Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review: Moneyball


Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 320 pp)

Michael Lewis is the author of Panic!, Liar's Poker, The New New Thing, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Home Game, among other works. He lives in Berkley, California with his wife, Tabitha Soren, and their three children.

Baseball Cards: Collectible and Informative

As an avid baseball fan, statistics have augmented my appreciation of the sport since my youth. My favorite part of collecting baseball cards surrounded studying the statistics on the back of the trading card; my enjoyment of baseball video games was partly due to accumulating statistics myself.

With the rise of the internet, the way I consumed baseball changed. Where my understanding of the sport used to develop through the words of a beat writer from the local newspaper, blogs and discussion boards gave me the opportunity to perceive baseball through a different lens.

For this reason, gone were the days of home runs, stolen bases, R.B.I.s, and worn-down clich├ęs. In their place, reasoned arguments and statistics like WAR, OPS, and FIP took root.

As such, I feel like I already knew Moneyball. This bestselling work penned by Michael Lewis has long been considered the introduction to advanced baseball statistics.

A Real-Life David-Versus-Goliath Story

For those unaware of the premise, Moneyball tells the real-life story of the Oakland A’s, an impoverished – in relation to the rest of baseball – team competing against teams with four times the payroll. Simply speaking, money buys talent in baseball. The best teams usually spend the most money – thus, New York Yankees.

Oakland, on the other hand, possessed an owner unwilling to spend money to keep up with the Jones’. With a clear monetary disadvantage, general manager, Billy Beane, and assistant Paul DePodesta, lean on advanced statistics and economic principles to outwit the giants of Major League Baseball (MLB).

In other words, the duo understood that every MLB franchise drafted, signed, and started players under the same flawed process. Scouts projected players based on dreams and the way a player looked, not on what they actually did. Lewis writes,

“There was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who actually played the game to generalize wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn’t. There was also a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy’s most recent performance: what he did last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly – but not lastly – there was the bias toward what people saw with their own eyes, or thought they had seen. The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality. There was a lot you couldn’t see when you watched a baseball game” (18).

For this reason, Beane and DePodesta created metrics in order to understand market inefficiencies. While big market clubs spent money on stolen bases and runs batted in, Beane and DePodesta found that on-base percentage correlated more closely to wins.

The Market of Human Beings

Although Moneyball inspires the reader to creatively consider ways in which to exploit market inefficiencies, the business of baseball differs from other markets in that the product sold is a human being. Discussing the difficulty of firing a baseball player, Lewis pens,

“’Someone’s got to talk to him,’ says Billy. Now, suddenly, there is a difference between trading stocks and bonds and trading human beings. There’s a discomfort. Billy never lets it affect what he does. He is able to think of players as pieces in a board game. That’s why he trades them so well” (213).

The “him” the previous quote discusses is Mike Magnante, a veteran reliever four days away from earning ten years of service time and a lucrative pension. His release conveys the dark side of efficiency. Lewis writes,

“At that moment Mike Magnante was removing his Oakland uniform and Ricardo Rincon was removing his Cleveland one. Mags quickly left the Oakland clubhouse; he’d come back for his things later when no one was around. His wife had brought their kids to the game so he couldn’t just leave. Magnante watched the game with his family until the sixth inning and then left so he wouldn’t have to answer questions from the media. He has no desire to call further attention to his situation. In his youth he might have mouthed off. He would certainly have borne a grudge. But he was no longer young; the numbness had long since set in. He thought of himself the way the market thought of him, as an asset to be bought and sold. He’d long ago forgotten whatever it was he was meant to feel” (216).

Even though Lewis writes this portion of the story in an intentional grim tone, the underlying principle remains: a human being understood himself as an object. While Moneyball inspires managers to rethink the ways they evaluate employees, the second the evaluative metrics force undesired personal decisions, an employee’s humanity must be considered alongside the evaluative metric.

Does Michael Lewis Strike Out or Work a Walk?

Moneyball brilliantly renders a way business can seek unique methods of evaluation. But such metrics must never trump natural human relationship. For Oakland, the incessant drive for success led to a decision that hurt a human being dearly. Would the slight upgrade in talent over the course of four days made much of a difference over the course of the season? It’s too hard to tell, but we must remember that human element. The drive behind my obsession over statistics as a child remains with me to this day as I consume baseball content. But, one must never use this obsession to run over an employee.

Moneyball is a well written book that explores unique evaluative frameworks. This book is a must read for baseball fanatics and business leaders alike.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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5 comments:

  1. Great review. Not much into baseball myself, but the book still looks like a fascinating read. Have you seen the film version of Moneyball? It's getting a lot of praise from critics so far.

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  2. Thanks for the comment! I have yet to see the film but I look forward to viewing it. Moneyball contains principles much deeper than the game itself and if you are interested in a new look at business efficiency, this book could give you good insights.

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  3. It made me realize a lot of true things about the game and I thank Billy Beane for pioneering his effort. This book is worth picking up if you want to learn more about how the game is played and take a second look at what statistics we use to define a "great player."

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  4. This book contains surprising depth for a sports book. This is why the book must be way better than the movie. Movies simply can't convey all the subtleties that a book can. There was a great review of the book on The Book Report radio show. You can listen to the archived shows on http://bookreportradio.com

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Francis. For the most part, I agree that a book is always better than a movie. Interestingly, with Moneyball, the movie and book are very different. The book, being nonfiction, focuses on factual evidence whereas the movie adds a whole new story line about Billy Beane, the person. I like both the book and movie but it is much too difficult to compare the two.

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