Book Review: Moneyball

Michael Lewis

Baseball is a game wrapped in denser layers of statistics than any other. Home runs, RBIs, batting average and others are quoted back and forth between scouts, managers and talking heads in the baseball community. Moneyball picks apart in great detail why those statistics are flawed, why those baseball people are wrong and why such idiocy continues.

In brief, the book takes the example of Billy Beane, an uber-promising prospect out of high school who somehow failed in the Major Leagues despite his copious talents. Now the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, Beane has used a whole knew system to evaluate players and direct on-field strategy. This system, which is widely scoffed at by the baseball establishment, has allowed the Oakland A’s to win more games over the past several years than any other team, despite having one of the smallest budgets.

Moneyball gets deep into Beane’s system. Based almost purely on statistics, or sabermetrics, that system treats runs as the most valuable currency in baseball. It judges a player in terms of his ability to score more runs than he gives up. While seemingly obvious, this rankles many traditionalists, leaving out as it does RBIs and batting averages as metrics. It also leaves out more subjective judgments about body type, leadership, performance under pressure and other “intangibles.” It marginalizes crusty “baseball guys” with gut feelings and champions young Ivy League graduates with computers and no preconceived notion of what’s supposed to be important.

It’s a fascinating book, and its overarching theme is that there inefficiencies in almost every aspect of life that can be exploited by people who are smart enough and courageous enough to reject conventional wisdom, to think and act differently. It’s also satisfying to see the players who are illuminated by the light of Beane’s system; most players are slow, overweight, great at drawing walks, considered too old to develop and almost all are unwanted by other teams. They’re easy to root for, since most have given up on their Major League dream when the A’s come calling. Everyone’s wish is to be appreciated, to have someone see something in you that no one else does. And that’s what Moneyball is all about.

Why other teams haven’t adopted this system en masse is debatable. It’s led to Oakland’s success, and it was no coincidence that the Red Sox finally won the World Series after Theo Epstein, a young Ivy League graduate with a computer, became GM. The most likely explanation is that it removes opinion and personality from the equation. It also means that ex-players no longer have any way to stay in the game after they retire. The system is not about the romance of the game. It is simply about winning.

While Moneyball is a great book for baseball fans in particular, the ideas in the book can be understood, appreciated and applied by anyone.