This book explains how Billy Beene, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, is using a new kind of thinking to build a successful and winning baseball team without spending enormous sums of money. The author examines the fallacy behind the major league baseball refrain that the team with the biggest wallet is supposed to win. Over the past four years the Oakland Athletics, a major league team with a minor league payroll, have had one of the best records in the country. General Manager Billy Beene is putting into practice on the field revolutionary principles to build his team that have been concocted by geek statisticians and college professors, rather than using the old scouting technique called "gut instinct." The author takes us behind the scenes with the Oakland A's, into the dugouts, and into the conference rooms where the annual Major League draft is held by conference call, and rumor mongering is par for the course as each team jockeys for position for their favored player.I wrote this book because I fell in love with a story. The story concerned a small group of undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball. But the idea for the book came well before I had good reason to write it, before I had a story to fall in love with. It began, really, with an innocent question: how did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games? This book is a quest for something as elusive as the Holy Grail, something that money apparently can't buy: the secret of success in baseball.
If every armchair sports fans thinks they know better than the others, it stands to reason that most of them are wrong.
The fact that the Oakland A's never won the world series is absolutely not the point. If the market was functioning efficiently, on their budget, they should never have got within cooey of it: The buying power of behemoths like the Mets should have ensured that. What is remarkable - and what is important - is that the A's consistently, massively, exceeded their own expectations.
Sport is a business. I mean that figuratively as well as literally: profit can be measured in dollar terms but also in percentage of wins to losses. Fans seem to forget that. In business, consistently exceeding expectations is an even better thing than winning the World Series, because it necessarily means you've made MONEY. If you're the favourite and you win the World Series, you have only met expectations, and you may even have made a loss.
If baseball were a perfect market, it wouldn't be possible to exceed expectations over a long period. Over a few games, maybe - that could be a fluke. Over two seasons, it almost certainly couldn't be. That means two things: (a) conventional wisdom about the value of certain baseball players and certain attributes is wrong; and (b) The Oakland A's have worked out what is right, or at any rate their model is better than the conventional wisdom.
This is the sort of thing Billy Beane should have kept as quiet about as possible. Michael Lewis' book ought to be a Eureka moment for every baseball manager: if it is, then the market mis-pricing will disappear, everyone will acquire players on the strength of the new valuation methodology and the Oakland A's will gradually fall down the rankings to where they should have been in the first place, given their budget. I dare say that has already started to happen.
What it ought to do is open eyes of managers from other codes, and indeed other businesses: The key is in having sufficient data. If you have enough good quality data (like baseball does) then if your analysis of it is better than your competitors, then as long as your approach is disciplined and consistent, you will, over time, turn a virtually risk free profit. It's called arbitrage.
I haven't even got onto the fact that Michael Lewis is one of the most insightful and witty writers writing in business at the moment, and this book is a pleasure to read from start to finish, notwithstanding my ignorance of its subject. I have read a number of business titles recently, and compared to the rest of the pack Lewis is, if you'll excuse the pun, a major leaguer amongst amateurs.
Highly, highly recommended.
There are two real threads to this book. The first is the rise in sabermetrics, which tried to take the elements of luck and judgement out of baseball statistics and actually measure a player’s performance – for example, fielders being judged on how few errors they made when an error was obviously a subjective call. And the second is how Oakland’s general manager Billy Beane, originally a can’t miss prospect who missed, determined that the conventional methods of building a team were wrong and set about some unorthodox methods of constructing that team.
The threads intertwine as Beane, with the help of his assistant Paul DePodesta, uses the sabermetric system, rather than the conventional league approved ones, to analyse the truly important underrated stats and pick up cost effective players who performed well in these categories. In short, he takes advantage of crucial data that other teams ignore in favour of the more gaudy stats. It’s fascinating to see Beane rebuild the organisation using these stats as a basis. He fires the scouts, who look only at what they want to see - who looks good and athletic, who pitches the fastest, who runs the swiftest. These scouts, who’ve been trained by convention and accepted wisdom, are all booted in favour of those who’ll look beyond the appearances and to actual performances. And with the help of his new scouts and sabermetrics Beane takes the equivalent of rescue dogs from Battersea Dogs Home and transforms them into stars. And if they don’t work out, or work out too well he trades them to his advantage. And as the book clearly shows the methods are wildly successful – the A’s consistently have one of the league’s lowest payrolls yet consistently make the playoffs.
Beane’s a fascinating central character, a GM whose own experiences of being the can’t miss prospect who missed lead him to question the whole system of talent evaluation. He’s an intriguing mixture of gambler, thinker and horse trader, even not watching his own team’s games because it might bring cloud his judgement on players. It’s clearly his failure to make it that drives him to prove how wrong the league is when it comes to selecting players, and use that failure to outsmart the rest of the league. Michael Lewis clearly conveys the passion that drives him and the pleasure he derives from building his team. He doesn’t shy from portraying Beane’s ruthlessness either, mixing the fairytale pickups of Chad Bradford and Scott Hatteburg with Mike Magnante, who’s cut immediately before a game his wife and children had turned up to watch, effectively ending his career four days short of receiving his full pension benefits.
By the end of the book a couple of other teams have started to cotton on and follow Oakland’s methods, rather than dismissing them as a freak situation. Only a few though, the majority of baseball still cling to their received wisdom. When you finish reading this book the new afterword will give you the impression that the powers that be in Major League Baseball are like the Spanish Inquisition trying to silence anyone who tells them the world isn’t flat or the centre of the universe, suppressing and ignoring knowledge that might improve them and their teams.
It’s a great story which Michael Lewis tells fluently and clearly, meaning the baseball stats and often complex trades are rendered clearly to outsiders. It fires what Beane and DePodesta are dong through a business perspective, showing clearly how the often hollow business mantra of more efficiency, fresh perspective and exploiting previously unknown holes in the market can work even applied outside the traditional business arena. It focuses an already great story through a prism of fresh perspective, although naturally it’s an occasionally harsh perspective on Beane treating his players as commodity. Each chapter focuses on some aspect of Beane’s thinking and the background to it, meaning the methods he uses are vividly and clearly illustrated, even to those with little or no interest in baseball.
In the end the book is best summed up by a rare example Lewis gives from a game. A television analyst is explaining exactly why Oakland always fail in the playoffs, whilst in the background the team are actually doing what he’s saying. Naturally his lecture goes unquestioned, even in the light of hard evidence from the game. If there’s one favour a sports fan can get from Moneyball it’s to realise how little sportscasters engage their brains when ‘analysing’. In fact, how little most teams seem to be using their brain, instead favouring received knowledge.
This is a book that can be read, digested and enjoyed even by non-baseball fans, hell even by non-sports fans. In that respect, Moneyball is simply one of the greatest sports books ever published.
Despite not really caring about baseball, and being from Atlanta, I actually followed the A's until the person doing the statistical work was sent to a different team, because it was so cool.
“The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.” (p. 158)
The answer? Statistics and highly educated people running the selection process of new talent. The A’s broke from the norm and are now using computer-based statistics and game theory to make their draft and trade selections instead of the “old-school” method of sending scouts to see if a candidate “looks” like a player. Apparently, “The Look” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the record books and the A’s figured that out.
The book is quite interesting from a geek’s point of view in that it give some insight into the statistical methods and idiosyncracies that they look for in players. From a baseball player’s standpoint I can’t say that the book offered anything of real value other than a couple of chapters of interesting tales from the minor leagues and scouting incidents. But, all things considered, it is an enjoyable read for the sports enthusiast and tech-geek alike.
In 2002, the Oakland Athletics had the second lowest payroll in baseball, yet they managed to acquire more wins than all but one other team. According to conventional baseball wisdom, this was an impossible feat. So how did they do it? Michael Lewis answers this question by telling the story of A’s general manager Billy Beane.
Beane, drawing on very unconventional analysis by a baseball scholar named Bill James, believed that winning games depended far less than commonly believed on things like hitters’ batting average and fielders’ number of errors and relief pitchers’ saves. Instead, the most telling indicators of success were things like a batter’s ability to get on base with or without a hit and a pitcher’s strikeout percentage. Through the course of the 2002 season, Beane’s scrappy team won game after game while acquiring players everyone else thought were worthless and emphasizing strategies most other teams scoffed at. It seemed Beane was being proven right.
Of course, not everyone agreed. The 2002 A’s were an anomaly, some argued. But the numbers speak for themselves. Even readers with little or no interest in baseball will be intrigued by Lewis’s ability to describe and analyze statistical trends. Billy Bean comes off looking like a heroic David fighting against the Goliath of major-league baseball’s institutions. Traditional baseball scouts and others who hold fast to supposedly time-tested “truths” about America’s favorite game come across as naïve at best and downright foolish at worst. Through it all, the background stories of players—some whom no one but the most ardent baseball fans have ever heard of—add a delightful element of human interest, and the team’s ultimate success gives the book an almost epic hero’s-journey feel.
One word of caution: baseball is a dangerous sport to become interested in. With 162 games per season, not including the playoffs, loyally following even one team is a time-consuming enterprise. If you’re a baseball fan already, Moneyball will make you watch and think about games differently. If you’re not a fan, reading this book just might make you one.