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Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game Paperback – March 17, 2004
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From The New Yorker
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
“Lewis has hit another one out of the park…You need know absolutely nothing about baseball to appreciate the wit, snap, economy and incisiveness of [Lewis's] thoughts about it.”
- Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Moneyball is the best business book Lewis has written. It may be the best business book anyone has written.”
- Mark Gerson, Weekly Standard
“By playing Boswell to Beane's Samuel Johnson, Lewis has given us one of the most enjoyable baseball books in years.”
- Lawrence S. Ritter, New York Times Book Review
“Ebullient, invigorating…Provides plenty of action, both numerical and athletic, on the field and in the draft-day war room.”
- Lev Grossman, Time
“A journalistic tour de force.”
- Richard J. Tofel, Wall Street Journal
“Michael Lewis's beautiful obsession with the idea of value has once again yielded gold…Moneyball explains baseball's startling new insight; that for all our dreams of blasts to the bleachers, the sport's hidden glory lies in not getting out.”
- Garry Trudeau
“I understood about one in four words of Moneyball, and it's still the best and most engrossing sports book I've read in years. If you know anything about baseball, you will enjoy it four times as much as I did, which means that you might explode.”
- Nick Hornby, The Believer
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First, I'd like to thank Lewis for a book that is worth reading even for someone who has never learned the rules of the game and never will. Even if I had had a glimmer of interest in baseball per se before I read the book, it would have been extinguished for good anyway (read on to learn why).
According to Lewis, for about a hundred years American baseball existed as a peculiar social club composed of GMs, scouts, baseball writers and commentators, and players who would often become one of the former. The first reason why The Club was special was that it was rarely run as a business. Consider Walter Haas, a former owner of Oakland Athletics. Haas was a great-grandnephew of Levi Strauss and coincidentally served as CEO of Levi Strauss & Co for almost 20 years. He was not shy of giving it back to the American society or at least to the most indispensable part of it, professional baseball players. As a result, in 1991 Oakland A's enjoyed the highest payroll in baseball while losing money for the owner. Unfortunately, that commendable manifestation of social responsibility was halted in 1995 when the new owners switched to a pro-business stance and slashed the payroll drastically.
The new goal for the GM became to keep the team in the major league, while minimizing the ratio of payroll to the number of wins. The quest for how to run the most cost-effective team resulted in a number of fascinating discoveries. First, consider the process of drafting young players from high schools and colleges. The old scouts were used to some glaringly subjective player selection criteria, such as how cool the player's body looks ("selling jeans") or how concordant his facial features are with a great future in baseball ("The Good Face"). The "internal compass of an old baseball guy", directed them to look at the player and "imagine what he might become". They believed that they could judge and predict the player's performance simply by watching him. To be fair, the old school scouting worked fine but only assuming that the team's pockets were very deep. Indeed, that was often the case thanks to Walter Haas and other individuals who possessed similar amounts of wealth and social responsibility.
Of course, different stats (foot speed, batting average, etc) were also considered, but none of the old guard had the desire, ability or means to assess how predictable such metrics are given the current information about the player. For instance, do young power hitters tend to develop precision over time or not? Are the stats of a high school player informative enough or does it make sense to ignore them and focus on the college players who have a longer history? Are there metrics that confuse skill and luck and contain no useful information even about the past performance, let alone the future?
Further, suppose the future values of a measurable characteristic (e.g. foot speed, fastball velocity) can be predicted well, and we are fairly certain that luck and skill are not mixed up. So far so good, but exactly how much does that particular skill contribute to the ultimate objective, winning a game at the lowest cost? Say, if the future foot speed of the player is guaranteed to be as good as it has been, how much the team should be willing to pay for the player? If the answer is known, the GM can then perform some arbitrage by selling players whose characteristics are overpriced and buying those whose characteristics are underpriced.
It may appear strange that those questions were not raised and addressed until after Billy Beane became the GM of Oakland Athletics in 1997. Apart from the philanthropic attitude of the team owners, there were other reasons why. Before the late 1970s, quantitative analysis of baseball data was both hard for the lack of computers and impractical because the players' salaries were not that high. Most importantly, the eventual adoption of quantitative performance evaluation methods revealed that the baseball data are extremely noisy. To extract some useful insights, one has to generalize from a large body of stats that no living scout or other baseball insider can keep in his head. Likewise, to see whether a given quantitative approach does (not) work, it's not enough to follow the career of a single player or observe the outcome of a single game.
That nourished the perception that quantitative metrics are more or less useless and recoursing to one's "internal compass" works better when it's time to draft players and then decide how (not) to use them during the game. An example of such attitude is the scouts' belief that "if you see it once, it's there", which is a ringing endorsement of making a decision based on the sample size of one. Given how much the outcome of anything that happens on the field depends on luck, that's a kiss of death for good scouting, or at least for a cost-effective version of it.
Undoubtedly, baseball teams vary in skill, but, according to the book, the contribution of skill to the outcome of an average game is about four times less than the contribution of luck. In particular, the number of games in playoffs is so small that luck doesn't cancel out: in a series of five games, the worst team in the major league has a 15% chance to beat the best team. Because a team that loses in the playoffs cannot get the coveted World Series title it creates another psychological incentive for having little faith in the quantitative approach. To me it also means that if all of the noise were to disappear (and that's what "sabermetrics" is trying to achieve), the game would become far less fun to watch and talk about. There is not much thrill in observing how a slightly biased coin is flipped. Isn't that another reason why both the insiders and fans preferred to stick to the old ways instead of embracing the "performance scouting" and other insights offered by sabermetrics? If that's the case then The Club turns out to be far more rational and efficient than Lewis portrayed.
Next, I'd like to explore the most important point made by Lewis: bad as they may have been, the baseball statistics were probably far more accurate than anything used to measure the performance of people in many other lines of work, so ...? What immediately comes to my mind are the "scouting" (hiring) practices of Microsoft and Google that included the so-called brainteaser interviews that were administered for 10 to 20 years (see Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? and How Would You Move Mount Fuji? ). To me it has always been clear that being good at brainteasers does not predict one's future job performance unless the job amounts to solving brainteasers. Both companies banned the practice in the end, even though some copycats are still lurking around. The point, however, is why it lasted for as long as it did. Apparently, the engineers at Microsoft and Google are no fools. They figured out that the brainteasers fail at achieving their purported objective many years ago. Why continue to use them, then? Moneyball provides a plausible explanation. Companies are not only about doing business but sometimes about being a certain social club. The club entry requirements can be as arbitrary as anything. If they appear, to put it mildly, irrational, that is to be expected every now and then. Therefore, the real question is not "Are you smart enough to work at Google?" but "Are you a good fit for the Google social club?". Regardless of what the answer is, it has nothing to do with one's intelligence or the absence thereof.
Now back to baseball. If you have some quantitative background I could highly recommend "Stein's Paradox in Statistics", a paper published by Prof. Efron in 1977 (incidentally, that was the year Bill James published his first Baseball Abstract). The rather ancient article is quite in line with what I learned from Moneyball: the amount of noise in the baseball stats is substantial and the players are a lot more similar to each other than it appears to the public and even the insiders. It looks like my background in Statistics, combined with what I learned from the book, made it impossible to enjoy the game the way millions of fans do. Nevertheless, I managed to derive a lot of value from Moneyball and I wish you the same.
Despite the fact that Lewis doesn't highlight this anti-climactic conclusion on his own, the book still has enough information for the reader to get there. It is ironic that this parallels the reason Bill James' departed from Baseball Abstract and that is mentioned in the book. There is too much focus on the details that don't matter. The high level narrative and explanation are more important. Budget matters. You can get a slight advantage by exploiting inefficiencies but this takes a long time to prove out due to limited data points the out-sized impact luck has. There are lots of little nuggets of information like that hiding in this book that make it worth reading.
Top international reviews
On one level this is a book about Baseball and a maverick who subverted the consensus view on how the game should be played and understood but on a deeper level this is a case study of an idea. It is behavioural economics as applied to sport.
The book demonstrates how Billy Beane used the insights of a Baseball statistician named Bill James (a cipher for Nobel winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, author of 'Thinking, Fast and Slow'?) and the practical mathematical genius of Paul Podesta (a Harvard graduate with no Baseball experience) to outsmart his competitors.
'Reason, even science, was what Billy Beane was intent on bringing to Baseball...... Paul wanted to look at stats because the stats offered offered him new ways of understanding.....That was James's most general point: the naked eye was an inadequate tool for learning what you needed to know to evaluate baseball players and baseball games.'
On one level level this is an old-fashioned David vs Goliath story but on a deeper level it is a book about two competing views of human nature. The view being triumphed in this book is that of 'behavioural economics.' In short, that human beings are inherently irrational. Trusting one's gut, or intuition, is inherently flawed and is subject to systematic biases/limitations/flaws/illusions which can only be rooted out by a sophisticated analysis of relevant statistical data.
The author Michael Lewis is really an economics writer and what he has managed to do is something that many writers (including Daniel Kahneman, whose writings in my opinion tend to be turgid in the extreme) seem unable to do, and that is:- make seemingly complex ideas come alive by embedding them in real-life situations with real people. Moneyball is a great sports book but it is also popular social science writing at its finest too.
I would suggest trying to pick up the edition with the "new afterword" which discusses the response to the book from the "baseball industry" which treated as arrogant bragadocio from writer Billy Beane, totally missing that it wasn't actually written by Mr Beane and was hardly boastful or arrogant. The baseball industry - the writers, scouts, managers etc - continues to perpetuate their myths even as other smaller teams (and some of the bigger teams) adopt the A's modus operandi with similar successful results.
In Moneyball, Michael Lewis suggests a simple explanation: the game's finances had gone stratospheric, leaving the As unable to compete for the superstars. At the same time, he explains how they remained seriously competitive without going bankrupt: they disregarded the gut instincts of scouts immersed in subjective assessment of players, adopting instead an analysis of statistics weighted in favour of certain key elements.
At first, the book looks at how and why the analysis worked, but it evolves into the story of a single season when it was the essential rationale that governed the way Oakland identified and signed players. So it becomes a human story, focussing on the unlikely heroes out on the diamond and on the General Manager who believes implicitly in the information emerging from the computer of his Number Two. The General Manager is Billy Beane, a former player who should have been a star but never quite made it, and is now a quixotic leader who prefers to be somewhere else when his team is playing. It will be a hard-hearted reader who fails to empathise with Beane as the season unfolds. Never mind the mathematics, the book is worth reading if only to sit beside him while he trades away his best players in order to sign unrated others.
Lewis doesn't claim that the As found a one-size-fits-all infallible blueprint; unarguably, several million dollars into the annual bank balance of a Barry Bonds, an A-Rod or a Jeter make for an interesting alternative. Moneyball, really, is simply a one-off example of brilliant sports writing by an author whose true beat is big business. In this edition, Lewis unfortunately, cannot resist an appendix to deal with a faction in baseball that decries his efforts. He should have let the book speak for itself. It is certainly good enough.
Oakland A are a small, unsexy US baseball team who consistently got to near the top of the baseball leagues on a fraction of the money and budget of the leading high profile teams like the Boston White Sox or the New York Yankies. When you think of intellectuals influencing the course of human affairs, you think of physics, or political theory or economics. You do not think of baseball because you don't think of baseball as having an intellectual underpinning. But everything does have an intellectual underpinning and when an original thinker applies his mind startling results can be achieved.
Billy James, a Kansas University educated pork and bean factory worker was fascinated by baseball and studied it assiduously. He published his first leaflet : 1977 Baseball abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can't Find Anywhere Else. Doesn't sound a best seller does it?
But his thesis was that people in charge of professional baseball believed they could judge players performance simply by watching it. In this conventional wisdom on which millions of dollars was lavished, they were deeply mistaken. It was only by measurement and statistics that you could distinguish the good hitter from the average hitter - it is simply not visible.
James theory was not original - many others had measured players' performance. But he lived in a time of radical advances in computer technology enabling him to analyse vast amounts of data. And he lived in a time when baseball players salaries boomed - dramatically raising the value of his information. He developed computer models that correlated the number of runs a team would score against key statistics he identified but which were not particularly valued by the professional scouts and baseball professionals based on historical analysis. His models proved accurate in prediction future performance. However the baseball professionals failed to see the point. Until Billy Beane came along.
Billy Beane became General manager of Oakland A in 1997 and he had read all of Billy James Abstracts and had taken to heart not just the knowledge, but more importantly, had adopted the attitude of rational thinking and testing the evidence empirically. Billy Beane was not a statistician but he employed one - Paul DePoesta who applied the computer power and models developed by Wall Street Traders to baseball.
Billy Beane and Paul Depodesta developed Billy James approach to rate all the unknown, as well as famous players, in the game. Then they withstood the ridicule of their contemporaries by seeking the unknown or the quirky players, but ones that have a proven track record in some key criteria by which Billy and Paul rated them. They bought players at a fraction of the cost of the high profile teams and became winners. They achieved consistent success on the baseball pitch reaching the playoffs season after season from 2000 to 2004, when this book was written. And success at a fraction of the cost of the high spending teams. Once the value of their discoveries was recognised they had no hesitation in selling the stars they had created and bringing in more unknown players.
But it was not just in buying unknown players with special talents that Oakland excelled. It was also in identifying what each individual could contribute to the team and coaching them intensively in that trait and accepting their deficiencies in other traits. This is not just a story about dry statistical analysis - it is full of colour of the individual and quirky characters that Billy Beane turned from outcasts to key players in his teams.
Billy Beane's approach generated an enormous amount of antipathy among conventional baseball professionals, but Billy was not intimidated. .
This book is a lesson in life and in business - do not try and change people, nobody is talented in everything but if you build on people's strengths you can overcome their weaknesses in a team; don't follow the herd, think for yourself, look at the evidence, measure the outcomes; take some of Billy Beane's courage.
P.S. I love the names in the US - where else do you get Pauldepodesta working with Billy Beane.
I'm not a baseball fan but rather a sports fan in general. You don't need an in-depth knowledge of baseball but a background awareness of at least the phraseology would be an advantage. If you love sport but are happy to occasionally have a wry smile to yourself about the nonsensical way it sometimes operates, then this is a great book for you.
The writing style is easy and engaging, and portrays the characters in a way that would make a writer of fiction proud. This may owe as much to the people themselves as to the author, but the two are merged seamlessly. The narrative moves along smoothly and is an easy and gripping read.
Any reader of sport-related books will enjoy this, but don't be put off if this isn't your usual genre and give it a go.
The basic thesis is that the baseball old guard mis-value systematically certain attributes in their players. They tend to test athletic basics and ignore a rich seam of statistical evidence that would allow a better valuation of players. Billy Beane of the Oakland 'A's is a poor man in a rich man's game, to compensate he uses statistics to substantially outperform expectations. In other words he looks for mis-priced players and exploits them to get his team into the World series.
Lewis manages to humanise this potentially dry stuff with acute character analyses of both Beane and the players, and some of the stories really get under your skin and are often really funny.
The writing is excellent and even if you have no interest in baseball, this is a book worth reading especially if you like ' Liar's Poker: Two Cities, True Greed(Coronet Books): Playing the Money Markets ' or ' The New New Thing: How Some Man You've Never Heard of Just Changed Your Life '.
The only criticism I have is that, despite the mass interest and 'controversial' status in the US (in baseball to be more accurate) the book doesn't seem to have an actual point ! It seems almost by accident that it is as good as it is - it doesn't seem to be driving at a point....just telling a story.
I didn't know anything about baseball before I read it, and still enjoyed it. The only parts I didn't get were some of the numbers (stats) from baseball, but they were fairly easy to work out what was good and bad, even without context.
Anyway, I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in sports - the application of the principles described here will probably effect each and every sport where players' values are based on subjective opinion, rather than objective facts.
Whilst this book is entirely focused on baseball and the case study of the Oakland Athletics, masterminded by Billy Beane, the very message it brings is one of challenging the status quo with the view to doing something better.
A great, captivating read, even for a none-baseball fan. Admittedly some phrases and concepts may go over your head (and there's a little bit of maths!) but that aside, this is a great read.