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The Holy Grail of Baseball Knowledge?

Book Review: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

In Moneyball, author Michael Lewis examines the correlation between a baseball team's payroll and a team's won-loss record.  He begins by noticing that a team like the Oakland Athletics spent so little (in relative, baseball economic terms) and won so much while other teams spent so much more to get those same number of wins, and in some cases spent so much and won so little.  He was given permission and access to the inner sanctum of the Oakland A's front office in order to investigate what the A's did and why they did it.

I suppose in some ways it's only fitting that I'm writing a review of this book some five years following its publication.  Even before the release of the book, Lewis seems to be fitting himself and the A's brain trust of general manager Billy Beane and assistant general manager Paul DePodesta for the black hat.  The way he tells the story, it's almost as though someone — Lewis, Beane, DePodesta — were spoiling for a fight, daring the baseball universe to call them heretics.  Since its publication, this book has been quoted, misquoted, used, and misused by baseball fans, executives, and analysts alike.  Five years later, there is no denying this book has altered the way game is played, run, analyzed, and discussed.  Whether or not Lewis, Beane, and DePodesta persuade you, modern baseball fans must read this book.

Before we decide whether or not Lewis, Beane, and DePodesta are persuasive, let's attempt to summarize their philosophy.  The first concept you need to understand is scarcity and it's economic impact.  Think of it like this:  why does beach front property cost so much?  In part, because there isn't enough beach front for everyone who would like to live there.  Scarcity makes beach front property more valuable.  That means you have to ask yourself, "Can I pay what it costs to live on the beach and is it worth that to me?"

How does that apply to Moneyball?  The A's dynamic duo looked for traits of winning teams and the skills that produced them that were being undervalued in the marketplace for players.  They examined decades of statistics and asked themselves:  what common characteristics do winning teams have?  In examining those statistics, they determined one characteristic of winning teams is that collectively and individually, they have high on-base percentages (OBP).  They also observed players being awarded gargantuan salaries based on any number of statistical accomplishments, but that OBP was not being rewarded in proportion to its importance in winning baseball games, according to Beane and DePodesta.  Put another way, they helped create a new philosophy for evaluating and compensating players.  That's a vastly oversimplified explanation of one part of a new approach to baseball analysis called sabermetrics.  If I've lost you, don't despair.  Lewis does a good job explaining this in greater depth. 

The way this is presented to readers, you'd think Beane and DePodesta accused Jesus of being a Jew.  Lewis portrays Beane and DePodesta as among the earliest guys to see the world is round when the rest of civilization saw it as flat and do something about it.  Lewis rightly credits writer Bill James as being among the earliest to pioneer these ideas, but Beane and DePodesta are among the earliest to put them to use in actually running a team.  Perhaps the ideas are as revolutionary as these two think they are.  Perhaps there was widespread resistance to these statistic-based models as a means of evaluating players.  Perhaps those aren't the only reasons Beane has not been bathed in love by baseball people the world over.  Maybe the fact Beane comes off as a micromanaging jerk plays a role, as well.

One benefit of reading the book five years later is that it allows us enough distance to see how the decisions they made about their club and players then have panned out.  One player whose name is batted around a good bit is a catcher who played college ball for the University of Alabama before being drafted in the first round by the Oakland A's.  Have you heard of Jeremy Brown?  Me, neither.

Naturally it's absurd to invalidate an entire theory on one anecdotal example, but the evangelistic fervor in this book — be it on the part of the author or the central figures — might lead you to believe this method is foolproof.  The Brown example reminds us sabermetrics is not Calvinism; statistical analysis is a tool for prediction, not pre-destination.  Five years later, we also see baseball is being taught and managed differently as a result of the ideas in this book and the widespread notoriety of both the book and those ideas.  What began as an experiment in Oakland has taken hold in numerous major league cities, again invoking the concept of scarcity.  What was previously ignored has now become precious, and the price for OBP has gone up.  Is OBP as important as Beane and DePodesta argue?  The statistics (largely) indicate it is, but that has almost become irrelevant.  Statistically sound or not, the sabermetric approach has almost become as intransigent as the prevailing wisdom it replaced.

A frequent criticism of sabermetrics and Oakland's approach has been the fact the team has not performed as well in the postseason as in the playoffs.  What makes this odious is the way this aberration, if you will, is dismissed by Lewis, Beane, and DePodesta.  Where the two Oakland honchos believe strongly in their ability to predict future results based on past performance and believe strongly in scientific methods, they dismiss their postseason failure and conversely the success of others as mere luck.  It's the equivalent of claiming to be men of science while trying not to cross paths with a black cat.  it's arrogant and intellectually dishonest.  Sample sizes in postseason play may be smaller, but rather than saying they have yet to find statistical model that explains postseason success (or their lack thereof), they dismiss the idea that one exists and chalk it up to luck.  The playoffs and World Series are reduced to little more than hocus pocus, but without the hard science they used to justify their approach.  In this regard, they come across as aloof and ignorant as the 'baseball insiders' they feel they had to battle.

Even if these two think success over the 162-game regular season is more impressive than an October run, they play in a system where championships are awarded based on postseason play and exist in a universe where championships are the ultimate goal.  I'm sorry if they think that's silly, but it's time to give them the Godfather II speech.  This is the life they have chosen. 

Moneyball is a quick, engaging read and story for baseball fans, who will marvel at the inside look into a Major League front office.  It may sound like I didn't like the book or that I think it's full of hooey.  I don't.  Beane is a smart guy and quite possibly a jerk.  DePodesta is a studious guy.  Their willingness to things differently and their studied approach are interesting and have ignited debates within the baseball community.  The results they achieved strongly suggest they aren't just full of hot air.  Contemporary fans should read and understand this book, and Lewis breaks it down in such a way that they probably will.  He also presents this as if you're reading the Holy Grail of Baseball Knowledge, and that's where they lose me a little.  Does that make me a heretic, or at least an iconoclast?

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