Moneyball: The Book and Movie

Michael Lewis certainly has a sense for a good story. Lewis is the author of The Blind Side and Moneyball, among other books, and the thread that seems to run through his work is an interest in value and a talent for telling a story about how it is created.

In The Blind Side, the value that he was interested in was that of a football lineman who plays on the left side of the offensive line, thus protecting the “blind side” of a right-handed quarterback. To explore that value, he told the story of Michael Oher. In Moneyball, the value that he was interested in was that of baseball players. The story he told was that of the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics and their general manager, Billy Beane.

I read the book last month, and saw the movie last week, so the “moneyball” concept is fresh in my mind. The idea behind “moneyball” is twofold:

1. When evaluating baseball players, measurables should be valued above intangibles. This means, for one thing, that you tend to draft college players more than high school players, because college players have a larger body of work.
2. When you are a baseball team without a lot of money, you need to look for players with measurables that are undervalued. Players who have measurables that are highly valued tend to be paid more, and so they tend to play for teams that can pay them more, like the Yankees. So you look for players like Chad Bradford, who was a good relief pitcher, but who was undervalued because he had an unusual throwing motion—he threw underhand.

Lewis followed Beane around during the 2002 baseball season and interviewed him several times. The fun thing about reading Moneyball all these years later, as someone who follows baseball, is that I know how things turned out for many of the players mentioned. Nick Swisher, for example, was the player that the A’s wanted most in the 2002 draft. They got him, and he played for them for several years, but now he plays for the Yankees. Another player the A’s drafted that year is Joe Blanton, who now plays for the Phillies. Most of the other players selected by the A’s that year did not make it to the major leagues for long, as pointed out by this article on espn.com. As Paul DePodesta—who was Beane’s assistant GM in 2002—points out, that is more of a reflection on the nature of baseball’s draft than the A’s philosophy. Lots of draftees, even in the first round, just don’t pan out.

The movie was generally faithful to the book. The one major change was that, since DePodesta did not want to be portrayed on screen, Beane’s assistant GM in the film is a composite character named Peter Brand. Also, Beane’s daughter does not feature in the book, but she does in the movie.

One problem with “moneyball” is a problem that it shares with all other forms of empiricism: It tries to turn everything into a measurable quantity. This probably works better in baseball than it does in most sports, because of the sheer number of statistical categories, but eventually it reaches its limits. It tries to be objective, when it is impossible for humans to be completely objective. Lewis points this out in the book, as he describes Beane’s quirks and the ways in which he behaves that are not entirely rational.

Another problem with “moneyball” is that eventually you run out of statistics that are undervalued by other teams. This has apparently been the case with the A’s over the last several years, as other teams have seen their success and adopted their methods. Former Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein, for example, wholeheartedly adopted Beane’s style of player evaluation, but with an important difference: the Red Sox have way more money than the Athletics. Since Moneyball was published, the Red Sox have won two World Series, and the Athletics have won none.

That’s not to say I don’t like the book or the movie. I enjoyed both; it’s a fun underdog story about challenging the status quo. I’d recommend both, and I look forward to reading more Lewis.

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