Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Billy Beane had a problem. The general manager of the Oakland Athletics had a baseball team to run but no money to run it with. In 2002 the New York Yankees had $126 million to work with. The As (nobody ever calls them the Athletics) had $40 million. But in the last few years the As, with the lowest payroll in baseball, had won more regular season games than any team but the Atlanta Braves. How did they do it?
Michael Lewis, author of the incomparable Liar’s Poker, asked himself that question and set out to answer it. What he found was a remarkable new approach to acquiring players: sabermetrics, a system invented by Bill James and named for the Society of Baseball Statistics.
The box scores we read in the paper every morning were devised by a cranky cricket player back in the 19th century and include runs scored, runs batted in, errors, and for pitchers, runs allowed. Some of these are valuable in comparing players. A home run, after all, is a home run. Some were useful to compare teams but not players. The most useful means of comparing batters, James discovered, included walks. You can’t score a run if you aren’t on base and it doesn’t really matter how you got there.
So Beane’s team hired a statistician from Harvard, and with his laptop the guy used these new numbers to identify players overlooked by richer teams and even by the As’ own scouts. Baseball is a conservative sport and change comes slowly and with much gnashing of teeth but Beane was forced by his small budget to try this new system for picking players from those coming up for the draft (a sort of indentured servitude used to acquire new players from high school and college.)
Most managers wanted men who looked like ball players, tall, muscular, with graceful form in pitching and batting, and with high scores on the traditional statistical measurement. They also factored in what they considered “heart” and performing “in the clutch.” Beane would have liked some of those high performing players but he couldn’t have them so he ignored all that, looking at the statistics to see what college pitchers or batters had actually been doing on the field. And so his choices were short, they were less than graceful when pitching (one man pitched underhand – another had had surgery for two club feet), couldn’t run fast, were overweight, and were terrible at fielding. But they could pitch and they could hit.
It’s illegal for a team to make deals with players before the draft but they all do it. What Beane did was to identify these men who were somewhere in the last rounds of the draft, or not considered draft material at all, and tell them the team wanted them but couldn’t pay them much money. One of these players was Jeremy Brown, a catcher at the University of Alabama who was overweight and who thought he wasn’t going to be drafted at all. Beane made a deal. The As would draft him but they could only pay him $350,000 (which was about a million dollars less than the 35th draft pick might expect.) And he had to lose weight.
Brown didn’t really believe it and didn’t tell anybody except his parents that the As had listed him in the third round. Then the scout called to say they were moving him up to second round. This was truly unbelievable to Brown so he still didn’t tell anybody he hoped to be drafted. When other teams became interested and waved the possibility of more money before him Brown stuck to the verbal deal he had made with the As. And he was their first round draft choice and got to play professional ball, albeit for not much money. And he played it very well indeed.
Lewis tells many stories like this and shows Beane trading players, something he relished, and destroying property when the team lost, something he also seemed to relish. But he created a team that performed and even made a little money for its owners. The Red Sox picked up on sabermetrics and it’s thought that Bill James and his system contributed to their success in 2004.
2011 No 70 Coming soon: Agatha Christie, Murder on the Links