Beane would hit major league stardom in no time that they immediately assigned him for the Little Falls Mets of the Class A New York–Penn League, with players drafted out of college (for comparison, Strawberry was assigned to play rookie ball with other high school draftees).
Unexpectedly, Beane struggled, batting .210 and .220 in his first two seasons. The reason? He was unable to cope with failure. Unfortunately for him – and as paradoxically as it sounds – success in sports is all about failure, for even if you manage a season-long batting average of .400 (a nearly unattainable feat in modern MLB), you would have still missed 6 out of 10 pitched balls. Hitting only 2 out of 10 balls was something Beane couldn’t bear enduring; the eight failures resulted not only in outbursts but also in mental traumas that affected Beane’s future performances.
Unlike the people who had scouted him, Beane was smart enough to realize, early on, that he is not suited for MLB. So, in 1989, being demoted to Oakland Athletics’ fifth outfielder, Beane announced his retirement from baseball after spending only five seasons in the national baseball league, a period during which he hit only three home runs and achieved subpar batting average of just .219. He was still in his 20s – 28 to be precise – and what he asked from the management of the Oakland A’s was something only never-beens and has-beens ask: to become a scout.
Scouts are not generally thought of as the sharpest tools in the shed. Especially back in the 1990s, their only criteria for suggesting prospects was a guy’s physique. Having a strong arm and being fast, agile, and lithe, made the person, for lack of a better word, selectable. In other words, trainers could make something out of him, regardless of his high school/college scores. Just the same, regardless of their high school/college scores, nobody liked pudgy and small baseball players. They just didn’t have the right shape.
Billy Beane saw something wrong in all this, and he had his own story as supportive evidence. However, he didn’t know what precisely was wrong with the scout’s logic until he came across an unusual self-published pamphlet of fewer than 70 pages, adorned with an even more unusual subtitle: 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 categories of statistical information that you just can’t find anywhere else.
The author of the “1977 Baseball Abstract,” Bill James, had written the pamphlet while working as a night-watchman at the Stokely Van Camp pork and beans factory just outside a tiny Kansas town. Only 75 people bought it – but he deemed this an encouragement. So, he wrote and published a second book at the end of the next season, which sold 250 copies. Soon enough, “The Bill James Baseball Abstracts” became an annual thing; by 1982, sales had increased tenfold and were samizdats no more.
Even though by 1990, when Billy Beane became a scout for the Oakland A’s, the Abstracts had been discontinued, Bill James wasn’t a name to be taken that lightly anymore, and his stats-based approach to baseball had already become a part of baseball lore. It even had a name (coined, of course, by James himself in 1980 as a hat tip to the recently founded Society for American Baseball Research, SABR): sabermetrics.
Defined by James as, matter-of-factly, “the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records” and, more poetically, “the search for objective knowledge about baseball,” sabermetrics caught the eye of Oakland Athletics’ general manager Sandy Alderson – a Marine and an attorney educated at Dartmouth and Harvard. The system partly contributed to the rebuilding of the Athletics’ minor league system, which eventually resulted in 4 division titles, 3 pennants and the 1989 World Series for the team during Alderson’s tenure.
Beane hadn't even heard the name of Bill James and about his “completely persuasive” approach until Alderson introduced him. “That was the big moment,” he said, “when I figured out that all the stuff Sandy was talking about was just derivative of Bill James.”
In more ways than one, Alderson was ahead of his time, and well before Beane became the man in charge, he hired engineer Eric Walker to act as the team’s sabermetrician, in the hope of “getting some Bill James–like stuff” proprietary to the Oakland A’s. This proved invaluable just a few years later, when Oakland’s team owner, Walter A. Haas, Jr., died from prostate cancer, since the new owners, Ken Hofmann and Stephen Schott, ordered Alderson to slash payroll. And suddenly, sabermetrics was more than just a helping hand – it was the only way for the team to remain competitive.
Billy Beane succeeded Alderson as general manager of the Oakland A’s in 1997 and inspired by Bill James’ twelve abstracts and Eric Walker’s Jamesian study, started introducing some radical changes to the management of the team, all of them inspired by sabermetrics.
“Billy wasn’t one to spend a lot of time worrying about whether he was motivated by a desire to succeed or the pursuit of truth,” writes Lewis. “To his way of thinking the question was academic, since the pursuit of truth was, suddenly, the key to success.” Boasting “a natural coruscating skepticism about baseball’s traditional wisdom,” Beane could see that Eric Walker’s study “was just the beginning of a radical, and rational approach to the game – one that would concentrate unprecedented powers in the hands of the general manager.”
It is always easy to be a Steinbrenner-type-of-fellow and shell out money whenever a potential star appears on the horizon, risking barely anything if it doesn’t result in success. Who cares how successful are the scouts in their picks when the money keeps pouring in? After all, winning is not the only way to earn money in baseball. However, when your budget can’t afford to pay star salaries, you have to start guessing a bit less and question your scouts’ decisions a bit more.
Beane saw that sabermetrics allowed one to do this, and in the 2002 Draft, chose to believe his statistician-turned-assistant general manager Paul DePodesta – a Harvard economics graduate with no background in baseball – much more than his scouts, building a team almost entirely selected by data, rather than by people (in fact, Beane selected only one player from the scouts’ list, Nick Swisher). Needless to say, in due time, Beane was able to save even more money, since none of the scouts seemed necessary anymore.
Did it work in the end? It did, of course, after all there aren’t books or movies about the unsuccessful. Not in a fairylike fashion, though, but close enough: despite spending about $100 million less than, say, the Yankees, the Athletics won 103 games and the division title in 2002 – while racking up a record winning streak of 20 consecutive games – but, surprisingly, lost in the divisional playoff to Minnesota Twins.
This made some people gloat, but, of course, these people missed the point of the experiment: it was never about winning the title – after all, you will never get an A-Rod on a depleted budget and you don’t need science to tell you how good is he – but about finding a way to win as often as possible when you can’t get an A-Rod (or Jason Giambi, as was the case with the A’s at the beginning of the millennium).
And, back in 2002, sabermetrics proved that, to some extent, those things can be scientifically calculated. Essentially, Beane and DePodesta relied on a rather simple tactic – they ignored players’ weaknesses and selected players based on their on-base percentages (OBP) – but even that was better than relying on a guy’s physique.
A decade and a half later, sabermetrics has substantially advanced, and there is hardly an MLB franchise that doesn’t employ a sabermetrician in their management. It was precisely this change that helped some teams – such as the Tampa Bay Rays – evolve from perennial underdogs to perennial contenders. We don’t want to exaggerate things, but it is a fact that the Red Socks broke the “Curse of the Bambino” just two years after Oakland A’s instigated the sabermetrics revolution in baseball, and just one year after giving a job to Bill James. They even wanted to make Beane their general manager, but he turned them down, despite their hefty offer.
Years later, he would say that when he decided to become a professional baseball player, he did it just for the money – and now he didn’t want to make the same mistake again. No wonder Sports Illustrated named Beane one of the Top 10 GMs/Executives of the decade in 2009.
The fact that “sabermetrics” is a word even non-baseball fans know nowadays and owes almost everything to “Moneyball,” just as many sabermetricians owe their jobs to the decisions of the book’s man-in-focus, Billy Beane.
An exceptional book about an exceptional man, “Moneyball” is, to quote a Forbes review, “one of the best baseball – and management – books out... Deserves a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame." Not to mention your reading list.
Make informed decisions as often as possible: everything else is just your emotions speaking. Also, don’t make decisions based solely on money: Billy Beane made one when he signed with the Mets rather than going to Stanford, and he still regrets it.
Michael Lewis is a journalist and bestselling author with a short career as a bond salesman on Wall Street. He holds degrees in art history and is a London School of Economics alumni. Best known... (Read more)
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