Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 30, 2003
For our Disney vacation, my wife and I made the mistake (in the interests of saving money) of getting just one hotel room, with the kids (age 3 and 5) sleeping in one bed and us in the other. The problem, of course, was that they wouldn't go to sleep, and there was nowhere else for us to go. Watching TV was out, and so it was that I spent much of the evenings of our vacation sitting on a bathroom floor, drinking cheap Australian Shiraz out of a plastic cup and reading a book I got for Father's Day, Michael Lewis' Moneyball.
Lewis' book has been extensively reviewed elsewhere (see Dr. Manhattan's review here and a writeup here by Matt Welch for examples from the blogosphere), so I'll add my own two cents (or so) without rehashing the whole thing:
1. I've never read any of Lewis' books before (I know, for a guy who works as a securities litigator I'm told that I ought to have read Liar's Poker), and knew him mostly as a Berkeley liberal who writes mediocre and sporadic columns on travel and parenting for Slate. To be honest, then, when I saw that Lewis had written a book called "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," my first instinct was to assume that the book would be another compliation of the conventional wisdom: payrolls imbalanced, standings imbalanced, money dictates success, we need to reduce income inequality, etc. I'd already read that case laid out as well as it goes in Bob Costas' Fair Ball, and really didn't have the stomach to wade through it again. So, it was with some surprise that I read the early rave reviews revealing that the book was, in fact, the story of the development of sabermetrics and how it came to be that Billy Beane implemented sabermetric principles to run the Oakland A's.
2. When I am reading a book that deals with a subject I know intimately, the first thing I look for is the absences: does the author miss obvious points? Does he ignore important developments? I'm more likely to buy into his descriptions of things I don't know if he's nailed the ones I do.
Lewis does. Every time. He goes through Beane's history with the Mets, rather than presenting him fully formed as an executive. When he introduces Chris Pittaro, now an A's scout, he doesn't forget the one thing Pittaro is known for, which is Sparky Anderson's outlandish hyping of Pittaro in the spring of 1985. When he discusses Scott Hatteberg's reverence for Don Mattingly's patience at the plate, Lewis remembers to remind the reader that Mattingly himself didn't walk that much. Lewis notes the relationship of sabermetrics to Rotisserie baseball, but remembers to note the contradiction in Roto's old-fashioned reliance on Triple Crown stats and steals. Time and again, going through the story of sabermetric analysis, Lewis gets it, even to the point of mocking favorite targets like Joe Morgan, Bud Selig and the Elias Baseball Analyst. On the other hand, the book was somewhat sparse on one thing I would have liked to have learned, which was why the A's soured on Carlos Pena; the only thing Lewis really shows us is that Pena was swinging at too many pitches.
3. Lewis' frame of reference in the bond trading business is apparent; he frequently compares Beane to a bond trader in his dedication to making deals based on superior information.
4. One thing that's interesting is that the book focuses less on the A's application of known, established truths and more on an area where the leading analysts remain on somewhat shaky ground: the amateur draft. Most analysts continue to believe that there's an important place for traditional "tools/observation-based" scouting in the draft, particularly as regards high school players. But the A's have apparently decided to avoid high school players altogether -- a defensible decision, perhaps, given their low budget and their confidence in their metrics for measuring college players. But an ideal draft strategy would take some high school players; Connie Mack loved college players too, but that didn't stop him from snapping up Jimmie Foxx. Lewis makes a persuasive case for Beane's strategy, and the story is in some sense more dramatic because the jury is still out.
5. I do have to wonder why Beane let this book get written. A few baseball bloggers have (fairly enough) mocked Joe Morgan for implying that Beane himself had written the book, but Morgan's larger point is valid: it's clear that this book contains an awful lot of the 'inside' insights of Beane and his staff, gathered with Beane's approval: their draft strategy, how they evaluate players in trades, how Beane manipulates other GMs. If I'm another GM, I'd race out to read this just to get the scoop on how one of my competitors does his business. Lewis implies two motives: First, Beane is frustrated at the lack of recognition he gets for his talents; Lewis discusses this explicitly as the motive for Beane's public courtship by the Red Sox. Second, Beane really thinks the other GMs are all so dumb they won't read or understand the book anyway. Which may be true of some of them, but it suggests an arrogance that could cost Beane.