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Never judge a book by its subject

  • Feb 3, 2008
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First, Moneyball was not written by Billy Beane, as many people who have not yet read it (myself included) often describe it in a convenient but incorrect form of shorthand.

Second, Moneyball isn't about Billy Beane, although he is a prominent character who certainly deserves a full-length biography or could write his own fascinating memoir.

Third, Moneyball isn't about Bill James and sabremetrics, although the new genre of statistics-based baseball writing and thinking created single-handedly (almost; Lewis cites a few other sources) in the last 30 years is covered here.

Moneyball is about "The art of winning an unfair game", as its subtitle (not on the cover of this paperback edition, interestingly enough) succinctly describes it. It is about a small-payroll baseball team that wants to compete, and about how failed major-leaguer Billy Beane was perfectly-placed and given free rein by the Oakland A's owner to figure out a better way to evaluate and valuate baseball players both current and prospective.

This is where James' statistics came into play, as Beane and his Harvard educated assistant Paul Depodesta developed and then applied this rational approach to player selection, overcoming years of baseball "intuition" and scouting, to turn the Oakland As into the most efficient winning organization in MLB over the last seven years. For a 4 year period the A's won more games than any other team except the Yankees, at a "cost per win" typically a quarter to a third of the irrational-spending Yankees.

Moneyball is justly famous (and infamous) inside the social club that is MLB. Lewis theorizes that this reaction by the social club (as well as those of a number of players) is driven by a fear of public humiliation. If members of the Club stick together, and continue to manage the organization by the "book", they can't be publicly blamed and humiliated for failure; they just move to a new branch of the Club and keep on repeating the failures of the past.

Despite resistance from within the club, the market for rational thinking is growing. The Toronto Blue jays were the second team to understand and want to apply the tactics, hiring away the A's third in line (when Beane and Depodesta wouldn't leave Oakland) to begin winning efficiently (it takes one year to get cheap, it takes two years to get better, according to this GM, and the trend line of Toronto's recent seasons confirms this. Look for Toronto to compete for a playoff spot in the AL east in 2008). The grandchild of the experiment is the Boston Red Sox, who had a verbal agreement from Beane to take their GM job but were left to hire Theo Epstein (a young Ivy-Leaguer with no baseball background) instead when Beane backed out of the contract that would have increased his salary many times over.

And in an action that inspires hope for the future, the Pittsburgh Pirates new GM just made a move described by Beane as "Selling the Closer", based on the theory that the save is an overvalued statistics that does not accurately predict the success of a relief pitcher. In this model, a team either sells its closer for an inflated price, or lets the closer go as a free agent, garnering two compensatory draft picks. With the money or picks, the team selects a young undervalued pitcher based on statistics that do predict success (keeping runners off base and limiting pitches per at-bat) to turn into the next "Sell the Closer" candidate, PLUS an other prospect who together add more value to the team (statistically-significant contributions to winning baseball games) than the closer just sold. Lets hope the Pirates trade was made with rational forethought and not dumb luck.

In fact, one side benefit of the Moneyball theory is that it provides rational components for evaluating the contributions of pitchers and hitters (not so much fielding, as Lewis explains) to winning baseball games in such a way that their relative worth can be compared and evaluated against each other. No wonder the Club is so upset; this is light years ahead of the old "book".

While baseball is the nominal subject of this book, it really isn't a "baseball" book. It is more a book about applied rational thinking and statistics, and has been justly and highly praised by critics, as by this one, who rates Moneyball as a classic (just like Les Miserables which he just read and reviewed). Never judge a book by its subject.

Les Miserables (Penguin Classics)

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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Billy Beane, general manager of MLB's Oakland A's and protagonist of Michael Lewis'sMoneyball, had a problem: how to win in the Major Leagues with a budget that's smaller than that of nearly every other team. Conventional wisdom long held that big name, highly athletic hitters and young pitchers with rocket arms were the ticket to success. But Beane and his staff, buoyed by massive amounts of carefully interpreted statistical data, believed that wins could be had by more affordable methods such as hitters with high on-base percentage and pitchers who get lots of ground outs. Given this information and a tight budget, Beane defied tradition and his own scouting department to build winning teams of young affordable players and inexpensive castoff veterans.

Lewis was in the room with the A's top management as they spent the summer of 2002 adding and subtracting players and he provides outstanding play-by-play. In the June player draft, Beane acquired nearly every prospect he coveted (few of whom were coveted by other teams) and at the July trading deadline he engaged in a tense battle of nerves to acquire a lefty reliever. Besides being one of the most insider accounts ever written about baseball, Moneyball is populated with fascinating characters. We meet Jeremy Brown, an overweight college catcher who most teams project to be a 15th round draft pick (Beane takes him in the first). Sidearm pitcher Chad Bradford is plucked from the White Sox triple-A club to...

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ISBN-10: 0393324818
ISBN-13: 978-0393324815
Author: Michael Lewis
Genre: Professional & Technical, Business & Investing, Sports
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
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