Thursday, December 29, 2005

Moneyball and the art of living outside the box

I’ve been aware of Michael Lewis’ runaway best seller, Moneyball (W.W. Norton), for over a year. Since the book was released in early 2004, it’s been the talk of the sports world, as well as being a buzzword in other circles.

Several friends and acquaintances have mentioned the book and it’s been on my ever-lengthening list of books to read, at some point. Tuesday evening, it jumped to the top of the pile. My college-age son had picked up a copy while doing his holiday shopping. He read it in two days and tossed it at me with a, “Here, I’m finished—you need to read this” while I was indulging my semi-regular habit of watching South Park.

I stayed up until 1 am, early Wednesday morning reading until I couldn’t keep my eyes open and finished the book last night around 11 pm, after returning from the Greely High School/Alumni hockey game.

I don’t purport to have anything unique or earth-shattering to say about the book, other than it was a tremendously enjoyable read. Lewis is a wonderful writer, who is able to transport his readers into the world of his subject matter and make you forget that you are reading a book. Rather than sitting in your recliner, or lying in bed, reading, you are in the batter’s box, facing a major league pitcher, or sitting in the room on draft day, at the Oakland Coliseum. Another writer that comes to mind who possesses this ability is Tracy Kidder.

I’m not sure if you have to be a baseball fan to enjoy Lewis’ book. Obviously, a talented writer can interest a reader in a subject they know little or nothing about. While I certainly consider myself a fan of the game, I’ve recently cooled in my ardor for the professional variation of the grand ole’ game. Maybe Moneyball will be my invitation back into that world of interest that I’ve maintained a connection with since I was old enough to read my first box score.

For the uninitiated, the central character of Moneyball is one Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team. The A’s are a small market team, with a very miniscule payroll, compared to the likes of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Texas Rangers. To give you an idea, in 2002, the season that Moneyball zeroes in on, Oakland’s payroll was $40 million, while the Yankees’ payroll was over three times that, at $125 million. The Red Sox that year had a payroll of $108 million and the hapless Texas Rangers, thanks to the $50 million dollars being paid to one Alex Rodriguez, was $105 million. Only the Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals), major league baseball’s equivalent to being sent to Siberia and the perennial basement dwellers, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had lower payrolls, of $38 and $34 million respectively.

Beane, a former cant-miss prospect who did miss, has taken the unprecedented route to the general manager’s seat and is now running the show in Oakland. When he realized that his unsuccessful major league career was over, he asked his employer at the time, which happened to be the A’s, to allow him to become an advance scout. This person travels ahead of the big league team and analyzes future opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. At a time in his life that he should have been entering his prime as a player, Beane was asking for a desk job. As Lewis writes, “It was as unlikely as some successful politician quitting a campaign and saying he wanted to be a staffer, or a movie actor walking off the set and taking a job as a key grip.”

What made Moneyball so powerful a read, other than Lewis’ talent as a writer, was the story of how Beane, and his band of renegades, turned the major league scouting process on its head. If you want to see what thinking outside the box really is about, then Moneyball is a book you ought to read.

I found myself touched by the honesty of the writing, the willingness of Beane and the others to have their lives and imperfections laid bare for the reader. At the end of the book, Lewis, in his afterword, which he titles, Inside Baseball’s Religious War, mentions how much of baseball’s inner circle—the GM’s, scouts, along with writers and commentators (Lewis calls them the “Women’s Auxiliary”) basically “flipped out.” Beane, along with his assistant, Paul DePodesta, had no idea that exactly what form Moneyball would take until the book actually came out. Beane, according to Lewis, reacted in “horror.” Some of what Lewis wrote about him, particularly his fits of anger and violent outbursts, didn’t portray him in the best kind of way, yet, I think it was an honest and accurate representation of a complex human being, who had been bred from an early age to be a baseball star. As Lewis wrote, “I wanted to capture Beane doing what he did so well and interestingly: value, acquire, and manage baseball players. And when he did this, in his most intense moments, he was a bit of a maniac.”

To the credit of Bean, DePodesta and the Oakland A’s organization, which easily could have denied and distanced themselves from Lewis’ stories and claimed they were misrepresented, instead showed they were standup people and didn’t do that.

The real idiots of the book are many well-known and not so well-known members of the media. The pompous Joe Morgan, in his typical arrogant fashion, commented on the book that he so obviously hadn’t read—he didn’t even know that Lewis wrote it and not Beane. Because Beane and Company so totally deflated the ideas and conventional wisdom of the “old boys club” of scouts, general managers and other “lifers” of major league baseball, showing much of their thinking was a crock of shit, they had nothing left but to lash out at Beane. He showed the fallacy of drafting bodies, paying high school pitchers huge bonuses and an exposed an entire list of myths that had been perpetuated for decades.

While its possible to find fault with some of Beane’s conclusions, it’s hard to argue with the success that the A’s have achieved while maintaining one of baseball’s lowest payrolls. Year after year, since 2002, they’ve won in excess of 90 games a season, with players that were veritable castoffs from other baseball organizations. They’ve proven that getting on base is the most important thing in baseball and that you can find players who are capable of doing that without breaking the bank.

As I finished reading the book, I found myself wishing for another book like this one that I wouldn’t want to put down and would read at every opportunity and spare moment I could squire away. I also wondered about the application of these ideas in other areas; think about how life is so much about accepting the status quo in politics, economics, business and other areas. We are fed a line of BS and we are taught never to question it. Maybe we can all learn a lesson from Billy Beane and realize that our greatest opportunities may come when we decide it’s time to jump in and begin swimming upstream against the current, with the flotsam and jetsam of narrow-mindedness passing by at our elbow.


Joe said...

The irony with Joe Morgan is twofold:

1) He is clearly a very intelligent man, but he comes across like a moron when he still can't figure out that Beane didn't actually write this book, and

2) (this is the biggie) Joe Morgan was pretty much the prototypical Moneyball player. He got on base a ton and he hit for some power. Bill James wrote that Morgan was one of the smartest ballplayers of all time (I don't have access to James' book at the moment). Billy Beane would have loved to have Morgan on his team.

Yet Morgan played in a lower-scoring era where small-ball strategies paid greater dividends than they do today. Furthermore, Morgan was talented enough that he could steal bases with a high percentage of success, and he could take better advantage of sacrifice bunts than the average player. Because these strategies worked so well for him when he was a player, he can't seem to get past the thought that an out, even a "productive" one, is more harmful today than it was 30 years ago.

Joe said...

Oh, and I agree, Moneyball is a very good read. I'm sure somebody somewhere has been tracking the Moneyball players (from that draft). It'd be interesting to see the progress now three years on.