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Moneyball by Michael Lewis

by Matt Smith

“Moneyball” by Michael Lewis, (Norton, 2004), 316 pages.

“Moneyball” has been described as the most influential sports book that has ever been written. If a book’s influence is judged by the reaction it provokes, both positive and negative, then that may well be true. Thankfully, Moneyball’s position on the ‘must-read’ book list is due to more than just the fuss that it caused when it was first published.

The subtitle to Moneyball is “The Art of winning an unfair game” and it neatly sums up its underlying theme. Michael Lewis was a bond salesman in London before turning his hand to journalism and writing books. The Oakland Athletics’ ability to compete with the baseball elite, despite being at a near ridiculous financial disadvantage to their main competitors, was an interesting story to baseball fans. To someone with a strong economic background, their success almost defied logic and Moneyball marks Lewis’s attempt to uncover the A’s secret.

This pursuit was always going to cause angst in the baseball community for two main reasons. Firstly, the A’s ‘secret’ is essentially to work differently to their rivals and disrupting the status quo always makes you a target for criticism. Secondly, one of the main joys of this book is that it provides a window into the inner-workings of MLB. As Jim Bouton found out thirty-odd years earlier when he released “Ball Four”, the protectionist world of MLB doesn’t like outsiders to know what is really going on behind closed doors. Right from the start, this book was heading on a collision course with the baseball establishment.

Essentially the A’s ‘secret’ was (and still is) to use different statistical tools to evaluate players with the hope of finding ways to exploit inefficiencies in the player market. This immediately resonated with Lewis as it’s a technique that has created billionaires on the financial markets (not least John Henry, currently the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox). Of course, ‘inefficiencies in the player market’ is another way of saying that everyone else is overrating, and overpaying, for certain types of players. The A’s felt the traditional method of scouting players was one of the primary causes; that the standard ideas of what a baseball player should be were often flawed, but they had become so deeply ingrained that nobody dared to challenge them.

Nobody within the game that is. Outside the cosy confines of the professional ranks, stat-minded baseball fans such as Bill James were busy analysing data and drawing conclusions completely at odds with conventional baseball wisdom. The rise of the statistical analysis of baseball was largely shunned (and ridiculed) by the Major League fraternity, who were able to write the likes of James off as mere stat geeks who had never played the game and therefore didn’t matter. It was the Oakland A’s who brought some of the ideas of the outsiders into MLB. Naturally this provoked a defensive reaction from those who supported the traditional methods of player evaluation. The resulting ‘stats versus scouts’ debate is laid bare in Moneyball and Lewis feasts on the wildly contrasting characters who epitomize the schism between the two sides: the overweight scout who doesn’t need anything but his own eyes to evaluate a prospect on one side and a Harvard graduate hunched over his computer and devouring obscure statistics on the other.

While Moneyball contains many interesting statistical and financial ideas, Lewis’s real strength is his ability as a pure storyteller. He uses the trading deadline and the amateur draft as the main scenes around which the story evolves. The draft day chapter in particular is extremely well written: the tension and excitement of the process is captured brilliantly and it’s difficult not to get wrapped up in the drama as it unfolds.

In the middle of it all is Oakland’s General Manager, Billy Beane; wheeling and dealing as the deadline approaches and playing the adrenalin-fuelled ringleader as they make their unorthodox draft picks. However, although he is undoubtedly the central character, Moneyball is not 300 pages of Billy Beane hero-worshipping. From his rash mid-season roster moves in 2002 to the depiction of his manic behaviour while the A’s are playing, Lewis makes a point of revealing Beane’s flaws as much as his qualities. And Beane is far from the only person Lewis focuses on. In fact, the sections on Scott Hatteburg and Chad Bradford, players who didn’t fit the Major League mould but found a home with the A’s, are just as important in the overall context of the book (and enjoyable) as those about Oakland’s GM. We also get an alternative take on the situation courtesy of some wonderful asides from Oakland’s then third base coach Ron Washington. Whether he’s considering the lack of base-running talent, the lack of fielding talent, or the A’s virtual ban on base stealing (it isn’t just player evaluation that Oakland question, but also the way the game is played), Washington always has an entertaining comment, often with an expletive or two thrown in, that will have you laughing out loud.

The reaction to this book in some quarters when it was first published in 2003 can only be described as hysterical. It’s no surprise therefore that in the paperback version, first published in 2004, Lewis includes an afterword that specifically addresses the furore that he has caused. The author picks apart the standard accusations and questions that have been regurgitated by many embittered members of the Baseball ‘Club’, as Lewis describes it. He particularly takes great delight in the fact that some parts of the ‘Club’, blinded by their prejudice, believe that Billy Beane wrote Moneyball himself (baffling when you consider the way he is portrayed in some sections). As Lewis states: “It was, in a way, an author’s dream: the people most upset about his book were the ones unable to divine that he had written it”.

While the half-baked accusations have clearly been frustrating for Lewis, that Moneyball stirred up such a vitriolic response, often by people displaying a distinct lack of understanding of what the book is really about (or even who wrote it!), was actually quite fitting. This is a story of renegade underdogs, challenging orthodox thinking, knowing that they cannot compete financially with the money-rich teams and therefore trying to work smarter to bridge the gap. It provides a compelling insight into the real world of MLB (particularly in the case of the amateur draft), an invaluable understanding into the statistical analysis of baseball and the way it rubs up against tradition, and it’s simply a great story, very well told. Add the controversy on top and you have a genuine ‘must read’ book for any self-respecting baseball fan, and indeed any sports fan. We can only hope that the rumours of a follow up, charting the successes and failures from the 2002 draft, turn out to be true. Duck for cover: round two may be imminent!

Have you read “Moneyball”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

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