Michael Lewis’ Moneyball

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before I get started, I want to quote (actually to requote) a few choice bits from Bill James, a baseball-statistics enthusiast whose Baseball Abstracts were the kernel for Billy Beane’s approach to managing the Oakland A’s and a manifest influence on the work at hand:

…when the numbers acquire the significance of language, they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do: to become fiction and drama and poetry… And it is not just baseball that these numbers, through a fractured mirror, describe. It is character. It is psychology, it is history, it is power, it is grace, glory, consistency, sacrifice, courage, it is success and failure, it is frustration and bad luck, it is ambition, it is overreaching, it is discipline. And it is victory and defeat, which is all that the idiot sub-conscious really understands. (67)

And

Every form of strength covers one weakness and creates another, and therefore every form of strength is also a form of weakness and every weakness a strength… the balance of strategies always favors the team which is behind. (257)

If you don’t follow baseball literature (and I’d forgive you if you didn’t), you may not appreciate the magnitude of James’ effort. He’s trying to tie together two great strands of baseball fandom: the liberal artsy, poetry-of-the-moment-and-of-the-movement fan of baseball who views baseball as an integral part of Americana (pies cooling on the windowsill, hazy summer afternoons), and the data hound, for whom baseball can, like business, be boiled down to numbers. Both are viable ways for a fan to enjoy the game, but they’ve never had equal weight in the minds of most baseball fans and teams. Moneyball  shifts the balance toward stats-oriented fans by combining the story of James’ ideas with the story of Billy Beane’s execution of those ideas, and by weaving in a few gilded strands from the world of finance. His enthusiasm is infectious, until you realize that his writing embodies the salesmanship and spirit that almost toppled the whole world’s economy in 2008. But that’s not a bad thing, for in doing so it also captures them. If nothing else,  Moneyball is a great time capsule of the early 2000s. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Casual observers of baseball know that it generates lots and lots of statistics, and that teams can use those statistics to compare players. Moneyball tells the story of how Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s have used James’ novel approaches to baseball statistics to win games on the cheap. Beane’s competitive drive led him to reject the classic approach to roster building (almost total reliance on subjective scouting reports on a player’s appearance and ability) and depend on a few ivy league number crunchers who thought they had a better way to build a team (total reliance on college-level statistics). That’s the bare bones of it, and it makes for a good enough retelling of a very appealing story: a man of unfulfilled potential never gives up and, through his ability to adapt himself and his ideas, manages not only to stay in the game he had played, but to compete successfully as a GM. It’s heartwarming and all that, but there’s a great deal more to why Moneyball is worth your time and sports-book-buying dollar. For one, it is a paean to an underappreciated genius, and an example of the ways in which new authors can pay back those who came before them. It’s also an inadvertent record of why that original author’s work went underappreciated in the first place. And it’s a rare example of a work that both describes a cultural trend and pushed that same trend forward. Data oriented approaches to stock trading had picked up steam through the 80s and have remained a dominant current in financial services, and to this day professors of stats and finance routinely recommend Moneyball to their students (though it is unclear is there’s any monitory element to the recommendation). But before all that, it began with one man’s peculiar pastime: combing through baseball stats to find meaningful data.

One of the appealing bits of Moneyball is that it showcases another author’s dedication and writing. In addition to his unstoppable, inexplicable urge to ask new questions and seek novel approaches to baseball related statistics, James buries some real nuggets in in the charts and tables of his Baseball Abstracts, as when he nails Atlanta Braves owner and business magnate Ted Turner in a single line: “No matter how hard he flees, he will always be pursued by an Awful Commonness, and that is what makes him a winner” (74). While Lewis never quite reaches the same level, he does contribute something vital to the story. James had gotten his ideas out to a core audience, but most teams—and most of the public—ignored him, as if his approach was so pure that his ideas couldn’t translate, much less be heard. He was a prophet in the desert, and even if he told the truth, no one listened to him because he was so far out there. He needed someone to manifest his ideas, and an apostle to spread the word. Enter Billy Beane, who was just the right man to pick up James’ ideas, and Lewis, the man who’s first book, Liar’s Poker, was something of an expose about the trading room at Salomon Brothers in the 80s. (Whatever your intellectual or cultural conceits, money leavens lots of writing, and Lewis’ business-y approach to sabremetrics was a great vehicle for James’ ideas, even if his tendency to idolize profit and efficiency is unlovable—his strength does turn out to be a weakness). On top of his qualifications to sell a book that is mostly about baseball, but also kinda about making lots of money, Lewis had timing: the A’s were doing well and data management and analysis were hot topics just waiting for a good story to carry them.

Which leads to the second notable bit about the book. Moneyball isn’t worthwhile because it is beautifully written (it can be confusing, especially in the chapter that describes Billy Beane’s whirlwind trading as the deadline approaches) or because it is great science (the sample size of Billy Beane’s performance is only a few years) or because it consciously gets at the heart of what is eternally true about the human condition (some of its contents are almost comical in light of subsequent events—see below), or because it can transform the reader into a wiser person (it can transform the reader in another sense—again, read below). It is good because it captures the mindset of the time in which it was written.

Wonderful as they may be, the truth about most books (and certainly modern fiction, save perhaps 50 Shades of Grey) is that few people read them, and that their impact isn’t widely felt. Super Sad True Love Story and Infinite Jest and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are all well and good for their insights into the current intellectual milieu, meta-aesthetic experiments and just-so ruminations, but the bottom line is that they affect only a few people. The mindset that Moneyball lionizes has had a much more direct impact on many people’s lives, if just for the fact that it did so much to promulgate the data geek as the next big genus of investor and ensconce data geeks in financial firms that administer retirement accounts, financial endowments, and the like. And Lewis makes no bones about who he thinks make the most money and who should, presumably be in charge of investment funds and baseball teams:

The fragments [of stocks, bonds, futures, options, and other financial instruments] soon became so arcane and inexplicable that Wall Street created a single word to describe them all: ‘derivatives…”

For the better part of a decade there were huge, virtually risk-less profits to be made by people who figured this out. The sort of people who quickly grasped the math of the matter were (sic) not typical traders. They were highly trained mathematicians and statisticians and scientists who had abandoned whatever they were doing at Harvard or Stanford or MIT to make a killing on Wall Street. The fantastic sums of money hauled in by the sophisticated traders transformed the culture of Wall Street, and made quantitative analysis, as opposed to gut feel, the respectable way to go about making bets on the market. The chief economic consequence of the creation of derivative securities was to price risk more accurately, and distribute it more efficiently, than ever before in the long, risk-obsessed history of financial man. (130)*

Oops.

By 2008 it turned out that the only part of this section that held up was that people on Wall Street were indeed making bets, and yet it captures so much of the mindset through the aughts: the faith in people with advanced degrees in technical subjects, the trust that intelligent people could eliminate risk while making lots of money, and the tendency to buy into a new way of doing things without looking at the possible downsides. Lewis doesn’t consciously describe this enthusiasm: he out and out embodies it, and while that’s a weakness (an especially major failing for a journalist covering finance), it becomes a strength inasmuch as Lewis has let the book stand even after the 2008 banking crisis made a mockery of the above paragraph (and every weakness is indeed a strength).

So Moneyball is good because of the contrast between the message its author intends to convey (these eggheads will be the new masters of the universe!) and the implicit lesson that we learn when we think about the book in context (those eggheads need to be a little more careful the next time they come up with some grand new idea!), but there’s at least one inadvertent lesson to be learned on the level of storytelling as well.

Looking back it isn’t so surprising that someone steeped in finance would write so positively about Beane. If data analysts were the originators of both sabremetrics and derivatives, Beane is the man who puts it all together. He didn’t come up with James’ statistical tools—he’s not even the one who crunched the numbers. He was the one who put those ideas into practice, who actually had the moxie necessary to change the A’s system. He’s got plenty of passion and is perfectly willing to forget everything he’s been taught about baseball—so long as what replaces it makes sense. He’s the one whose able to keep the system going. Beane is the archetypal capitalist.

And that works for the story—up to a point. Only the most Scrooge-ish of observers would completely like the manager who can’t look past his ledger, who views his workers as replaceable cogs. Indeed “when you listen to the ‘objective’ Billy Beane talk about his players, you begin to wonder if baseball players have free will” (249). You can’t always be a nice guy when you’re wheeling and dealing like Billy Beane, but even Lewis, one of his biggest fans, can’t always make Beane sound good. Consider the way he makes room for a new acquisition by jettisoning Mike Magnante, an over-the-hill middle relief pitcher, just four games before Mags, as he’s known, qualifies for his full MLB pension. Beane lets someone else do the hatchet work and leaves Magnante to deal with the aftermath:

Mags quickly left the Oakland club house; he’d come back for his things later when no one was around. His wife had brought the kids to the game, so he couldn’t just leave. Magnante watched the game with his family until the sixth inning, and then left so he wouldn’t have to answer questions from the media. He had no desire to call attention to his situation. In his youth he might have mouthed off. He would certainly have borne a grudge. But he was no longer young; the numbness had long since set in. He thought of himself the way the market though of him, as an asset to be bought and sold. He’d long ago forgotten whatever it was he was meant to feel. (216)

Whether you think Beane was serving the of excellence in sports by remaining cold-hearted (there was a better option on the table; he was right to go for it) or if he should have let other considerations change his judgment (just let the guy earn his pension fercrissakes!) depends on your values regarding sports, whether you think sports teams should embody amoral business reasoning or other popular ethics. But the question obscures what is for me a more interesting point. If baseball is all about the numbers, then Moneyball should be about numbers too, right? If the players are interchangeable pieces, who cares about a guy like Magnante and how he feels once he’s been let go? Why is Lewis telling us this story? Just to show that Beane lets nothing cloud his judgment? To idolize Beane all the more? It sure doesn’t read that way. It sounds more like a cutting from an entirely different story, one about the cruel reality of doing business the Billy Beane way. On first reading this section was a little jarring, even disingenuous. Lewis seems like the kind of guy whose first thought on reading about a series of lay-offs would be about his portfolio, not the immediate effects on the community or people who no longer had work. At yet it is still there.

Looking at it from a longer view, I think it underscores the second of the quotes from Bill James. When I think about the way the book would have appeared without this section, I appreciate it more, despite the fact that its clunky and awkward. Moneyball is better for its odd little excursion into an area that it should, by my logic, ignore.

All of which underscores the quotes that started this essay. No matter how passionately he extols the powers of statistics, James knows they mean nothing unless they can be related to things like the qualitative aspect of the sport, to victory and defeat and grace and triumph and the other things that we find stirring about human competitions. Lewis knows if it’s all about numbers we might as well watch balls make their way down pachinko machines, and that he’s got to include at least a little bit of the human element to make his book better. That if he’d paid attention only to statistics he’d be undervaluing the human element of the sport. That, even if the bit on Mike Magnante doesn’t make for great or consistent writing, it could still improve his book much as Beane improves his team with leftovers and overlooked players. James was right—the balance of strategies favors the style that seems to be behind.

* There’s an entire discussion to be had about the nature of education based on Moneyball and the 2008 financial crisis. The book implies that pioneers left their brainiac concerns at Harvard and Stanford and MIT to turn finance and baseball on their respective heads. By extension, these are the vanguards of society, the guys who will innovate and make progress, who will determine the future directions of baseball, finance and our entire country. Their studies at their respective universities gave them incredible tools to change the world, but were they ever taught to ask them themselves whether or not innovation is actually good, or how to innovate responsibly so that they don’t sink the whole goddam boat with their new ideas?
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