Thursday, December 15, 2011


Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
By Michael Lewis

Full disclosure here: I suck at math.

I essentially dropped out of math in the eleventh grade (and the behest of my math teacher!) to concentrate on subjects that provided me with the least numbers possible: English, history, geography and certain science courses. I have nothing particular against math and I am perfectly capable of doing simple, day-to-day math in my adult life. I just wasn't interested in the higher concepts involved in mathematics. I never saw the practical application for me. Twenty years later, I still don't.

I don't have a learning disability, though, and I can prove it. When I was younger still, I was an avid collector of baseball cards. I wasn't one of those sports collectible guys who bought individual cards (or entire series) as investments. I was a collector of the old school variety. I would haul ass down to the corner store and buy as many packs of cards my allowance would provide. I'm talking about the packs with the tongue slicing shards of gum that dusted one card in the pack with sugar. I accumulated my cards the old way: luck of the draw and a mouth full of cavities.

Baseball cards did a few things for me: First, and probably most important, they moulded me into a baseball fan. It's hard not to collect baseball cards and not want to watch these guys in action. I quickly became a fan of my hometown Toronto Blue Jays (this was 1985 so as luck would have it were it the Jays were on the early track to league dominance that would culminate in two World Series in 1992 and 1993... good time to be a Jays fan) but also acquired affinities toward a lot of other teams and individual players.

The second thing baseball cards did for me was provide my Asperger Syndrome with an ideal outlet. I'm not entirely sure whether I had Asperger Syndrome but looking back it sure looks like I did. I would obsess for hours over my baseball cards. Sorting and resorting them into all sorts of absurd orders. By team (obvious), by season (okay), by photo (???), and by stat. Since the first two are self-explanatory and the third is weird, let me explain the fourth.

For those who have never seen a Topps (always Topps) baseball card, the player's photo appears on the front and his career statistics appear on the back. I would take career totals in things like home runs, RBIs, batting average, stolen bases, slugging percentage, wins, ERA, strikeouts etc... and organize my cards thusly. I loved to see who the top ten players were and found myself actually rooting for certain players to make the top ten. If that's not Asperger Syndrome I don't know what is.

What I'm getting as is that I loved those stats. I obsessed over them. And, I'm fairly certain that had my math classes incorporated baseball statistics into the curriculum, I would have continued math right up to graduation. But... (and here's the scary part) had I ever gotten my hands on Bill James' Baseball Abstracts back in the early 1980s, I shudder how my life might of changed. More on that in a second...

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis is essentially the story of two people: Bill James, the baseball enthusiast turned freaknomic writer turned baseball guru who is celebrated (or reviled) for the invention of sabermetrics and Billy Beane the can't-fail prospect that failed turned general manager of the Oakland Athletics who took James' odd take on the game and applied much of it to an actual team, with dramatic results.

Lewis begins the book with a simple question: How did one of the poorest teams in professional baseball (The Oakland A's) win so many games? Since baseball is one of the last professional sports without a salary cap, one supposes that the system favors the richest teams, the ones who can buy the best talent while leaving the poorer teams with everything that was left. By and large, that is the case. The rich teams are perennially good (with an odd bad season in there) while the the poor teams are perennially bad (with an odd good season in there). Except Oakland. They were always poor and always good. Why?

This led Lewis to Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's. Beane, who is strapped with one of Major League Baseball's lowest budgets for player salaries, cannot compete with the likes of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. He is the GM of a small market team and he must find creative ways to build a winning team lest he become the Pittsburgh Pirates or, worse, the Montreal Expos. Beane has made scouting, drafting and finding diamonds in the rough an art form. Through statistical analysis (and some psychological profiling) Beane is able to weed out all the players who don't fit his mould and zero in on those who do, namely those who show a particular knack for simply getting on base. Thus while other GMs in baseball concentrate on numbers such as hits, home runs, RBIs and the such, Beane focuses all his efforts on On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage. where did he get such a crazy idea?

Enter Bill James. James is the father of what is now known as sabermetrics, a system of statistical analysis that more accurately described what is happening on a baseball field. James asked wildly fascinating questions like: what would happen if Mike Schmidt only batted against the Cubs? Did quick young black players loose their speed earlier in their careers than quick young white players? Does fielding account for that much over a 162 game schedule? In its current incarnation, a fielding error is when a fielder either fails to control the ball in play or throws the ball wildly resulting in the achievement of one or more bases for the opposition. What the statistic does not take into account is how hard the ball is hit, how much range that particular fielder can cover (a fielder with more range can cover more ground which would give him more opportunities to make an error but is obviously more valuable to a team than a fielder with limited range) and the fact that in order to make an error, a fielder had to have done something right: be in the right place at the right time to make a play.

As you can see, Bill James is a riot at parties.

Anyway, Moneyball is a fascinating look inside the world of baseball statisticians, oddball players like Scott Hatteberg, Jeremy Brown and Chad Bradford and one of baseball's most bizarre front offices. Beane, via James, went on to create a finely honed system that stacked the deck statistically in their favor by determining how many runs it would take to win 95 games (95 wins being a benchmark for making the playoffs), finding the players who, together could be reasonably predicted to produce said number of runs, eliminate the improbability from the game (no sacrifices, no bunting, no base stealing... all of them risk eliminating potential base runners and, ergo, potential runs). Add players who see an inordinate amount of pitches per plate appearance and you have the sort of team that grinds their opposition into the ground in a cold, heartless but ultimately unsexy way.

To see the game stripped down to commodities and statistics is simple extraordinary and anyone who assumed that Beane was an aberration in the league (for example: Pat Gillick) has been proven entirely wrong. Both my Toronto Blue Jays (who are poised for great things in 2012, mark my words) and the Boston Red Sox have incorporated many of Beane's systems into their own. Theo Epstein, a Beane convert, assembled the Red Sox teams that won World Series in 2004 and 2007 was recently hired by the hapless Chicago Cubs (one of the richest teams in baseball) to overhaul their team and (hopefully) bring a championship to the Southside for the first time since 1908.

I know there is a movie and I'm certainly not covering new ground here, but if there is anyone out there that has not seen the movie, read this book or heard of Billy Beane I urge you to sit down with this book It's worth it on so many levels. Michael Lewis has written a classic piece of non-fiction that has the ability to appeal to baseball fans and non-fans alike. Whether you collected baseball cards as a kid or don't know the difference between a bat and a glove, Moneyball is worth the read.

It should have come with a stick of gum.


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