Friday, August 19, 2005


I finally, belatedly got around to reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis this week. Bottom line: easily one of the five greatest baseball books I've ever read--if you can even really call it a baseball book. It's really as much a book about business and economics as it is about baseball.

For the uninitiated, Moneyball is the story of how a few stats geeks (most notably represented by the front office of the low-budget Oakland Athletics) noticed that the baseball market was overvaluing certain statistics (like batting average, RBI's and stolen bases) and drastically undervaluing other (arguably more) important statistics (like on-base percentage and walks) and decided to exploit it. Okay, I know, it sounds boring, but trust me, it's not. It's anything but. Instead, it's a story of David vs. Goliath, of how a few rebellious upstarts went to battle against the entire ossified baseball establishment--and won.

As Lewis lays out, A's general manager Billy Beane and the other "moneyball" practicioners, inspired by statistical guru Bill James, set out to ask a simple question about every piece of received, conventional baseball wisdom: "Is it true?" In most cases, they found out it wasn't. It is not beneficial to waste one of your three outs merely moving a runner from first to second. The benefits of stealing a base do not outweigh the risks. It's not better to draft players out of high school than out of college. It's not more important to judge a prospect on how he looks than on his previous production.

Year after year, the Oakland Athletics lose big-ticket free agents to other richer teams (Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, Mark Mulder, Ray Durham, etc. etc.) And yet, year after year, the Athletics are competitive with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. For several of those years, they've won over a hundred games. How? By looking at the numbers that really affect how many runs a team scores--which are not always the statistics teams pay big money for.

The baseball establishment ("The Club," as Lewis calls it) has been praying for the failure of "moneyball" since it's inception. They resent the upstarts challenging their wisdom. Hardly a televised game goes by when Joe Morgan (the closest thing the Club has to a Social Chairman, as Lewis puts it) doesn't talk about how flawed the approach is--all while the teams that practice it continue to exceed their big-market, big-moneyed rivals.

Since the A's started having success with it, two other teams have seen the light: the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox. "Moneyball" isn't just for teams with low payrolls, since at its heart, it's not about winning cheaply, but rather winning efficiently. Last year, the Red Sox won their first World Series in nearly 80 years after hiring Bill James and Theo Epstein (who has modeled himself after the A's Beane).

A current look at the "Moneyball" teams shows the Red Sox leading their division by six games over the New York Yankees, a team they trail in payroll by over $80 million. And a mere 2 1/2 games behind the vaunted Yankees in the same division sit the Blue Jays, a team whose payroll lags behind the Yankees by about $160 million. Let me say that again: the Blue Jays and the Yankees are separated by 2 1/2 games and $160 million in payroll. Toronto is four games out of the AL wild card right now. Toronto's former general manager Pat Gillick, a Club guy who just retired last year as GM of the Seattle Mariners, has been vocally, viscerally critical of Billy Beane and "moneyball" in general. The Mariners team Gillick built is currently in last place in their division, 17 1/2 games out. And all this on an $86 million payroll, $40 million more than the Blue Jays and $30 million more than the Athletics.

And what about the Athletics, the team that started it all? Once again, they're contending for their division title. They've been battling back and forth for first place against the Los Angeles Angels. The A's have a $56 million payroll. The Angels' is $95 million.

No matter how successful these teams are, though, you can rest assured on one thing: Joe Morgan will keep telling you it doesn't work. And who are you gonna believe, Joe Morgan or your lying eyes?

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