Michael Lewis - Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

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An intriguing look at how a sports team is run

Jan 3, 2012 (Updated Jan 6, 2012)
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Rated a Helpful Review

Pros:An insightfull look how a sports team is run

Cons:A strange defense by Lewis when criticized

The Bottom Line: A fascinating story


Moneyball is a book written about the process to build the roster
of the Oakland Athletics baseball club, headed by general manager
Billy Beane.  The book also has some history of how baseball
statistics are viewed in terms of evaluating how good or bad a
player is.  The author, Michael Lewis, was new to writing a book
like this since his background was more about numbers than baseball.

Lewis has a background in finance, and that was the subject of his books
until this one ( I have not read any of them ).  He viewed sports as
a business, where teams with superior resources should beat out
lower resource teams again and again.  What got him to create the book
were teams that seemeded to get much better results than they should
have, not just in isolated seasons but over a period of years.

I will state up front that I am a lifelong A's fan, which may skewer
or subconsciously modify my opinion of anything in the book.

This is a baseball book, but not in a way that paints the sport in
a pastoral or romantic mood; rather it is closer to the modern view
that sports are businesses, and money is a bottom line to look out for.

The reader of this book should occasionally step back, and consider
how much access Lewis had, other than the hard rule that he was not allowed in the dugout during games.  He basically was a fly on the wall, listening to front office staff and coaches discuss the players, and was a witness to the draft, the type of moments that a random person not
working for a team would not have access to.  Since he was not part of the team he would occasionally ask questions, receiving answers that
would practically cause a lifting of his eyebrows.

Chapter 1: The Curse Of Talent

The year was 1980.  As a high school baseball player in Southern
California, Billy Beane was highly prized by scouts of major league
baseball teams ( preparing for the amateur draft ).  He was an
incredible physical talent, with size, speed, and power.  His
batting average took a large drop from his first to second year
in high school, but scouts ignored it, concentrating on his natural
talent.  The Mets took him anyway, drafting him in the 1st round,
believing his talent could overcome any obstacles.

Chapter 2: How To Find A Ballplayer

Moving forward in time.  Beane is the Oakland A's general manager, first
having the job in 1998. In the 2001 draft one of his people had drafted a
player Beane didn't want, causing a startling event of anger by Beane.

Now the 2002 draft is on their doorstep.  He looks at the budget that
he has for the draft, which has to pay for not just the contracts but also
the signing bonuses.  He can't afford the physically talented players
that other teams will be willing to very large amounts of money for.  He
feels that doing things the old way will not work, so he presents a list of
players he wants, surprising many of the members in the scouting bureau, set in the old ways of how they evaluated players.

This part of the book was a very good inside look at the draft.  The baseball draft, for many years, was a non-event, done out of public view. 

Chapter 3: The Enlightenment

Once again, we revisit Billy's past.

Billy has been signed by the Mets; his progress up through the minors
is arduous.  He has a friendship with fellow minor leaguer Lenny Dykstra;
they are almost opposites.  Where Billy overthinks how to play the game
and carries failure on his shoulders Dykstra has almost no fear of it,
letting it slide off his back.

By 1990 Billy is with the A's, no longer a young prospect; his big league
career is nothing good to note, and he decides he wants a front office job, such as to be a big league scout.

The general manager, Sandy Alderson, is stumpted by this.  Even though
Beane is far past the age of a young prospect he is still far from having
lost his physical ability to be a ballplayer, being only 28.  Alderson gives Beane what was requested, anyway.

Beane spends a few years as a scout, then moves up to become the
assistant general manager.  His time as scout leaves him with one big
impression:  Maybe these guys don't know what they are talking about.

Chapter 4: Field Of Ignorance

This chapter is devoted to some of those outsiders, such as Bill James and Dick Cramer; both men are baseball fans who looked at baseball statistics in the 1970's and 1980's with the thought that they were used improperly by teams, or that certain stats didn't tell an accurate story.

James was a man with an annoymous life, who put together a loose collection of baseball stats he found to be interesting, and sold a few copies of it in 1977.  Eventually he was making collections worthy of book size, which sold very well, making him a fairly well known person to die hard baseball fans.

Cramer worked for a pharmaceutical company; in his spare time he used a company computer to test ideas that baseball announcers often spouted out. Cramer built a company called STATS Inc., which attempted to compile each event of every game into a database.  Both men spent many years wondering why the insiders of baseball, such as general managers, had no interest in the type of information they put together.
Why would someone reject information that might help them win more games?

Chapter 5: The Jeremy Brown Blue Plate Special

It is the first day of the 2002 amateur draft.  The A's have the abnormal amout of seven picks in the first round, due to compensation picks from losing significant free agents to other teams.  Beane, assistant general manager Paul Depodesta,  the organization's scouts, field manager Art Howe, members of the ownership group, and assorted invitees are in a room at the Coliseum.  Many in the room are not in the loop about who Beane wants.

Beane and his people have some idea what other teams are planning; he's feeling very tense because one high level draftee ( not one of his targeted players ) may want more money, causing the team that wants him to pass up, causing a chain reaction where Beane's main targeted player is already taken.

Chapter 6: The Science Of Winng An Unfair Game

Beane inherited a situation that his predecessor/mentor Sandy Alderson had: how could he field a team that could compete with teams that spent so much more money than him?  When the A's had a winning record in 1999, then improved the win total each of the next two seasons ( reaching the playoffs ) people wondered how they could keep it up, especially with three major players leaving after the 2001 season.  One of those players gone was Jason Giambi( the 2000 American League MVP ), leaving for the massive budget New York Yankees, who had knocked the A's out of the playoffs the two previous seasons.

Chapter 7: Giambi's Hole

Lewis sits in a crowded video room in the Coliseum; the room is where the game is taped, for the team members. Two members of the front office, Dan Feinstein and
David Forst, are there.

It's the last week of April, and the Yankees are the opponent that night,
featuring the former A, Jason Giambi.  Lewis notes how the crowd seems to be in an angry frenzy, but the front office employees show no obvious anger.

In the offseason the A's brought in three position players, attempting
to fill the spot of Giambi: Dave Justice, formerly of the Yankees, Scott
Hatteberg, and Jeremy Giambi ( Jason's brother ).  Justice runs into video
room to study his first plate appearance, then leaves quickly to get back
to his defensive spot in right field.

Lewis is aware that the team has players rejected by other teams; he looks at Justice and sees someone who seems perfectly fine, then is told that Justice was unwanted because he had reached the age of 36.

Scott Hatteberg comes in the video room.  After he checks the video and
leaves, Lewis asks Depodesta what Hatteberg's flaw is; Depodesta notes
that Hatteberg was a catcher but became injured.

Chapter 8: Scott Hatteberg, Pickin' Machine

Hatteberg was drafted by the Red Sox, as a catcher.; he reached AA on
raw ability, then had to become a self taught student of hitting to get him
to the big leagues.

His Red Sox career was mostly unnoticed, though competent.  A nerve
injury in 2001 couldn't be fixed by surgery, ending his catching career.
He was now among the practically unwanted, only offered a contract by
Colorado until the A's called him, with an offer that had an unexpected
surprise.

Chapter 9: The Trading Desk

Near the end of July the team has found it's way to a winning record, but
they are in 3rd place in the division.  The veteran left handed relief
pitcher Mike Magnante has just delivered a bad game, contributing to a
loss.  Beane is livid, since Beane has instructed manager Art Howe to not
use Magnante in critical situations.

The trade deadline is close upon them.  The gears in Beane's head are
turning wildly, as he has multiple moves he wants to make, including having Magnante replaced.  It becomes a race to make deals before other teams can beat him to it, knowing that the other general managers are in the same frantic frenzy.

Chapter 10: Anatomy Of An Undervalued Pitcher

Chad Bradford was from a small town in Mississippi, with an unimpressive fastball as a young man, then turned to an unorthodox release point, partly from having to throw the ball oddly to his permanently injured father.  As time passed he was getting rid of the ball at a lower and lower spot, leaving batters confused and frustrated in the minor leagues.  He was getting the batters out, but it seemed that almost no big league team noticed.

Chapter 11: The Human Element

On the night the A's could potentially win a 20th game in a row Beane is at the ballpark.  He tries to avoid watching games, but has sort of become stuck there that night, having to be interviewed by many media outlets.  As the game turns in different directions Lewis is a witness to Beane's emotions, known to be shockingly intense at times.

Chapter 12: The Speed Of The Idea

It is the next to last regular season game of the season.  Ray Durham, one of the players brought in during the season, is in a batting cage, watched by third base coach and infield instructor Ron Washington and hitting coach Thad Bosley.  'Wash' and Bosley discuss Durham's hitting ability with accolades as if Durham isn't there, then they get to talking about Durham's agressiveness on the bases, followed by Beane's belief that agressiveness is a net loss, wasting outs.

"The fact of it is," says Wash, "Billy Beane hates to make outs on
the base paths."
Ray shakes his head sadly and resumes taking his cuts.

Lewis has stumbled into a quietly rebellious group in the franchise who
still believe in the importance of speed.  These revolutionaries know there
is a limit to what they can do or say about it, and avoid getting into major trouble.

Afterword: Baseball's Religious War

The publication of the book caused stirring in the baseball world.  Opposing teams accused the A's of being lucky, or that Beane had a huge ego, treating himself as smarter than other general managers.  Lewis described Beane's reaction to the release of the book as "something like horror", surprised that so much of the book focused on him, and was disturbed that he was "portrayed as a maniac".

There was also negative reaction from what Lewis describes as 'The Club'. The Club is the collection of people of baseball insiders ( people with jobs in baseball or media people who cover baseball ) with a baseball background. The Club doesn't like negative publicity, and the book painted traditional baseball theory as being antiquated or backwards.  Some of the complaints were pointed at Lewis, accusing him of not knowing much about baseball; more criticism was pointed at Beane,with statements that he had written the book ( which was not true ) and that he had a huge ego.

Here is where Lewis sort of went off track.  His reaction to the criticism came off as kind of snarky, and perhaps even mocking.


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