Tuesday, July 14

Moneyball: A Retrospective

It has been seven years since the fateful 2002 season of the Oakland Athletics was chronicled by Michael Lewis in the now famous bestseller Moneyball. I was fully aware of the concepts of the book but had never actually read it. About a month ago it was plopped into my lap at the cost of 50 cents from a local book sale. After finishing My Life on a Napkin by Rick Majerus, I decided to finally read the book for myself. With plenty of time since the book's controversial introduction into the realm of baseball, and with a major motion picture production starring Brad Pitt on the horizon (it's back on after being shut down), let's revisit the book and its impact on the sports landscape.

The focal point of the book is about the changing manner in evaluating baseball talent, particularly for small market teams who cannot afford the elaborate payrolls of teams like the Yankees, Mets, Cubs, and Dodgers. The crux of the problem is that the teams with less money have to find a way to compete with the Goliaths that merely pay (and usually overpay) for the best talent. That brought Michael Lewis to the Oakland A's. A franchise with a proud history that includes 9 World Championships including a three-peat in the early 70s, the A's now were limited by ownership that refused to spend money on players.

Thus enter Billy Beane, the Oakland general manager who himself was once a prized pro prospect. Beane was seen by scouts as "can't miss" and a certain star of the future because of his abundance of talent and impressive physical prowess. Beane actually sought a way out of playing and into the front office. It was there that his playing experience, personal temperament, and willingness to change the way players were evaluated vaulted Oakland, and in some ways all of baseball, into a new era of personnel management.

Lewis takes the reader back to the genesis of the rethinking of how baseball stats are compiled and measured. Sabermetrics is introduced as well as it's godfather, Bill James. His story is one of both amazement and now success as chronicled in Moneyball and a recent story on 60 Minutes. Lewis does an impressive job of following the most early notions of sabermetrics and how it caught on with a oddball group of intellectuals that followed James' work and began to construct statistical theories of their own. The book goes into sufficient detail explaining how the founders of the principles of sabermetrics came to develop their ideas and put them into practice with the numbers.

An interesting insight into the draft room of the A's during the 2002 Amateur draft reveals the conflict between the new line of thinking by Beane and his staff, including his assistant GM Paul DePodesta, and baseball scouts who are accustomed to their own methods of evaluation that stem from years of supposed baseball wisdom that comes from hunches, sight observation, and traditional statistics. This description by Lewis is a good indication of the criticism that follows for Beane and other that think as he does. It is a conflict that is just a fierce today between old fashioned baseball insiders and the new breed of analytical thinkers.

If you follow baseball, the players argued about and mentioned in the book as draft picks and minor leaguers are now in baseball. Nick Swisher, now a member of the Yankees, was a coveted draft pick in the 2002 draft. The most prized minor league player by Beane was Kevin Youkilis because he had the key component they believed was necessary to be successful at hitting; getting on base (Youkilis is currently 6th in basbeball in on-base percentage). The evaluation of pitchers is even more interesting. The story of pitcher Chad Bradford, who's unorthodox delivery and low velocity had him ignored by major league teams and kept in the minors until the A's were able to acquire him. That is part of the appeal of the book for people who follow baseball; here are these stories about players no one had ever heard off and written off because of the old baseball way of thinking that were given a chance to succeed because of this new manner of evaluation. The rest of the teams' failure to read the stats turned into the A's gain. From 2000-2006 the A's made the playoffs 5 times, including a trip to the ALCS in 2006. While they never were able to make the World Series, they accomplished this while having one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball.

One of the portions of this paperback edition that I enjoyed was the Afterword written by Lewis about response and critiques of the book. While Lewis found unwavering support from the stat-enveloped portion of the baseball world, he and the A's were treated harshly by the inner baseball circles. What amazed me is that most of the criticism was aimed at Billy Beane, who did not write the book and who Lewis suggested reacted to the final edition of the book with "horror". It appears that those in the Oakland front office had no idea how far Lewis was going to go with the idea. It is laughable when you look at these jabs in the media taken at Beane about Moneyball concern his ego and his wish to put down on paper how he had outsmarted other GMs considering Beane did not write the book. From the excerpts that Lewis used to amplify his point, the critics seemed sure that it was Beane who wrote the book. Beane became the target of a good deal of venom from the old hat of baseball. While the book illuminated this new brand of baseball, it no doubt put Beane in the difficult position of becoming a huge public figure worthing of crafting a movie about and the target of skepticism by ever other front office of MLB that probably always thinks he is out to trick them when he calls.

The book was successful despite these attacks and deservedly so and for readingthe book seven years late after the fact I can honestly say I was better off reading it and getting the full story than by going on what I thought was reality about sabermetrics. The idea has not been limited to Oakland now. Boston promoted Yale graduate and Billy Beane believer Theo Epstein as GM in 2003. They then hired Bill James as a consultant along with other sabermetricians. While the Red Sox had the cash to spend and still relied somewhat on old methods of thinking, they have won 2 World Series in the past 5 years. The Toronto Blue Jays hired J.P. Ricardi, who worked under Beane in Oakland, to be their GM and he quickly went to work overhauling the roster and has them playing competitively.

While baseball is a game where people find it necessary to cling to their traditions, there is a definite place for the new brand of thinking and while it creates conflict and resentment within, its expansion in the sports world is sure to continue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People are sure to fail when they get stuck in one way of thinking. Nice review of the book.