Saturday, 17 January 2009

It's Not All About The Benjamins: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

This isn’t, at heart, a book about baseball. On the surface it’s about the how the Oakland A’s, who should be the equivalent of the kid in the old Charles Atlas adverts getting sand kicked in their faces, live with the big financial bullies of the league. How they compete in the only major American sport that doesn’t have a salary cap to provide a level playing field. The difference is this kid didn’t send off to get the muscles, he simply got smart instead. This book is about how being smarter than your opponents can work. Even if you’ve got zero interest in baseball, it’s an absorbing, intelligent read.

There are two real threads to this book. The first is the rise in sabermetrics, which tried to take the elements of luck and judgement out of baseball statistics and actually measure a player’s performance – for example, fielders being judged on how few errors they made when an error was obviously a subjective call. And the second is how Oakland’s general manager Billy Beane, originally a can’t miss prospect who missed, determined that the conventional methods of building a team were wrong and set about some unorthodox methods of constructing that team.
The threads intertwine as Beane, with the help of his assistant Paul DePodesta, uses the sabermetric system, rather than the conventional league approved ones, to analyse the truly important underrated stats and pick up cost effective players who performed well in these categories. In short, he takes advantage of crucial data that other teams ignore in favour of the more gaudy stats. It’s fascinating to see Beane rebuild the organisation using these stats as a basis. He fires the scouts, who look only at what they want to see - who looks good and athletic, who pitches the fastest, who runs the swiftest. These scouts, who’ve been trained by convention and accepted wisdom, are all booted in favour of those who’ll look beyond the appearances and to actual performances. And with the help of his new scouts and sabermetrics Beane takes the equivalent of rescue dogs from Battersea Dogs Home and transforms them into stars. And if they don’t work out, or work out too well he trades them to his advantage. And as the book clearly shows the methods are wildly successful – the A’s consistently have one of the league’s lowest payrolls yet consistently make the playoffs.

Beane’s a fascinating central character, a GM whose own experiences of being the can’t miss prospect who missed lead him to question the whole system of talent evaluation. He’s an intriguing mixture of gambler, thinker and horse trader, even not watching his own team’s games because it might bring cloud his judgement on players. It’s clearly his failure to make it that drives him to prove how wrong the league is when it comes to selecting players, and use that failure to outsmart the rest of the league. Michael Lewis clearly conveys the passion that drives him and the pleasure he derives from building his team. He doesn’t shy from portraying Beane’s ruthlessness either, mixing the fairytale pickups of Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteburg with Mike Magnante, who’s cut immediately before a game his wife and children had turned up to watch, effectively ending his career four days short of receiving his full pension benefits.

By the end of the book a couple of other teams have started to cotton on and follow Oakland’s methods, rather than dismissing them as a freak situation. Only a few though, the majority of baseball still cling to their received wisdom. When you finish reading this book the new afterword will give you the impression that the powers that be in Major League Baseball are like the Spanish Inquisition trying to silence anyone who tells them the world isn’t flat or the centre of the universe, suppressing and ignoring knowledge that might improve them and their teams.
It’s a great story which Michael Lewis tells fluently and clearly, meaning the baseball stats and often complex trades are rendered clearly to outsiders. It fires what Beane and DePodesta are dong through a business perspective, showing clearly how the often hollow business mantra of more efficiency, fresh perspective and exploiting previously unknown holes in the market can work even applied outside the traditional business arena. It focuses an already great story through a prism of fresh perspective, although naturally it’s an occasionally harsh perspective on Beane treating his players as commodity. Each chapter focuses on some aspect of Beane’s thinking and the background to it, meaning the methods he uses are vividly and clearly illustrated, even to those with little or no interest in baseball.

In the end the book is best summed up by a rare example Lewis gives from a game. A television analyst is explaining exactly why Oakland always fail in the playoffs, whilst in the background the team are actually doing what he’s saying. Naturally his lecture goes unquestioned, even in the light of hard evidence from the game. If there’s one favour a sports fan can get from Moneyball it’s to realise how little sportscasters engage their brains when ‘analysing’. In fact, how little most teams seem to be using their brain, instead favouring received knowledge.

This is a book that can be read, digested and enjoyed even by non-baseball fans, hell even by non-sports fans. In that respect, Moneyball is simply one of the greatest sports books ever published.

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