June 18, 2003

ON THE MONEY: What the

ON THE MONEY: What the neo-conservatives of the Bush Adminstration are to foreign policy, the sabermetric movement is to major league baseball: a movement that has existed and gradually gained steam for years, and now has finally broken through and more or less been accepted by those in power. The sabermatricians' Weekly Standard is the Baseball Prospectus; their Scoop Jackson Bill James, and their Axis of Evil is baseball's traditional scouting establishment. And their George W. Bush is Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane: a longtime insider who has embraced the movement's long-held ideas and applied them on the main stage.
Ostensibly a look at Beane's A's and how they've managed to beat baseball's large market/small market structure, Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball" is the first major work to chronicle the influence the sabermetric movement has had (and will continue to have) on the national pastime. While certainly not perfect by any means, "Moneyball" manages to be a highly important book, while remaining readable and entertaining throughout.
Lewis spent parts of the 2002 season with the A's in the quest to figure out how they were able to break the 100-win barrier nearly every year despite operating on a low budget that caused them to regularly lose key players to free agency and left them unable to bid competitively for other teams' players. The answer lies in the theories of the legendary baseball statistician and best-selling author Bill James, who began writing in the 1970s and inspired a generation of baseball/math geeks to expound on his philosophies. Yet Beane (who became GM of the A's in 1997) was the first man to apply James' thinking to the actual running of a big-league team. As a result he turned the A's around, into a team that has reached the playoffs three years in a row, including two straight 100-win seasons, and a 20-game winning streak in July and August of 2002. The theories have begun to take hold around the major leagues as well, as Beane protege J.P. Ricciardi is now running the Toronto Blue Jays, while James himself and pitching statistician Voros McCracken have both been hired as consultants by the Boston Red Sox.
But, as described by Lewis, another part of Beane's philosophy is related to his own experiences: a onetime prep phenom, Beane was drafted in the first round by the Mets out of high school but flopped in the big leagues, never living up to his potential and retiring before reaching the age of 30. Lewis uses this to draw an almost Freudian explanation of Beane's method of evaluating high school players: he disdains prep ballplayers, rejects out of hand the idea of evaluating players on the basis of athleticism or "having a good body," and pays no attention at all to "tools." After all, Beane was always in impeccable shape as a player while his onetime teammate Kirby Puckett never was, and the latter is a Hall-of-Famer. In what would look to the untrained eye like a pathetic act of self-hatred, Beane refuses to draft any player that in any way reminds him of himself.
The book is at its best in describing Beane in the "war room" prior to and during the amateur draft, as well as on the "trading desk" prior to the trading deadline, bringing us into a major part of baseball success that is rarely if ever covered. And in the couple of occasions that he brings us actual play-by-play coverage of games, Lewis (previously known primarily as a business/Wall Street journalist) proves an exciting storyteller.
The book isn't without its glaring weaknesses, however- and foremost among them is the author's hagiographic, almost messianic worship of his subject. If Beane has ever been wrong or made a mistake in his time as GM, or if there's a single weakness anywhere in sabermetric theory, we don't learn about it in "Moneyball." Also, for a book called "Moneyball," Lewis devotes very little attention to baseball's overall economic picture: that there was nearly a player strike in 2002 is, I believe, not even mentioned, and the longrunning three-headed battle among the union, large-market owners, and small-market owners is barely even touched upon. And how does Lewis explain the similar success in 2002 of the Minnesota Twins, who played (and beat) Oakland in the playoffs despite an equally low payroll- only without the benefit of any sabermetric influence whatsoever?
My friend and fellow blogger Jeremy Wahlman recently met Lewis at a book-signing and asked him why the A's have never attempted to attack the small-market problem from the demand (rather than supply) side: why not try to somehow increase revenues? Why not pursue a new stadium (another thing that is, I believe, not mentioned in the book)? Lewis, I believe, acted as though those questions had never even occurred to him.
Overall, however, "Moneyball" is a fascinating and worthwhile book. Clearly, baseball is on a collision course: in five years, either every team in the sport will have embraced sabermetrics, or it will be dismissed as a fad, sort of like what the run-and-shoot offense was for baseball. But one thing is for certain- whether or not Billy Beane stays in Oakland (he nearly departed for Boston last year) sabermetrics in baseball is likely to last, on some level, for quite a long time- quite possibly longer than neoconservatism does in the White House.

Posted by Stephen Silver at June 18, 2003 02:52 AM
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