Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Moneyball

A Book review by Gene Barth

Moneyball: the Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

Don’t be put off by the title. Michael Lewis tells a fascinating story. In 1995, Ken Hofmann and Steve Schott bought the Oakland Athletics for 85 million dollars. Unlike many major league baseball owners, they did not expect to turn the management of the As over to old baseball hands, relax their business acumen, and quietly subsidize the A’s as an expensive hobby capping successful business careers. Instead, they expected to achieve another business success by fielding a winning team on one of the lowest budgets in baseball.

Oakland’s new general manager, Billy Beane, believed that this goal was possible. While major league owners snoozed in the torpor of a perpetual July afternoon, baseball writer Bill James and a growing cadre of capable amateurs had worked a scientific revolution in the analysis of baseball, displacing the scout’s eye and the manager’s hunch with ruthlessly objective valuation of players, tactics, and strategy.

Uniquely, baseball is a sequence of individual contests masquerading as a team sport: Pitcher Versus Batter; Hitter Versus Fielder. In major league baseball, observers score each of these individual contests, recording them for posterity on official scorecards. Yet, other than calculating an occasional mean or tally --a player’s batting average, or a pitcher’s win/loss record-- scouts and managers left mostly undisturbed the vast trove of objective performance data contained in the scorecards.

Even when major league baseball used performance statistics, it often misused them. “In 1979, in the third, now annual, Baseball Abstract, [Bill] James wrote, ‘… I find it remarkable that, in listing offenses, the league will list first --meaning best—not the team which scored the most runs, but the team with the highest batting average. It should be obvious that the purpose of an offense is not to compile a high batting average.’ Because it was not obvious, at least to the people who ran baseball, James smelled a huge opportunity. How did runs score? … He set out to build a model to predict how many runs a team would score, given its number of walks, hits, stolen bases, etc.”

Billy Beane was a disciple of Bill James. And unlike virtually every other follower of Bill James, Beane was a thoroughbred major leaguer. The New York Mets drafted Beane out of high school. After his career as a baseball player, he moved into the Oakland front office as a scout. Beane was a fiery and intelligent insider who could not be locked out of the clubhouse.

As his number one talent scout, Beane hired a bright Harvard graduate, Paul DePodesta … and his laptop. Rather than hitting the road to scout talent, DePodesta logged on to the Web. Applying James’ sabermetric (Society of American Baseball Research + metric) methodology to online player statistics, DePodesta identified a succession of radically undervalued players: a pitcher with an unconventional “submarine” delivery; another pitcher whose wind-up suggested the onset of a seizure; a catcher with superb control of the strike zone, but less control of his appetite for pizza.

Having won over ninety games in the last four seasons, and over one hundred games in both 2001 and 2002, Oakland can literally capitalize on their own success. Lacking the As’ grasp of what really matters in winning baseball games, other teams are unable to disentangle the As success from the success of individual players. The As can then sell their stars, and even their 1996-2002 manager --figure head Art Howe-- at inflated prices in order to finance the purchase of another round of undervalued talent.

“Moneyball” is a infield box seat on a scientific revolution come to American baseball. Read “Moneyball” now and enjoy this revolution as it unfolds in the years ahead.

Gene Barth works in a research lab at the University of Chicago Medical Center and is a regular contributor to TIA Daily.

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