I never understood nor really liked baseball. I bought the book mostly to read about the inspired use of statistics, and the creative thinking that went into looking for the real keys to victory. I can safely say that while I may not have fallen in love with baseball, I will never find it boring again. If you have someone you want to turn into a fan, this book a superb gift option. The amount of detail in this book--for example, just the description of the strike zone and what different pitches and batters do to narrow the zone, what can be known about specific individual propensities and vulnerabilities associated with that little box, are truly inspirational.
This is a really excellent book. If we managed the national security budget the way Billy Bean managed the Oakland A's, we'd have faster better cheaper military hardware, and a lot more plowshares. I was also impressed by the way in which Billy Bean built a team, in which players who might not have been individual stars excelled at setting up others in a true team effort where the group as a whole is stronger than the sum of the parts. Others have written better reviews from a baseball fans point of view--as a non-baseball fan, I can attest to this book's being an "aha" experience.
Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks
Lewis, who previously wrote some of the best books on Wall Street's go-go '80s (Liar's Poker) and Silicon Valley's go-go '90s (The New New Thing), here turns his attention to professional baseball. Now, I should preface this by saying that I used to love baseball and these days it doesn't interest me much at all. There was a time when I was a total stats geek, I bought all the Bill James abstracts, played tabletop games, etc., but a combination of playing in college and the escalating money completely turned me off to the game. I knew this was supposed to be a good book but had no intention of reading it until Nick Hornby's rave review in his column in The Believer. I figured if one of my favorite British novelists liked the book, there must be something to it. I picked it up and within ten pages I was totally hooked.
The basis for the book is the question of how the Oakland A's, one of baseball's poorest teams as measured by payroll, managed to win so many games in the first few years of the new millennium. Lewis's potentially boring answer revolves around inefficiencies in the market for players, but he weaves this story around the A's General Manager, Billy Beane. Now, if you have some axe to grind with Beane, you might as well not read the book, 'cause Lewis tends to be rather fawning in many places. Still, Beane's own background and mediocre career form the perfect framework upon which to build this story about evaluating baseball talent. Beane was a hugely athletic, "can't miss" prospect, who turned down a joint football/baseball scholarship from Stanford to sign with the New York Mets out of high school. His pro career turned out to be utterly undistinguished, and this disconnect is what drove him to seek new methods of scouting and evaluating baseball talent. It also helped matters that the A's new owners refused to spend any excess money, and demanded that the team be treated as a business. Beane jettisoned conventional scouting wisdom (and to a certain extent, methods), to focus on statistical indicators not widely followed inside baseball. Here, the book takes a detour into the realm of "sabremetrics" (the statistical analysis of baseball), and various attempts to arrive at more meaningful ways to calculating a player's offensive value.
The result of developing a criteria of player valuation that was radically at odds with the prevailing wisdom of the market was that Beane was able to get the players he liked for very cheap. The rest of the book is devoted to detailing this process. Chapter 5 is probably the best, detailing how the A's orchestrated the 2002 amateur draft so that they got an inordinate amount of players they coveted for below market value. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the loss of their three star players after the 2001 season and how managed to compensate for this. To show the Beane methodology in action during the season, the reader is taken inside several trades and roster moves. This includes a chapter on the mid-season trade for relief pitcher Ricardo Rincon, bracketed by chapters detailing Beane's pursuit of certain players who were not considered major-league material (Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford). The book ends on a valedictory note, as the A's set a record by winning 20 games in a row and other teams start to buy in to their methods.
It should be noted that the book is far from perfect. Lewis has an unfortunately tendency for repetition when it comes to important points and themes, hammering them home, again and again. And although he does point out many of Beane's logical inconsistencies and emotional flaws, Lewis does often come across as more of an enamored fan than a strict journalist. Some critics feel that the A's success detailed in the book was based on several star players obtained the old-fashioned way, thus disproving the whole premise. However, it has to be understood that the practices detailed in the book can't really be proven to work one way or another for another decade or so. Still the insights into challenging conventional thinking and searching for alternative data or data patterns will likely appeal to readers of Lewis' other works and are applicable far beyond baseball. And while the jury is still out, several other teams have since hired general managers with the same basic philosophy as Beane. Ultimately, it's an interesting story, and one that Lewis tells very well -- even for non baseball fans.
on March 3, 2008
For a former baseball player Billy Beane is a rare bird as a baseball GM. He used real baseball statistics, the kind the sabermetricians use to make great trade and bring a strong team back to Oakland. He had a great advantage over other GMs because he took advantage of their ignorance and tendencies to rely on the somewhat biased eyes of basebll scouts. What Michael Lewis did with this book was to show the world of baseball how Billy Beane did it and now I am sure that other GMs like Brian Cashman at New York and Theo Epstein in Boston are catching on. I don't know how much Steve Phillips put into action when he was the Mets GM. His lack of great success there indicates that he [robably didn't follow it enough. But now as an ESPN commentator he definitely mentions it. This book si so good that the term moneyball now means the strategy that Billy Beane used. So the title of this book became a baseball term! This book is a must for managers, general managers and owners of professional baseball teams. It is also great for the fans and the fantasy baseball enthusiasts.
Along with Mike Schell's books and the ones like "Curve Ball" written by Albert and Bennett this is one of the most thoughtful and scientific books on the game of baseball, how to win at it and how to build a successful team. The other books I mentioned were written by professional statisticians. It is the great success of the statistical science of sports, sabermetrics that we are now witnessing a scientific and statistical approach to baseball and other sports that had been lacking for many years. What Beane proved with regard to money was that a small market team like Oakland without the big money of a Steinbrenner could build a great team through smart trades and drafts based on looking at the right statistics on the players, the statistics that determine value in terms of run production for offense and run prevention for pitchers and defense.
The amazon reviews of this book are almost unanymous in their praise of Lewis' book. Read it and enjoy it. If I haven't convinced you, read some of the other fine reviews here.
on May 8, 2003
I can't recommend this book highly enough. Not only is it the first look inside the most successful franchise - sure, there's the Yankees, but when historians look back, it will be Beane's A's that are remembered as the innovators. Even non-baseball fans will enjoy the crisp writing and phenomenal story-telling. Lewis' previous books are a high standard, but Moneyball may be even better. I'm still amazed that Beane allowed so much access - either Lewis is every bit as persuasive as Beane or Beane has something up his sleeve! The true star of the book may end up being Paul DePodesta, who will likely be the next great GM, following JP Ricciardi and Theo Epstein as "Beane Counters" and likely the men that saved baseball. I can't speak for the rest of Baseball Prospectus, but this has to be the best baseball book not written by us in the last decade.
on January 14, 2005
Here is a book that can be appreciated from so many different angles. For fans of baseball (which I'm not) the allure is obvious. For fans of statistics, this book offers amazing insight into how numbers can be employed in real life with very pwerful and very real results. For fans of human nature, this story offers a great look at how mistakes can be repeated and then perpetuated until someone with a strong mind and a stronger will comes along to break the cycle. And for fans of character-driven stories, Moneyball, like any Michael Lewis tale, has that in spades too.
If any of that sounds good to you, give this one a try.
on May 12, 2003
Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" is a wonderful book that attempts to answer a strange paradox according to conventional baseball wisdom: How do the Oakland Athletics, one of the poorest teams in baseball, win so much and win so relentlessly? The answer is, of course, the system that General Manager Billy Beane built that challenged irrational baseball orthodoxy and made the most with the least in an inefficient system.
Beane himself was once touted by scouts who thought he had all the right attributes: speed, power, athleticism, and, yes, "the Good Face." When his major league career ended bitterly as an unambiguous failure, he turned his other talents to bringing rationality to an irrational baseball establishment. His new tools: statistical analysis, a willingness to discard conventional wisdom, an ability to think, and a demeanor designed to bait unsuspecting GMs into making foolish deals.
One of the best scenes from the book is Billy Beane in action during the 2002 trading deadline when he cobbled together a few good and undervalued players to add to the Oakland juggernaut. The funniest line in this section comes from Beane's dealings with the hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team he fleeced before: "[W]hile Tampa Bay's management was willing to talk to Billy, they were too frightened to deal with him." A god among mere mortals indeed.
To me, the most engrossing part of "Moneyball" is the Oakland A's 2002 amateur draft which would lay the foundation of the team in the coming years. While other teams were quite content to gamble and to dream the very possible dream of mediocrity in selecting raw and untested high school players, the A's used their seven first round picks to draft a bunch of college no names the baseball establishment scorned. Why? They were either too short, too fat, too skinny, too slow, or even too ugly to become, in the minds of baseball scouts who supposedly knew better, future stars. Beane rightly dismissed this subjective and irrational hogwash by highlighting attributes the scouts should have paid attention to instead: on base percentage, slugging percentage, walks, strike out-to-walk ratios, and other quantifiable measures that correlate highly to future success.
A word on the recent controversy between White Sox GM Kenny Williams and Beane when the former accused the latter of talking too much to Lewis and making Williams look stupid in their lop-sided trades. In "Moneyball" there is not one section where Beane says anything directly disparaging about his fellow GMs, but the Oakland GM's record nonetheless speaks for itself: GMs like Williams are letting irrational and institutionalized baseball prejudices blind them and Beane took advantage accordingly.
In the end, baseball commissioner Bud Selig could continue to continue to chant his mantra that "small market teams can't compete" over and over until he secures taxpayers' dollars to build every stadium. Teams could continue to ignore the mounting evidence that college players are a good bet and instead blow their money and time chasing down high-risk high schoolers or over-valued mediocrity. In the meantime, the Oakland example will show (and continue to show) that how wrong--and yes, how needlessly stupid--they are.
on January 19, 2004
As a fantasy baseball devotee and a regular reader of Rob Neyer's columns on espn.com, I was excited to see how a non-specialist, Lewis, would react to the quirks of the baseball world. Lewis's reaction is the defining baseball book of this generation. Lewis masterfully weaves together A's GM Billy Beane's personal story and conversion to statistical analysis with theory and reasoning behind that analysis. Lewis also does a superlative job describing the other side: the baseball old timers who distain number-crunching and instead look for intangibles when scouting ballplayers. Why look into how well the hitter controls the strike zone if you can simply see if he has "the Good Face". Imagine an accountant eschewing numbers to see if a company just looked right, just felt right in her gut; well, that's how baseball did, and mostly still does, operate.
Not some esoteric tome, but a terrifically engrossing and informative book. I think even my mom would like it.
on May 27, 2003
The only negative review so far at this site seemed to confuse the author's craftmanship with his subject. This is a well-written, quick read, which, if you are any kind of baseball fan, will cause you to stop repeatedly and think about what you've just read.
Every baseball fan has asked themselves over and over, why are marginal players overpaid? Why are millions invested in ONE player to the detriment of the team? Why does ownership seem trapped in some preconceived notion of what a ballplayer should look like? This book seeks to answer those questions and present an alternative view of how to run a winning team. And here, in a nutshell is that answer:
Position players should be signed based on the On Base Percentage. Pitchers should be signed based on Strikeouts, Walks, Home runs allowed and groundballs.
There. That's it. Time to go home and enjoy your vast savings, Mr. Steinbrenner.
Of course it's more complex than that, but perversely, Major League Baseball seems to have based its criteria for quality on a completely subjective and error-prone system: Wins, earned run average, batting average, runs batted in.
The book does a wonderful job of demonstrating how a small germ of an idea took hold, slowly grew, and then became embraced by people with the position to do something about it. It's the Revenge of the Nerds and it's positively engaging.
Billy Beane comes off as some 21st Century tortured prince, except he's not Hamlet trying to avenge his father's death, he's every jerk high school jock you ever met who, as an adult, hates himself. Freud wouldn't even get out of bed for this one.
It's sad because he and his computer geeks could actually save baseball from itself. But there is not one incident of joy reported in this book. It would be nice to read that he turned down the Red Sox job because he wanted to stay close to his daughter, but she is never mentioned as a consideration. It's just a shame that someone whose eyes were opened to the real value of ballplayers doesn't carry the exhileration of someone lost, now found, but rather wields it like some terrible weapon.
And objectivity, statistics and mathematics notwithstanding, the fact is that nine Miggy Tejadas are preferable to nine Scott Heddeburg (sp?).
on August 7, 2007
In 2002, the season that this book concerns itself with, the Oakland Athletics tied for the league lead with 103 victories. The book Moneyball frankly admits that it doesn't wish to concern itself with pitching, but rather with hitting--runs and on base percentage (OBP). The reader is told time again that runs and OBP define the game, that pitching is secondary and fielding a distance third. This strikes me as fundamentally ridiculous: the way baseball teams win games is not by scoring runs, but by scoring more than the opposition. And that means pitching is essential.
Let's look at the 2002 Athletics. Despite all the talk about runs, the A's were eighth in the league. In a league with only 14 teams, that puts them in the bottom half. Only one player (Miguel Tejada) had 100+ runs. And what about On-base percentage? The A's were a bit better, but only 5th in the league. Not one of their players, including MVP Tejada, was in the top 10 in the league in OBP. By their own metrics, this hardly seems to indicate they tied for the league lead in wins. By using common sense, however, we can deduce that the A's pitching was probably very good. And indeed it was. The Athletics had three pitchers (Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder, from lowest to highest) with Earned Run Averages (ERAs) under 3.50 and two with ERAs under 3, respectively placing 3rd, 6th, and 10th in the league. The A's pitching staff led the American league in ERA, shutouts, and fewest homeruns allowed. After the season was over Barry Zito was awarded the Cy Young award for the best pitcher in the league.
The point of this is not to (neccessarily) criticize sabermetrics or Billy Beane's strategy. This is a book review, and Michael Lewis could have written a better book. He devotes much page space to lengthy biographies of A's players and Billy Beane himself, whom the author seems to revere wholeheartedly, while not answering fundamental questions such as the title for this review: "What about pitching?" I have nothing but respect for the way Billy Beane's Athletics always seem to be in the thick of the hunt despite a low payroll, but that does not make this book any less flawed
on September 4, 2011
I bought this for myself and found that there was too much detail in how the game is played to be of interest to someone who does not have a passion for the sport. Be careful if buying this for a younger person as there were many incidents of harsh language. Would make a great gift for someone who really enjoys the sport and wants to understand the business and strategy behind it.