Moneyball, Michael Lewis

<em class="BookTitle">Moneyball</em>, Michael Lewis

Norton, 2011 movie tie-in expanded reprint of 2003 original, 317 pages, C$18.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-393-33839-3

Sport meets science in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, a fascinating case study of the way fact-based analysis is slowly replacing traditional instinct as a guide to a baseball team’s performance.  Written after Lewis was allowed behind-the-scene access to the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season, Moneyball explains how the desire to improve performance on a limited budget, coupled with the willingness to adopt new analytical methods collectively known as “sabermetrics”, allowed a small team like Oakland to compete successfully with team with far bigger budgets.

The keyword here is “money”: Lewis, after making a splash with Liar’s Poker and The Big Short, is best-known as a financial writer and this focus is never too far away from his topic matter as he explains the difficult situation of a poor baseball team in a league where other teams can easily outspend them.  Coupled with a renewed interest in number-based analytical methods, these constraints allowed Oakland general Manager Billy Beane to retool the usual scouting process.  Never mind studying players in the minor-leagues fields and filing reports based on scouts’ gut instinct: Beane’s analytical team would rather pore over seasons’ worth of numbers in order to find not necessarily the best players, but the ones that are undervalued by the market.  You can’t buy who you want when other teams have deep pockets, but you can get great bargains by targeting players who aren’t being paid what they’re worth.  Sabermetrics isn’t about having a huge advantage; it’s about working the margins until you can extract a few reliable percentage points’ worth of advantage, which ends up making a difference over the long run.

Lewis blends this story (as exemplified by the 2002 Oakland season) with that of Bean, a talented baseball player who somehow never met the considerable expectations placed on him by major-league teams.  Beane, after a few mildly successful years in the major league, did what practically no one else did and decided to take up the management of a baseball team, re-starting from the ground up.  This sensibility led him to champion analytical methods developed from the mid-seventies by statistical nerds over the advice of seasoned scouts.

In Moneyball, these innovations work: By being the first to pioneer the principles of sabermetrics, the Athletics get first-mover advantage, seeing easy bargains where other teams aren’t even looking.  It’s a temporary advantage as other teams, such a Toronto and Boston, eventually adopt similar techniques… but for a while, it works to the Athletics’ advantage.  (Hilariously, the centerpiece of the 2002 Athletics season is an unprecedented 20-game winning streak, a freak succession of victories that has almost nothing to do with the percentage points earned by sabermetrics.  Lewis explains this in the book, but the movie adaptation misses the point by using it as the film’s climax.)

Thanks to Lewis’ vulgarization talents, Moneyball will find an audience far beyond numbers-minded baseball fans.  The book is a joy to read, and even casual baseball observers will find plenty of good material to chew upon.  (There are exceptions: a chapter on trading is so deeply steeped in traditional baseball jargon that casual readers will find it nearly impenetrable.)  It’s a story about how cleverness can defeat brawn, or how facts can check instinct and as such is likely to appeal to science-minded readers.

This “revenge of the nerds” plotline is more fully explained in the paperback version’s afterword, which describes the controversy with which the book was received by traditional old-school baseball managers and fans.  To hear Lewis tell it, the sabermetrics principles were threatening because they upset an entrenched scouting system largely made up of ex-players seeking to uphold their own tradition: Having back-room math analysts tell them that they were making bad decisions wasn’t the kind of news warmly received.  And it may serve to explain why, even almost ten years later, the Athletics are still doing well in implementing sabermetrics: not every team administration may yet be willing to understand how letting go of traditional methods can improve their results.

In short, it’s a story very similar to the kind of competitiveness that has taken over Wall Street, with trained scientists and engineers seeking minute percentage advantages over their rivals.  Blending the two American passions of baseball and money in one easy-to-read package, there’s a good case to be made for Moneyball as a quintessential American non-fiction book.

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