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REVENGE OF THE NERDS
2003-05-14 10:07
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

REVENGE OF THE NERDS

Book Review

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game


All the A's marketing studies showed that the main things fans cared about was winning. Win with nobodies and the fans showed up, and the nobodies became stars; lose with stars and the fans stayed home, and the stars became nobodies. Assembling nobodies into a ruthlessly efficient machine for winning baseball games, and watching them become stars, was one of the pleasures of running a poor team.

Billy could give a fuck about baseball tradition. All Billy cared about was winning.

It was hard to know which of Billy's qualities was more important to his team's success: his energy, his resourcefulness, his intelligence, or his ability to scare the living shit out of even very large professional baseball players.

I.

Billy Beane, the charismatic and driven general manager of the Oakland A's, is the central character of Michael Lewis' smart, new book, "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." There is little doubt that "Moneyball" will be popularly known as "The Billy Beane" book (the other Billy Beane book), but it could easily be called, "Revenge of the Nerds," because this story is, in large part, about how the baseball outsiders finally kicked in the door to professional baseball. While Beane is a provocative protagonist, don't get it twisted: this is not his biography. Beane is just a featured player of a bigger story.

The cast includes the likes of Bill James, the godfather of the sabermetrics movement; Sandy Alderson, former general manager of the Oakland A's, who first tested James' theories on a major league level; Paul DePodesta, Billy Beane's, Harvard-educated right-hand-man-behind-the-curtain; Scott Hatteberg, the A's gregarious first basemen; Chad Bradford, an unorthodox side-arming reliever who was signed by Oakland on the cheap; Jeremy Brown, a slow-footed catching prospect; as well as Beane's invaluable instructors---pitching coach Rick Peterson, and Ron Washington, Oakland's infield coach.

"Moneyball" is remarkable in many ways. First of all, it is compulsively readable. Lewis is an expert at shifting between tenses and moods, and he does it in a simple and direct style. He is, if nothing else, a crack reporter. The book is also striking because it presents a candid look at how a major league baseball team is actually run.

How often do you read anything truly revealing about the professional game these days? "Moneyball" offers a rare glimpse into the inner-workings of a major league baseball team, and Lewis depicts this world with a sharp ear for dialogue and an eye for the telling detail; the storytelling is very cinematic. (Has Michael Mann bought the movie rights yet?) Lewis, a baseball outsider, gets behind the scenes and he conveys what he sees with urgency, and intelligence which makes "Moneyball" a thrilling read.

The draft-day meetings with Paul DePodesta and the Oakland scouts are crackling good entertainment, right out of a David Mamet play (minus the affected cadences). Lewis' proclivity for Wall Street, and Vegas analogies, also help illustrate the new breed of thinking in baseball.

"The chief social consequence," of quantitative analysis over gut instinct, writes Lewis "was to hammer into the minds of a generation of extremely ambitious people a new connection between "inefficiency" and "opportunity," and to re-enforce an older one, between "brains" and "money."

Reading "Moneyball" I had the same feeling I get when I first hear a great album, or see a great movie, and I realize almost immediately that what I'm experiencing is something unusual, something great. Or if not great, then at least very, very good. I don't usually read books twice, but it's been a week since I first read the damn thing, and I'm already psyched to get back into it.

II.

So what is "Moneyball" about? There are a lot of things going on here, but at the core of the book is just how thoroughly organized baseball resists change. Voros McCracken, a young sabermetrician tells Lewis:


"The problem with major league baseball・is that it's a self-populating institution. Knowledge is institutionalized. The people involved with baseball who aren't players are ex-players. In their defense, their structure is not set up along corporate lines. They aren't equipped to evaluate their own systems. They don't have the mechanism to let in the good and get rid of the bad. They either keep everything or get rid of everything, and they rarely do the latter・[But] "If you're an owner and you never played, do you believe Voros McCracken or Larry Bowa?"

The book is about efficiency vs. excess; progressive thinking vs. static tradition; empirical, or quantitative analysis vs. subjective evaluation; outsiders vs. insiders, or more to the point, underdogs vs. over dogs; and process vs. outcome.


At the bottom of the Oakland experiment was a willingness to re-think baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why.

In what amounted to a systematic scientific investigation of their sport, the Oakland front office had re-examined everything fro the market price of foot speed, to the inherent difference between the average major league player and the superior triple-A one. That's how they found their bargains."

As the chapters on the 2002 draft illustrate, Beane's likes spitting in the face of tradition (His lasting achievement may be his insistence on drafting college players over high school kids).

Lewis has written acclaimed books on Wall Street ("Liar's Poker"), Silicon Valley ("The New, New Thing") and the Internet ("Next: The Future Just Happened"). The lifeblood of "Moneyball" is, not surprisingly then, economics, and the shrewd operators like Beane who manipulate the system to their benefit. The rise of sabermetrics in the pro game can be attributed to economic necessity. This is why Rob Neyer wrote that the new school of baseball management could in fact be revolutionary:


There are, today, baseball executives who are actively seeking guidance from brilliant men from other disciplines and professions. This is happening, in large part, because the new breed of baseball executives is both incredibly bright and incredibly educated, and so they're not intimidated by other people who are incredibly bright and incredibly educated.

I'm not suggesting that the "traditional baseball man" isn't bright. Of course he's bright. I've spoken to a dozen traditional baseball men in the last year, and I can report that not one of them wasn't bright.

But there's bright and there's bright. Knock-your-socks-off bright. Paul DePodesta is that kind of bright, and so is Theo Epstein. I'll stop there because I don't want to make a big list and miss somebody, but they're out there and they know who they are.

Do you know how to spot those guys, the ones who knock your socks off? They're the ones who tell you they still know just a tiny bit of what they want to know, the ones who think they've still got plenty to learn and aren't afraid of going out and looking for what they want to know.

Most baseball executives, even the bright ones, don't want to try anything new, because new is hard. Instead, their goal is to do things the way they've always been done ... but better. And that can work. Both of 2002's World Series teams were (and are) run by men who have little use for this newfangled objective analysis that everybody's writing about, and it's hard to argue with their results. If you do it well enough and you get lucky enough, it can work.

III.

Lewis' story begins with sabermetricians like Pete Palmer and Bill James---the outsiders who challenged baseball's traditional belief system.

Lewis writes about Bill James:


There was something bracing about the way he did it-his passion, his humor, his intolerance for stupidity, his preference for leaving an honest mess for others to clean up rather than a tidy lie for them to admire--- that inspired others to join his cause・The cause was the systematic search for new baseball knowledge.

"The thing that Bill James did that we try to do," Paul [DePodesta] said, "is that he asked the question WHY."

The new studies proved that on-base percentage and slugging percentage are a better representation of a player's productivity than the tradition measuring sticks like Batting average and RBI's. Stolen bases are overrated, walks are underrated.


Bunts, stolen bases, hit and runs-they were mostly self-defeating and all had a common theme: fear of public humiliation. "Managers tend to pick a strategy that is least likely to fail rather than pick a strategy that is most efficient," said [Pete] Palmer. "The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move."

But that isn't all.


James also had something general to say to Billy, or any other general manager of a baseball team who had the guts, or the need, to listen: if you challenge the conventional wisdom you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.

・The whole point of James was: don't be an ape! Think for yourself along rational lines. Hypothesize, test against the evidence, never accept that a question has been answered as well as it ever will be. Don't believe a thing is true just becomes some famous baseball player says that it is true.

The first baseball general manager to utilize James' wisdom was Sandy Alderson. It should come as no surprise that Alderson, a former Marine officer and lawyer, was a baseball outsider. While Tony LaRussa's A's were busy stomping the rest of the league in the late '80s and early '90s, Alderson set about to systematically change the A's organizational philosophy from the bottom up. He didn't have the leverage to tell Tony LaRussa what to do, but he could control the minor leagues. When the A's were sold in 1995, and were no longer willing to spend top dollar on talent, Alderson was able to extend his ideas to the big league club. His protZgZ was Billy Beane, a former first round draft pick, who had been a big league bust.


The new, outsider's view of baseball was all about exposing the illusions created by the insiders on the field. Billy Beane had himself been one of those illusions.

IV.


"What Billy figured out at some point," said Sandy Alderson, "is that he wanted to be me more than he wanted to be Jose Canseco."

In 1980, the Mets selected Beane as their second overall pick (Daryl Strawberry was the first). He was a five-tool prospect, a bonafide stud. He was fast, had power, and not only could do no wrong, but did things that other players just didn't do. Raised in Southern California, Beane had the opportunity to attend Stanford on a scholarship, but he ended up signing with the Mets instead. He would live to regret that decision. (When Beane turned down the Red Sox GM position this past winter he said that he had made a decision based on money once, and he wouldn't make the same mistake again.)

Beane had never confronted failure, and when came face to face with it in pro ball he unraveled. The Mets rushed him through the minor leagues, hoping that with his good looks and his five-tool talent, he would be playing in Shea before you knew it. (Lee Maz, eat your heart out.) Strawberry was zipping along nicely, why shouldn't Beane be too? To make matters worse, Beane expression his frustration with the fury of a football player. He was not prepared to suck. Plus, he had the red ass.


You could see why guys used to come down from the bullpen when Billy Beane hit, just to see what he would do if he struck out. To describe whatever he's feeling as anger doesn't do justice to it. It's an isolating rage: he believes, perhaps even wants to believe, that he is alone with his problem and no one can help him. That no one should help him.

The longer Beane played, the more depressed his career became. He hit with fear, he thought too much, he didn't have a baseball mentality. The truth was, he wasn't happy as a baseball player. An early sign that he wasn't cut out for it came when Beane roomed with a young Lenny Dykstra. Dykstra was the antithesis of Billy Beane: a scrub, an over achiever. He wasn't bright, but he had horse sense, and knew he was a ballplayer.

Scott Hatteberg, the A's first baseman, told Lewis:


Some guys who are the best are the dumbest・I don't mean dumbest. I mean they don't have a thought. No system."

Stupidity is an asset?

"Absolutely. Guys can't set you up. You have no pattern. You can't even remember your last at bat." He laughs. "Arrogance is an asset too. Stupidity and arrogance: I don't have either one. And it taunts me."

It taunted Beane too, and he was a much better athlete than Scott Hatteburg. The way the pugnacious Dykstra showed no fear at the prospect of facing the great Steve Carlton said it all to Beane. But Beane soon learned:


The physical gifts required to play pro ball were, in some ways, less extraordinary than the mental ones. Only a psychological freak could approach a 100mph fastball aimed not all that far from his head with total confidence. 'Lenny was so perfectly designed, emotionally, to play the game of baseball,' said Billy. 'He was able to instantly forget any failure and draw strength from every success. He had no concept of failure. And he had no idea where he was. And I was the opposite.'

V.


Billy Beane was a human arsenal built, inadvertently, by professional baseball to attack its customs and rituals・what set him apart from most baseball insiders---was his desire to find players unlike himself. Billy Beane had gone looking for, and found, his anti-theses. Young men who failed the first test of looking good in a uniform. Young men who couldn't play anything but baseball. Young men who had gone to college.

If Lewis stumbled onto a story that he loved in the A's, he found the ideal protagonist in Billy Beane; baseball's answer to David O. Selznick. A calculating and charming opportunist, Beane is, from a dramatic point of view, practically irresistible. Beane looks like Kevin Spacey's better-looking, younger brother, but the character that first comes to mind is the Alec Baldwin character in "Glengarry Glen Ross."


"Billy's a shark," JP Ricciardi had said, by the way of explaining what distinguished Billy from every other GM in the game. "It's not just that he's smarter than the average bear. He's relentless---the most relentless person I have ever known."

The beauty part about Beane is that he's not just an arrogant, narcissistic prick with an inflated opinion of himself. He's complicated too. Beane is at turns warm, playful, intelligent, funny, and most importantly, vulnerable. Lewis does a neat job of exploring Beane's insecurities when the GM contemplated taking the Red Sox gig last winter.

The constant tension with Beane is how he tries to balance his hot temper with his empirical approach to business. When the A's play, Beane is not so different from the average, short-tempered fan.


Reason, even science, as what Billy Beane was intent on bringing to baseball. He used many unreasonable means-anger, passion, even physical intimidation-to do it. 'My deep down belief about how to build a baseball team is at odds with my day-to-day personality,' he said. 'It's a constant struggle for me.'

VI.

Of course, despite all of Beane's success with the A's, his team has not thrived in the playoffs.


The post-season partially explained why baseball was so uniquely resistant to the fruits of scientific research: to ANY purely rational idea about how to run a baseball team. It wasn't just that the game was run by old baseball men who insisted on doing things as they had always been done. It was that the season ended in a giant crapshoot. The playoffs frustrate rational management because, unlike the long regular season, they suffer from the sample size problem.

・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 fifteen 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.

Beane put it bluntly:


"My shit doesn't work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck."

Paul DePodesta, Beane's own personal Mr. Spock, is more philosophical:


"It's looking at process rather than outcomes," Paul says. "Too many people make decisions based on outcomes rather than process."

After all, you can control the process, but not the results. Even if your name is Billy Beane.

Unfortunately for the A's, we live in a culture that is obsessed with results. I heard several casual fans talking about Beane this week, and they scoffed, "Billy Beane? How many fucking rings does he have?"

Paul DePodesta hopes organized baseball overlooks the A's success too (though after this book is released that may be harder to do):


"I hope they continue to believe that our way doesn't work. It buys us a few more years."

Not everybody in baseball is going to buy into the A's philosophy of course, and that's okay. Diversity is good. But the Blue Jays and the Red Sox are already on the bandwagon. Hell, the Yankees current run is based, in part, on acquiring high on-base percentage hitters. The real question is how long will Beane and the A's be able to use the sabermetrics-approach to such an advantage? DePodesta isn't going to hang around forever, you know.

It will be interesting to chart the fate of "Moneyball" this summer. It has already caused quite a stir. Beane's fellow GM's aren't particularly pleased about the book (I'm sure he wasn't too thrilled about portions of it himself). Kenny Williams, the general manager of the White Sox, has already had some choice---if not terribly astute---words for Beane. Fomer scouting director Grady Fuson isn't too pleased either. I'm sure others will follow suit. I doubt however, that it will hurt Beane's ability to perform; in fact, I'm sure he'll find a way to use it to his advantage.

Of course, the internet-based media is charged up about "Moneyball", but Lewis is really preaching to the choir there. No, what I want to see is how everyone from the mainstream press, to the casual fan responds to the book. It feels like an important book, but let's see if it really becomes an influential book.

Rob Neyer thinks it will be.


I think it will be very influential. Maybe not this year or next year, it might not be for another ten years, when the people who are in college today are working for major league teams. But I really think it's a great book and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Whether or not he's right, all I know is I'm looking forward to reading it again.

Oh yeah, not for nothing, but according to Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus:


This week's Baseball Prospectus Radio will be all about Moneyball, the controversial new book giving the insider look at the Oakland A's. Excerpted in NY Times Magazine and this week in Sports Illustrated, Moneyball is currently #10 on the Amazon.com bestseller list and will debut on the NY Times Best Seller list next week. In one of only two radio interviews he will do, author Michael Lewis will speak with BPR about the book, what he saw in his year with the A's, and whether the controversy surrounding the book is justified. BPR will also feature the subject of Moneyball, Billy Beane. Beane is currently General Manager of the Oakland A's and a former major league baseball player. His unique approach is changing the game, but his brash personality is rubbing many the wrong way. Is it truth or sour grapes? Tune in to find out: http://radio.baseballprospectus.com

Don't sleep.

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