What are the central themes of Moneyball by Michael Lewis, and how do they relate to business management?
The central themes of Michael Lewis's nonfiction examination of one professional baseball organization's unusual level of success despite its limited financial resources, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, include the advantage to be held by thinking creatively when evaluating talent and to incorporate innovative thought-processes into budgetary decisions.
Michael Lewis is an interesting individual. He is a journalist who specializes in writing about financial matters, but from a very unconventional perspective. His first book, Liar's Poker, was about his experiences as a young bond salesman at the high-profile New York investment firm Salomon Brothers. Lewis's depiction of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that dominated the backrooms of this prestigious Wall Street company, combined with an easy-to-understand style of explaining arcane financial concepts for the uninitiated, made his introductory volume hugely successfully, both commercially and critically. He has continued to employ his informal yet informative style of writing to additional topics within the realm of finances. In fact, his book The Big Short, adapted for film, provided a fine, relatively-understandable explanation for the financial crisis of 2007-2008--a crisis that literally shook the entire world and from which the United States is still struggling to extricate itself.
Moneyball, on first look, might seem a little outside of Lewis's normal analytical realm, but it actually fits his style quite well. As he wrote in his preface to this volume, the genesis of this particular study lied in the author's ingrained need to understand the relationship of money to human conduct:
"It began, really, with an innocent question: how did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games?"
Like many of us a fan of baseball, Lewis was struck by the success, in terms of wins versus losses, of the Oakland A's baseball team. The distinction between so-called "small-market" and "big-market" franchises, with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers exemplifying the latter and teams like the A's, the Kansas City Royals, and the Milwaukee Brewers typical of the former, has been a continuing area of interest for baseball aficionados for many years. The long-time dominance of the Yankees was easy to understand given the deep pockets of the team's ownership. Of more interest to Lewis, then, was the success of those small-market teams and, particularly, of the Oakland franchise. He focused his attention, then, on the team's management, personified by general manager Billy Beane. What, Lewis wondered, was Beane doing differently that led his small-market team to win more games on a consistent basis than every other team in the league save one, the Atlanta Braves. Moneyball provides his conclusions.
Chapter Four of Moneyball isi titled "Field of Ignorance," a play on the baseball film "Field of Dreams." If there is one section of Lewis's book that drives-home the basis of his approach to his topic, and why an author who specializes in understanding and writing about complex financial matters would focus on baseball, it is this chapter. In it, Lewis describes the variety of characters who applied mathematical models and statistical data to the sport of baseball. He discusses in this chapter Eddie Epstein, a government economist with the federal Office of Management and Budget, who, like Lewis, is a fan of baseball. He also introduces the reader to Dick Cramer, a research scientist for a major pharmaceutical company who used company computers--very, very powerful computers--to apply his skills at mathematical models and his interest in statistics to his true passion, baseball. Individuals like Epstein and Cramer, Lewis points out, discarded old assumptions (personified, Lewis notes, by old baseball scouts) regarding methodologies for evaluating talent. Cramer, the author writes, discovered, contrary to conventional wisdom regarding certain baseball "beliefs," that such beliefs did not stand-up to scientific scrutiny. Using as just one example, Lewis discusses Cramer's focus on the subject of "clutch hitting," the term applied to baseball players believed to be especially talented at hitting the baseball under the most tense of circumstances:
". . .Cramer had a hypothesis about clutch hitting: it didn't exist. No matter what the announcers said, and what the coaches believed, major league baseball players did not perform particularly well—or particularly badly—in critical situations."
Cramer's hypothesis, then, is typical of the findings Lewis describes in Moneyball. If there is one central theme to this book, it is the value in thinking "outside the box" when it comes to evaluating conventional approaches to issues or problems that involve statistics. And, baseball, if anything, is a game notoriously subject to statistical analyses.