The joy of watching ideas win.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 275 pages, $24.95
If ever you were going to judge a book by the reaction to it, an excellent candidate would be Moneyball, reporter Michael Lewis' terrific and brisk account of how a long-simmering and mostly amateur analytical revolution was finally acknowledged, embraced, and ruthlessly implemented by a Major League Baseball executive: Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane. It's a tale of what happens when an energetic manager realizes that "the pursuit of truth [is], suddenly, the key to success," and that the possessors of this truth are outsiders shunned by the rigid hierarchy and insular mind-set that has dominated an industry for a century. You don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy the story and thrill to its non-sporting implications.
Beane is the most visible and successful proponent of a new school of baseball thought and scientific analysis that for the last quarter century has been demonstrating, in voluminous detail and with caustic wit, that much of what you've always known about the national pastime is just plain bunk. Dependable "clutch hitters"? They basically don't exist, study after "sabermetric" study has shown. (Sabermetrics, a word coined by the discipline's revered popularizer, Bill James, is derived from the Society for American Baseball Research.) Pitching and defense win championships, right? They don't without good offense, James and others have shown. Are minor league and college statistics meaningless predictors of major league value, especially when compared to eyewitness observation? Actually, something much closer to the opposite is true.
Not surprisingly, some professional dispensers of these leathery, increasingly insupportable clichés have issued denunciations of Moneyball so laughably distant from the sabermetricians' treasured scientific method that they inadvertently added fuel to the statheads' rapidly spreading fire.
Hall of Fame second baseman turned dull broadcaster Joe Morgan repeatedly criticized Billy Beane for having the nerve to write such a book, even though, um, Beane didn't. ESPN.com columnist Ralph Wiley suggested that Bill James had a possibly racial anti-Rickey Henderson motive for disparaging reckless base stealing 20 years ago. Actually, James has spilled more ink defending Henderson's greatness than any writer I'm aware of. Toronto Star baseball writers Richard Griffin and Geoff Baker, who have been railing against Moneyball all summer (Toronto Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Ricciardi is a former protégé of Beane), both suggested that sabermetrics has helped transform their team into the "White Jays"—a bunch of boring, slow-footed Caucasians good mainly for drawing walks and hitting home runs. "Ricciardi along with Oakland's Billy Beane and other new-wavers believe in building offence through patience at the plate and taking no chances on the bases," Griffin wrote. "That's a pre-WWII style of play. Under those criteria, Jackie Robinson could not have played in the majors." This is pure nonsense; Robinson is a stat geek favorite for his high-percentage base stealing, vastly underrated defense, and high walk rates, in addition to his barrier-breaking courage.
In a later column, Griffin branded the Society for American Baseball Research a "cult." Tracy Ringolsby, longtime diamond columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Baseball America, trashed Moneyball as a "one-sided, poorly researched piece of literature," written by a man with "limited knowledge of baseball" who failed to appreciate the evidence of Beane's shortcomings. "Heck," Ringolsby triumphantly announced, "the A's haven't even been to the World Series in the Billy Beane era."
Of course, neither have 21 other teams (out of a possible 30) since Beane was hired in 1997. But there are other factors in evaluating an organization's performance. For instance, since the beginning of 2000, only one other major league club has won more regular season games than Oakland (the Seattle Mariners, who have just one more win), and the A's have achieved this despite being restricted by one of the smallest budgets in baseball. Oakland's payroll for the 2003 season, when the team made its fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs, was $49 million; that's $10 million less than the Detroit Tigers, who this year set the American League record for losses in a season. Industry wide, the average annual payroll is around $75 million; the New York Yankees, who barely squeaked by the A's in the 2000 and 2001 playoffs, spend $180 million, more than three times as much.
Lewis, a gifted writer best known for his 1989 Wall Street memoir Liar's Poker, wanted to figure out just how David was managing to compete with Goliath, year after year. What he discovered was the first-ever baseball organization to rip up more than 100 years' worth of tradition by adopting, from the owner's box down to the lowest minor league scout, a total organizational approach based on the principles and information hashed out in the thriving and mostly ignored subculture of baseball analysis. Working in a comparatively small city and saddled with a lousy stadium, the A's were financially desperate enough to consider radical measures for finding quality players grossly undervalued by the market. Sandy Alderson, a rare baseball outsider turned general manager who ran the mostly successful franchise through most of the 1980s and '90s, had been an early enthusiast of sabermetrics, and he sprinkled his organization with people open to its ideas. But it wasn't until the team ownership changed in 1995 that his budget mandate became grim enough to accelerate the process. That's when he gave one of his new hires, an intellectually restless young ex-player named Billy Beane, a stack of Baseball Abstracts, the seminal annual books authored from 1977 through 1988 by Bill James.
Being introduced to James' contrarian and original writing—not unlike encountering Moneyball for the first time—can permanently alter one's brain chemistry. Lewis himself experienced the phenomenon after Billy Beane lent him his old Abstracts. "What stunned me," the author told the stat geek site BaseballPrimer.com, "was the literary eloquence of Bill James. I was absolutely astonished…. I could not believe that I didn't know who this man was. I was just astonished by it. It was a combination of the clarity of the thought and the joy of the way it's expressed. It just seemed totally original and fresh to me."
James, a night watchman at a pork and beans factory, sold 75 of his first Abstract, a stapled, mimeographed sheet full of new statistical curios: average length of games by individual umpire, attendance by pitcher, etc. His figures were flavored with the occasional verbal dart. In the 1982 Abstract, for instance, he had this to say about Dave Parker: "There is no doubt about it: It is hard to play baseball well when you're fat." Or on Duane Kuiper, in the same edition: "It's absolutely incredible that a player this bad could be given 3000 at bats in the major leagues."
Jabs aside, James' formulas and stubbornly sensible observations began seeping into the consciousness of the game, especially after the book was picked up by Ballantine and became an annual bestseller. The object of offense was scoring runs while preventing outs, and by far the two most important factors in scoring runs were the ability to get on base (measure by on-base percentage) and the ability to advance runners (slugging percentage). Batting average, just a component of both, was vastly overrated when compared to drawing walks and hitting for power; 1970s catcher Gene Tenace, with his low batting average and high walk numbers, was never considered the offensive equivalent of his singles-hitting counterpart Manny Sanguillen, when in fact Tenace was his run-producing superior by a wide margin. The effects of individual ballparks distorted statistics more than most people realized. Hitters in Fenway Park and Wrigley Field were overrated, as were pitchers in the Astrodome and Dodger Stadium. Positions on defense were aligned on an invisible spectrum, with the more challenging middle-infield spots on the left (where offense wasn't so important), first basemen and designated hitters on the right. (As James was making these observations, teams were still employing singles-hitting first basemen with mediocre batting averages; that no longer happens.) The average peak performance of hitters was at age 27, not 30 as was once commonly thought.
On and on it went—and still goes: James' 2002 book Win Shares may lead to brand new ways of evaluating defensive performance. James always had a perversely attractive tough-love approach to his readers—and to his own conclusions, which he happily ripped up and denounced, year after year, as new information or thinking came to light. He railed against the inadequacy of stats gathering and helped create a grassroots organization to fill in the many blanks in the average box score. "There was something bracing about the way he did it—his passion, his humor, his intolerance of stupidity, his preference for leaving an honest mess for others to clean up rather than a tidy lie for them to admire—that inspired others to join his cause," Lewis writes.
The historical context, too, played in sabermetrics's favor. "When Bill James published his 1977 Baseball Abstract two changes were about to occur that would make his questions not only more answerable but also more valuable," Lewis writes. "First came radical advances in computer technology: This dramatically reduced the cost of compiling and analyzing vast amounts of baseball data. Then came the boom in baseball players' salaries: This dramatically raised the benefits of having such knowledge."
Beane had extra incentive to be open to James and this new cottage industry of intellectual property: Beane himself was precisely the type of player that baseball insiders overvalued. Compared favorably to his organization mate Darryl Strawberry, Beane was a lovely athlete with all "five tools"—the ability to hit for average, hit for power, run, field, and throw. Yet he was a big league failure, partly because of his inability to control the strike zone as a batter. "The new, outsider's view of baseball was all about exposing the illusions created by the insiders on the field," Lewis writes. "Billy Beane had himself been one of those illusions."
Beane is also (still) an imposing physical specimen, who can and does command respect and even fear in a macho clubhouse. This, Lewis shows, became crucial in his ability to ram a bunch of stat nerd ideas down the throats of players, coaches, and scouts. Though Lewis has called Moneyball "the story of an idea" (the idea being sabermetric thought), in fact it's the story of the temperamental, bull-headed revolutionary who was able to impose this idea on an unwilling host and take advantage of his market's irrationalities. It's a management tale and morality fable, which may be why the book has been so popular among Wall Street traders and Web geeks. I know at least two people who, after reading the book, decided to rethink their entire mental approaches to life.
Which may sound like evidence for Richard Griffin's description of sabermetrics as a "cult," but that charge misses a crucial point. The analytic revolution thrived precisely because from its early days people argued passionately with each other. As important, they yielded when the better research or theory won. Much of the parlor reaction to Moneyball has focused on questions such as: What happens when the rest of baseball catches up to Beane's fanatical emphasis on on-base percentage? And why on earth would he give away his trade secrets?
The first question ignores the distorting effects of Lewis' book. He chose to highlight Oakland's strong emphasis on offensive patience, partly because it's important and partly because it presented to him cerebral underdog subjects such as castoff catcher turned starting first baseman Scott Hatteberg and submarine pitcher Chad Bradford. Sabermetrics at heart is about analytical thinking, not one particular statistical category. Perhaps the most significant organizational change the A's have implemented over the years is a scientific physical program to prevent what the stat geeks have long identified as a crucial problem: arm injuries to pitchers. Critics of Beane and Moneyball say both are piggybacking on the success of Oakland's three great young pitchers (Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder), but it's entirely plausible that one or more of the three would have blown out their elbows in nonsabermetric organizations.
As the A's cruised to another first place finish this year, an odd thing happened: they did it with pitching and fleet-footed defense, not their on-base percentage (which ranked near the bottom of the American League). Quietly, and without the naysayers noticing it, the team has gotten rid of fat slow white guys like Matt Stairs, Jason Giambi, and Jeremy Giambi, while importing low-on-base-percentage defensive wizards such as Chris Singleton. Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox, who hired Bill James and sabermetric wunderkind Voros McCracken in the off season, had a record-setting, playoff-bound offensive season using forgotten players only stat geeks could love. While the Tracy Ringolsbys of the world stew in their juices, Beane and his fellow travelers are having the last laugh.
"A few years ago," he told the Oakland Tribune recently, "people wondered if we pitched well enough and if we played good enough defense. It's a story untold. All you have to do is score enough runs."