Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Moneyball, by Michael Lewis
If you've seen the movie Moneyball, a lot of the broad strokes of Lewis's book will seem familiar. There's Billy Beane getting angry. There's Billy Beane trusting numbers and his Harvard educated assistant over his scouts who say a player has a "bad body". There's the improbable 2002 run with Scott Hatteberg at first base and a 20 game win streak.
The difference in each version is the focus. Moneyball the movie is a dramatization of the real-life story, so it's focused on the who and when. Moneyball the book is focused on the how and the why.
After reading the book, you start to realize that it took someone like Billy Beane to apply Sabermetrics to baseball. Beane was a top prospect for the Mets in the early 1980s (some thought was better than Darryl Strawberry). He had a plus arm, plus power, plus bat, plus everything. And he looked like a ballplayer. He tore through the minors, but ended up being a journeyman for 5 years before calling it quits and getting a front-office job in Oakland. The "can't miss" prospect touted by all the scouts missed big time (career average .219, 66 hits, 29 RBI). If the scouts were wrong about Billy, how could he trust their advice when he was now the guy picking players?
Enter Bill James. A baseball writer and statistician who wrote a popular series of baseball abstracts from 1977-1988, James wrote about stats and trends rather than recount the stories of great games and great plays. He wanted to quantify what separates "good" players from "bad" players. Essentially, he wanted to know why some teams won and some lost. When Beane assembled his team of advisers and assistant GMs, they were guys who grew up reading Bill James and ended up getting degrees in things like economics and statistics.
The book is well written and well researched. There are a lot of colorful stories from the athletes we meet that will keep any baseball fan entertained. Lewis's prose is clear and direct, which you would expect from an experienced reporter like him.
Moneyball, both movie and book, are recommended.