Book Reviews

Book Review: Moneyball by Michael Lewis – Underdogs Rejoice

One of the pleasures of being a Mets fan is always knowing you’re the underdog.  It’s never seemed as if they were a sure thing, even in 1986.  Back then, they seemed to delight in making fans scream at the television in frustration as they stretched elimination in the playoffs and World Series to the last out.  But winning was never a sure thing, that’s for certain.  It’s something we learned to live with.

I wanted to read Moneyball before I saw the film by the same name.  Author Michael Lewis knew there was something different going on in baseball when he saw the number of teams with lower payrolls that were succeeding not only beyond expectations, but eclipsing those with payrolls three times what theirs was.  As he started researching his book, he gravitated more and more to the operations of the Oakland A’s. There, he was granted unprecedented access not just to the clubhouse but to the front office as well.  That was where he met A’s General Manager Billy Beane.

Billy Beane. Billy Beane.  The name sounded familiar to me.  As I read Moneyball I discovered why.  He was drafted the same year as Darryl Strawberry, but never managed to carve out the career everyone thought he would have.  Lewis goes into great detail as to what happened to Beane as a study in contrasts between drafting guys like him and the new way the A’s began operating under his guidance.

The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least the chance of being inspired.

The “David” in this case is from David and Goliath, to whom Lewis likens teams like the A’s versus teams like the Yankees and their enormous payrolls.  As a Mets fan, I totally get that as well even though up until recently their payrolls were not huge.  This inspiration is what keeps fans coming back and what Beane sought to find to bring fans into the park.  He wanted to win, and to do that he had to find players who could play that no one else was looking at.

Beane brought in a new way of scouting.  Together with Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricchiardi, they looked at different statistics than those commonly used to assess what a player was worth.  The statistics were based on work done by Bill James back in the 1980s who wrote a series of Baseball Abstracts arguing that the current way of assessing players wasn’t working.  Few listened to him at the time.  I’ll bet they are listening now.

James wasn’t the only one crowing that the statistics were outdated.  Lewis details how Rotisseries Baseball Leagues (the precursor to Fantasy Leagues) gave rise to the new kind of baseball geek, who also yearned for better ways to judge players.  That might sound all well and good on paper, but how would that translate to real life?

The Oakland A’s are baseball’s answer to the Island of Misfit Toys.
Lewis details how Beane used this knowledge and these statistics to root out players other organizations missed.  The year they lost three big names to free agency: Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen, he used his draft picks to grab players that weren’t being considered all that seriously by other teams.  Jeremy Brown “didn’t look like a ballplayer”. Nick Swisher was on other organization’s lists, but Beane valued him much more highly.  Other players languishing in the minor leagues of other organizations he managed to trade for.  Despite losing those three names, the A’s once again made it to the playoffs.

Yeah, Beane was onto something.

The reading might be tedious to some, particularly if you aren’t a baseball geek.  I ate it all up.  This is the sort of baseball I like to see where young, hungry, and under-appreciated players get a chance to shine in the spotlight.  The statistics will be boring to some, and the details of the games and the implications of what’s happening will be lost on those who don’t follow the game.  This is a book that’s really for baseball fans, and even then I think it will appeal more to the hard-core ones.  Don’t worry, there’s plenty of us.

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