Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game

by Michael Lewis

Published by W.W. Norton

288 pages, 2003


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A Whole New Game

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan

 

One of the reasons baseball fans remain so steadfast in their devotion is a sense of tradition. During interminable rain delays and constant pitching changes, broadcasters often wax nostalgic about how little has changed over the years: there have always been nine men on the field; bases are still 90 feet apart; three strikes and you're out. It's this comfort level that makes change so difficult, why people are opposed to innovation such as Astroturf, the designated hitter and inter-league play. "This is the way things have been done and this is how we're going to keep on doing them," seems to be the general mindset of proponents of the old school.

Michael Lewis, in his thought-provoking Moneyball, makes one wonder if school will soon be out. As he puts it:

[A] baseball diamond was ... a field of ignorance. No one had established the most efficient way to use relief pitchers. No one had established to the satisfaction of baseball intellectuals exactly which part of defense was pitching and which fielding .... And no one had figured out how to make the amateur draft any more than the madness it had always been.

Using the example of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, the author shows how new concepts in scouting and developing players could revolutionize the baseball world, if only open minds prevailed.

Unable to spend as freely as their upscale brethren, small market teams like the Athletics must be content to scout the high school and college players other teams might find less desirable or to pick up the detritus of other clubs. In fact, while the A's own veteran scouts drooled over the "potential" (that damnable word) of talented schoolboy (i.e., high school) athletes, Beane preferred to go with the relatively more mature and established college prospects.

The difference between the A's and other fiscally-challenged clubs, however, is their stunning success. Beane and his associates have managed to build pennant contenders seemingly out of straw.

The new manner of assessing personnel could be considered almost a new age philosophy. Rather than looking for the hulking slugger who can bash balls out of sight, Beane and company seek a kinder, gentler athlete, one adept in the art of taking a pitch, making the opposition wear itself down. Why else would Beane aggressively pursue a nobody like Scott Hatteberg, a catcher left unsigned by his former team and whom no one else wanted, and convert him to a first baseman? Because Hatteberg is a master of how to "work the pitcher."

(Beane, himself a coveted high school star and the New York Mets' first round draft pick in 1980, could serve as an example of how the highly-touted can fail to live up to expectations despite the consensus of the crewcut, tobacco chewing bird dogs. He was considered too analytic, too thoughtful to make a go of it as a player. Instead he took that curiosity and developed into a keen administrator and student of talent.)

The author examines the influence of Bill James and his band of number-crunching "sabrematicians" on Beane's decision-making processes. Instead of batting average and runs batted in, James and his brethren advocated different statistical yardsticks such as on-base percentage and runs created. "The [traditional] statistics were not merely inadequate: they lied," writes Lewis, "And the lies they told led the people who ran major league baseball teams to misjudge their players, and mismanage their games."

Lewis offers several examples of the A's forward thinking. As a group of batters gather around a video monitor to study pitch-by-pitch sequences, the author notes how "[t]hey're no longer playing a game; they're playing game theory."

The in-depth coverage of the draft process, with its tactics, subterfuges and stomach-churning tension, is a wonderful insight into this annual event. With the help of his laptop-clutching assistant, Beane carefully analyzed players' tendencies rather than raw numbers. Lewis compares the GM and his crew of "computer geeks" to "card counters at a blackjack table" (some might say the draft is actually more of a crap shoot). To carry the non-baseball analogy further: when describing the machinations involved in making Nicholas Swisher their first pick in 2002, it seems as if the author is writing not so much about baseball as about chess.

Lewis, a business writer whose previous books include Liar's Poker, The New New Thing and Next, tells this revolutionary tale with a mixture of keen insight, thoughtful prose and -- at times -- too much detail, which sometimes detracts from the overall picture. Many of his references are financial in nature, as when he speaks of "derivatives" -- those fragments of the game such as how the next pitch after a 1-1 count can make a huge difference in how a batter performs. Perhaps because of this, however, Lewis comes at the reader with a fresh set of eyes, remarking on issues the average fan fails to notice, both on the field and behind the scenes. | August 2003

 

Ron Kaplan, a freelance writer from Montclair, New Jersey. His work has appeared in such publications as Mental Floss, Baseball America, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Nine, and American Book Review.