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Moneyball by Michael Lewis

26 Jun

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This is an account of how one baseball team went about doing their business very differently than everyone else.  It is the story of how the Oakland A’s, under the leadership of Billy Beane, re-invented how baseball teams build their teams.  Specifically, how teams evaluate talent and determine which players they want to draft or trade for.  The change in approach is based on moving from the judgment of scouts – typically ex-players who employ their instincts and preferences in their evaluation of players – to the utilization of statistics on the players’ performance.  And more importantly, the creation of a whole new set of stats, that attempt to better understand what is important in the success of a player, and of a team.

When they started down this path, in the early part of this century, the Oakland A’s were ahead of the curve, alone among their peers.  Today, many organizations have followed suit, including the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox.  But back in 2001, the A’s chose to do things differently, taking this path because they could not compete financially with the other richer clubs.  And they proved they could complete, year-after-year, getting more wins with their limited budget that any other team.  They had figured out something others had not, and were exploiting it to their advantage and success.

Like any advantage, others will soon catch up and diminish the advantage.  This has happened to some extent in baseball, but not as much as one might expect.  Lewis offers a possible explanation, in suggesting that Major League Baseball was less of a business, and more as a club or fraternity.  And in being a club, there are some beliefs that are sacred which are not to be challenged or changed.  What the A’s did, and a few others in turn, was to challenge those sacred beliefs.  And for many teams, this was not done, and nor would they follow.  So the advantage the A’s realized, which resulted in their being more effective in running their team, was ignored by others, dismissed for many reasons and explanations, the truth ignored and not acknowledged.

In truth, there may be a fundamental flaw in the Moneyball approach employed by the A’s.  It comes down to how you define success.  If success is being competitive throughout the season, and in making the playoffs, then the A’s under Billy Beane would be considered a success, as their record has been one of the best in baseball over that time period.  If, however, success is defined as also wining the World Series, then there is something missing from the Moneyball approach, as the A’s have not won the World Series since 1990 (before Beane became general manager).  Not sure what is missing in the Moneyball approach, but something obviously is, which leaves Billy Beane’s A’s as very good, but just not a dynasty.

The book is a fascinating inside look at a team, and their unique approach to building their team, and is of most interest to those who love baseball.  It is certainly not for everyone.  The love and admiration for baseball statistics that Lewis provides throughout the book is only for those whose eyes do not glaze over with the mention of ERA, OPS, and any types of average.  This book was written for the lovers of all things baseball, and is certainly a joy for those of us who do.  Knowing of some of the players referenced in the book also helped bring the story to life, especially when speaking of players who were just starting their careers at the time of the book’s writing (seeing where they ended up provided an interesting hind-sight perspective to the stories).

Overall, I found this a fascinating book, covering a sport I love, and providing new ideas and insights that were a joy to discover.  While having no real love for the A’s, or Billy Beane, I came away having a new found admiration for both, for the courage of what they did and the risks they took.  Looking back, I see what other teams attempted to do in the spirit of the A’s (i.e., the Toronto Blue Jays under) and understand what they were attempting to achieve (though Ricciardi doesn’t seem to be as much of a disciple of Beane as one might have hoped).  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was left with a desire to learn more about not only Moneyball, but also about the running of baseball teams in general.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an ounce of interest in baseball, the application of statistics, or in a story of David taking on Goliath.