20 December 2018

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

I wanted to read this book because of how much I love the movie adaptation by the same name. I think everyone loves the movie, it's amazing. My parents bought it for me for Christmas a few years ago (throwback to our 2016 Books We Got for Christmas list) but what really drove me to finally read it now is how much I have come to love sports culture.

My best friend and my fiance are both very into sports (basketball and hockey, respectively) so over the last two years sports have become a big(ger) part of my life. I don't love sports, per say, but I have grown to love sports culture. I love to learn about how the players grew up, the locker room drama, the politics of the draft, and what their homes look like, but I don't necessarily care about their shooting average (not sure if this is even a real term). My fiance, on the other hand, loves sports but is completely oblivious to sports culture. He can tell you the name and stats of any NHL goalie but he won't know if they're married or have kids. He wants Hockey Night in Canada and TSN highlights whereas I want Hockey Wives and a Timbits commercial. Interesting to note- Meghan is into both.

Moneyball is everything that I love about sports. It's team dynamics and trade logistics, it's the psychological impact of having a bad game, or worse, a bad few seasons. The story follows the former manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, and how he and his assistant Paul DePodesta completely re-designed the way they built their MLB team to overcome the fact that they were one of the most poor teams in the league. I'm not going to talk a ton more about the plot because honestly you've either seen the movie or need to see it and can glean your interest in the book from that.

Michael Lewis is a salesman turned financial journalist turned nonfiction author and he has written a LOT of cool books. After finishing Moneyball I quickly added Liar's Poker, The Blind Side and The Big Short to my wish list. These are all stories I know, most people know them, but I love the detail in his writing and still feel like there's so much to learn by reading the books that the movie adaptations don't fully cover. Lewis is an incredibly concise and informative writer- knowing how to get to the point without boring us, but he compiles facts in a way that still make these stories exciting to read, and accessible to people who don't have any knowledge of the content.

Michael Lewis

Lewis started the research for Moneyball thinking he wanted to write about the intersection of baseball and reason, and he quickly fell into the rabbit hole that was Beane, DePodesta, and the Oakland As because the work they were doing was too fascinating to turn away from. Beane and DePodesta threw away the traditional scouting methods because they knew they could never compete with the 'rich' teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox, and began 'buying' lower budget players people had barely heard of who could deliver runs, all based on a theory that runs scored outweighs every other metric when it comes to winning a baseball game. Beane and DePodesta were using a massive pool of historical stats to predict how players would continue to perform.

They will make fun of what the A's are about to do; and there will be a lesson in that. The inability to envision a certain kind of person doing a certain kind of thing because you've never seen someone who looks like him do it before is not just a vice. It's a luxury. What begins as a failure of the imagination ends as a market inefficiency: when you take out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job."

Between the statistical theory itself, and the confidence in their predictions, the scrutiny was wild. Paying top dollar for objective talent was what had been working for the other teams, and it looked to the outside world like Beane was running the team into the ground. He was trading good players who cost too much for sometimes injured players on other teams who cost less, but who could predictably deliver runs. People he was absolutely nuts. But, in 2002, he led the team to 20 game win streak, an American league record. So despite all the scrutiny, something was working.

Every deal you do will be publicly scrutinized by subjective opinion. If I'm [IBM CEO] Lou Gerstner, I'm not worried that every personnel decision I make is going to wind up on the front page of the business section. Not everyone believes that they know everything about the personal computer. But everyone who ever picked up a bat thinks he knows baseball. To do this well, you have to ignore the newspapers."

I'm [Lewis] still having trouble getting my mind around the notion of making such forecasts about human beings, and I say as much. My problem can be simply put: every player is different. Every player must be viewed as a special case. The sample size is always one. [Beane's] answer is simple: baseball players follow similar patterns, and these patterns are etched in the record books. Of course, every so often some player my fail to embrace his statistical destiny, but on a team of twenty-five players the statistical aberrations will tend to cancel each other out. And most of them will conform fairly exactly to his expectations."

The details that you lose in the movie adaptation are crucial to understanding why they were willing to commit so aggressively to this newer scouting method. Lewis spends a lot of time talking about Beane's own player history (they do show flashbacks in the movie but it's incredibly hard to understand the psychological effects his career had on him in a 45 second clip), the reason why DePodesta gets into sports (in the movie Beane just sort of 'finds' him and you learn he's a Harvard grad- in the book you learn he studied economics but was more interested in how humans apply economic philosophies to other areas of life than actually economics, cue his career in sports), and how this theory developed itself over time, starting with a man named Bill James.

Bill James was an obsessive baseball fan who wrote an annual 'piece' called "The Bill James Baseball Abstract" where he predicted a formula to calculate wins based on player history. DePodesta ended up tweaking the algorithm slightly, but the idea didn't come out of nowhere. There were major inequalities in the sport in the late nineties. Rich teams were paying ridiculous prices for players and there was no salary cap. It made it so that rich teams could buy stacked teams and continue to win, thus raising more money for next season, and creating a vicious circle. Poor teams in this cycle continued to suffer more and more each year. The scouting politics had become so volatile, creating a climate that made a theory like James' more easily accepted by  a manager willing to try anything to make his team better.

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill as Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta (respectively) in the film adaptation, Moneyball
In the film also lose interesting details like the full chapter on Beane's obsession with pitchers. Lewis devotes an entire section to discussing the sport's obsession with pitchers, not just fans but managers, coaches, and scouts alike. It was thought that if you had a great pitcher on your team, you could build your team around him. James, Beane, and DePodesta alike didn't believe in 'great' pitchers. Pitchers had great pitches, sometimes, but great pitches could come and go from a particular player. I liked this quote to describe the philosophy:

In Billy Beane's mind, pitchers were nothing like high-performance sports cars or thoroughbred racehorses, or any other metaphor that implied a cool, inbuilt superiority. They were more like writers... They had all sorts of ways of achieving their effects and they needed to be judged by those effects, rather than by their outward appearance, or their technique... Good pitchers were pitchers who got outs; how they did it was beside the point... Pitchers were like writers in another way, too: their output was harder than it should have been to predict... Great prospects flame out, sleepers become stars. A thirty-year-old mediocrity develops a new pitch and becomes, overnight, an ace. Obviously a physical act, it was also, in part, an act of the imagination. The adjustments that lead to pitching success are mental as much as they are physical acts."

There was also the realization DePodesta has throughout the season that perhaps pitchers couldn't control the fate of the pitch once it's left their hands. They had control over where it was going and how fast, but pitchers didn't 'throw' hits or walks, that was up to the batter. This realization had a massive impact on their scouting methods and re-structure. These are the details I love that you fully lose in the movie, it's just not possible to include all of this content in film format.

the 2002 Oakland As

What is most interesting for me, in both the book and the movie, is how anticlimactic the entire thing was. They throw the scouting book out the window, field the team with wildly low budget players that nobody really wanted, win a record-breaking 20 games in a row, and then they don't win the world series and nobody seems to care about their accomplishments or their revolutionary ideas anymore. You learn afterwards that Beane and DePodesta's methods have had a ripple effect throughout not only baseball but all professional sports. DePodesta works for the NFL now... But at the time, when they didn't win the ENTIRE WORLD SERIES, people weren't convinced this new method was worth anything...

Over a long season the luck evens out, and the skill shines through. But in a series of three out of five, or even four out of seven, anything can happen. In a five-game series, the worst team in baseball will beat the best about 15 percent of the time... Baseball science may still give a team a slight edge, but that edge is overwhelmed by chance. The baseball season is structured to mock reason... The game is structured, psychologically (though not financially), as a winner-take-all affair. There isn't much place for the notion that a team that falls short of the World Series has had a great season. At the end of what was not widely viewed as a failed season, all Paul DePodesta could say was, 'I hope they continue to believe that our way doesn't work. It buys us a few more years.'"

I love DePodesta's comment there...

The one negative thing I do have to say about this book is that the beginning is FULL of names that I could never remember. For the same reason I never made it through the first book of Lord of the Rings, I struggled starting Moneyball.... too many names that I can't remember, so I don't know if they've mentioned the person previously, and if they did I can't remember what they had to say about him, and therefore I felt at first like I was perhaps missing vital pieces of information. It does get better, eventually all of the historical background winds down and Lewis focuses on the season that matters, with names of recurring people you can remember. But, it was overwhelming at first.

If you like sports, sports culture, or even if you don't but liked the movie, this is a must read for you. Lewis is an incredible nonfiction writer and I can't wait to get my hands on more of his books. 

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