Ben’s thoughts on “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis

I just finished a book called “Moneyball” called Michael Lewis. It’s a book about baseball. It is, in particular, about a small group of people who have begun thinking about the game in a revolutionary new way. These people have been around since the 1970’s, but were not the people who made the decisions … until a few years ago, when a former ballplayer named Billy Beane became the general manager of the Oakland A’s.

Baseball is a game of tradition and has been long dominated by certain ideas about how to win, and about what is valuable in a player. These ideas have been around for so long and are so widely accepted that they have been completely unchallenged for decades. For example, almost every major league scout has an idea about what type of frame constitutes a “major league body” and about what skills are important in defining major league talent. In the mid-1970’s a tiny group of students of the game began using the emerging technology of personal computing to analyze the minutiae of the game: batting averages, on-base percentages, fielding statistics, and all the endless data which is generated by each passing season.

What these people came to realize was that many of the most treasured ideas of the baseball establishment were wrong. Among other things, this small group of enthusiasts realized that the most important thing in a hitter was not defense or baserunning, or even batting average, but the ability to NOT make an out. Because the length of each inning is defined by the timing of the third out, it is paramount that a hitter puts the ball in play or walks as often as possible. All other skills, which are still thought by most baseball insiders to be of roughly equal importance, are far less important than this trait. Armed with this insight, and several related ones, the A’s have gone about scouting talent and assembling a team in a whole new way.

I won’t go more into the nuts and bolts of the statistics involved. I think this part of the book was particularily interesting to me because I’ve often had fragmentary thoughts along the lines of those discussed in this book: if a walk is as good as a hit, why is batting average the most valued statistic? It’s always thrilling for someone who’s interested in numbers to see that the results of some basic statistical analyses can have such a momentous effect on some aspect of everyday life. Lewis does a good job outlining the new ways of thinking without getting bogged down in mathematics. He instead chooses to focus on the consequences of the first implementation of this way of thinking in the Oakland A’s organization. Most obviously, this new way of evaluating talent has led to a phenomenal string of successful seasons for the A’s, who have consistently had one of the lowest payrolls in the major leagues for a decade. Even as richer teams buy the best A’s players, the management of the A’s manages to re-build a team which challenges teams with triple their financial resources.

The thought that good ideas and careful analysis can overwhelm the sheer force of money is a tantalizing one, and it appeals to me for many reasons. It’s a classic David-vs.-Goliath story which has created some of the most riveting drama, both on and off the field, in baseball for the last few years. It also leads to a number of sometimes touching, sometimes hilarious sub-plots in the book. One of these is the fact that the rest of the baseball establishment is beginning to take notice of the new baseball wisdom, making it paramount for Beane and the A’s to use all variety of deception, coercion, and misdirection to stay a step ahead of other organizations who would attempt to copy their way of doing things. Other memorable portions of the book center on the reactions of players when first being asked by the A’s to do things (switch defensive positions) they would never have anticipated with other teams.

Ultimately, the most powerful parts of this story are those which center on the players, regarded as second-tier talent by baseball purists due to some perceived flaw, who have finally had their true value recognized by Beane and the A’s. These players would have had little chance to make a significant impact in baseball just five years ago, because their skills and make-up did not fit baseball’s traditional profiles. One by one, the rise of these players to success in the major leagues are detailed, and these stories are used to illustrate the central ideas of Beane and his number-crunchers. There’s Scott Hatteberg, a journeyman catcher who does not excel in any of baseball’s five traditional tools (hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw), but has an uncanny ability to pick his pitch and control the strike zone. There’s Chad Bradford, a pitcher whose low velocity and unusual delivery had relegated him to minor league ball with another team before the A’s acquired him and turned him into one of the premier relievers in the game.

And, most memorably, there is the tale of Jeremy Brown. Brown is a catcher who graduated college a year ago, and who no other pro team even bothered to scout because of his large frame (5′-8″ and 215 pounds). Upon seeing a trend in Brown’s numbers which indicated that he was an extraordinarily tough out, the A’s draft him in the first round, several hundred players above the expectations of anyone, including Brown himself. True to the A’s expectations, and despite the continual name-calling and taunting of his teammates and the media, Brown begins tearing up the minor leagues almost immediately, eventually proving himself to his teammates and to the writers, who put him among the top three hitters in the entire 2002 draft. The final paragraphs of the book are testament to Lewis’ genius, as he ties the main themes of the book together in as moving a passage as I’ve read this year:

“The fourth pitch is the mistake: the pitcher goes back to his change-up. Jeremy sees his arm coming through slowly again, and this time he knows to wait on it. The change-up arrives waist-high over the middle of the plate. The line drive Jeremy hits screams over the pitcher’s right ear and into the gap in left center field.

As he leaves the batter’s box, Jeremy sees the left and center fielders converging fast. The left fielder, thinking he might make the catch, is running himself out of position to play the ball off the wall. Jeremy knows he hit it hard, and so he knows what’s going to happen next — or imagines he does. The ball is going to hit the wall and ricochet back into the field. The left fielder, having overrun it, will have to turn around and chase after it. Halfway down the first-base line, Jeremy Brown has one thought in his mind: I’m gonna get a triple.

It’s a new thought for him. He isn’t built for triples. He hasn’t hit a triple in years. He thrills to the idea: Jeremy Brown, hitter of triples. A funny thing has happened since he became, by some miracle, the most upwardly mobile hitter in the Oakland A’s minor league system. Surrounded by people who keep telling him he’s capable of almost anything, he’s coming to believe it himself.

He races around first (“I’m haulin’ ass now”) and picks up the left fielder, running with his back to him, but not the ball. He’s running as hard as he’s ever run — and then he’s not. Between first and second base his feet go out from under him and he backflops into the dirt, like Charlie Brown. He notices, first, a shooting pain in his hand: he’s jammed his finger. He picks himself up, to scramble back to the safety of first base, when he sees his teammates in the dugout. The guys are falling all over each other, laughing. Swish. Stanley. Teahen. Kiger. Everybody’s laughing at him again. But their laughter has a different tone; it’s not the sniggering laughter of the people who made fun of his body. It’s something else. He looks out into the gap in left center field. The outfielders are just standing there: they’ve stopped chasing the ball. The ball’s gone. The triple of Jeremy Brown’s imagination, in reality, is a home run.”

It’s great stuff, even for people who don’t follow baseball. In fact, especially for people who don’t follow it. Pick it up if you get a chance.

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