It is no exaggeration to say that Michael Lewis’s 2003 runaway bestseller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, was my (secular) Constantine moment.
Almost overnight, I went from relying on the New York Post’s back page, where columnists frequently informed me that Mets losses were a result of missing grit, passion, and hustle, to engrossing myself in Rob Neyer’s analytical ESPN columns, where, despite having flunked a statistics course in business school, I learned how to better evaluate major-league ballplayers.
I realized that outfielder Roger Cedeno’s speed on the bases was useless since he was no longer drawing walks, southpaw Jerry Koosman had been a valuable commodity in 1978 even though he lost 20 games the previous year, and infielder Edgardo Alfonzo had among the best back-to-back seasons for any position player ever to have donned a New York Mets uniform. (As a sop to New York Yankee fans, I also entertained the possibility, advanced by the dean of sabermetricians, Bill James, that outfielder Roy White had as good a career as Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Jim Rice, if not a better one.)
baseball columnist Ken Davidoff opined to me that Moneyball
ranks in the “top 10 of all time in the baseball world, when you consider how much it has shaped discussions about and within the game.” He says the book “heighten[ed] my awareness of statistical analysis, and it motivated me to look at things more through that lens.”
The book documents how Billy Beane, general manager of the budget-minded Oakland Athletics, much like a successful Wall Street analyst, spotted and took advantage of the inefficiencies embedded in Major League Baseball to stand toe-to-toe with the Yankees, making the postseason in four consecutive seasons and capturing four division titles over seven seasons. From 2000 through 2004, only the Bronx Bombers won more regular-season games than the A’s.
However, the lessons offered extend well beyond bats and balls. One of Lewis’s principal characters, Paul DePodesta, wunderkind assistant to Beane, reportedly said a few years ago that the book belonged in the business sections of bookstores and libraries, not under sports. Sure enough, I realized that in order to grow my nascent public-policy consultancy, I needed to design a business plan that targeted market inefficiencies.
Although the book enjoyed brisk sales, its contents provoked a backlash of cyclonic proportions, principally from the sport’s old guard, who viewed Lewis’s narrative as an assault on their cherished beliefs, which Lewis reviews and often finds wanting. Among the biggest critics was Hall of Fame second baseman and former ESPN broadcaster Joe Morgan, who assumed that Moneyball was an autobiography and got ticked that Beane was ridiculing his view of the value of stolen-base attempts. During a subsequent interview, when asked why he had not yet read the book, Morgan responded incredulously, “Why would I want to read a book about a computer, that gives computer numbers?”
Other critics misinterpreted the larger message, thinking that Moneyball claimed: (1) the only way to win is with position players sporting high on-base percentages; (2) defense does not matter; and (3) first-round draft picks should be used solely on college athletes.
On-base percentage: At the time the book was published, there still were only a handful of teams that targeted players who were particularly skilled at reaching first base, a tool that Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey had emphasized in the late 1940s to considerable success. Consequently, many of these players were available cheaply.
Defense: Lewis references James, who pointed out in his very first Baseball Abstract that traditional defensive calculations — errors and fielding percentage — were misleading. “The statistics were not merely inadequate; they lied.” “Language,” said Lewis, “not numbers, is what interested [James].” As A’s GM, Beane realized that effective defensive measurements were still years away from being available; therefore, it was preferable to focus on offense, since that was quantifiable.