Michael Lewis explains in his preface that he wrote Moneyball because he fell in love with a story about
a small group of undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball.
However, the idea for the story formed when Lewis noticed that the Oakland Athletics (the A's) were winning a lot of baseball games, even though they were one of the poorest teams in baseball.
The A's were not physically or athletically inferior to other teams; instead, they were at a financial disadvantage. The New York Yankees, for example, had a payroll of $126 million in 2002. Just a decade before, the New York Mets had the highest payroll in the league at $44 million. Although it seemed like money buys wins, Lewis notes that some high payroll teams have nevertheless failed to win. Oakland, meanwhile, had won more regular seasons games than every other team but the Atlanta Braves, in spite of having the second lowest payroll in the league. The A’s general manager, Billy Beane, realized that he would never have as much money as the Yankees, so he began to look for “inefficiencies in the game.” He had his staff investigate the market price for undervalued skills such as "foot speed," and they began recruiting bargain players with those skill sets. They achieved great success. Before long, bigger market teams like the Red Sox began reinventing their organization in the image of Beane’s A’s, establishing Beane's reputation as one of baseball's great modern innovators. What, however, made Beane reevaluate player selection in the first place?
In the opening chapter, “The Curse of Talent,” Lewis explains how scouts have traditionally searched for talent in their prospects. He begins in San Diego in 1980 where managers from...
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The second chapter, “How to Find a Ballplayer,” begins over twenty years later. Beane is now the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Although he has sworn never to make another decision based on money, he is happy to manage money “so long as he was using it on other people, and not having it used on him.” Beane is in a room full of scouts, a group of people that are “invisible to the ordinary fan,” but who “decide who gets to play, and, therefore, how [baseball] is played.” Beane intends to draft players based on what they have done, whereas the scouts draft players based on what they imagine the players might become.
The scouts watch games and try to see something in a player no one else does, and they deride Beane’s belief in “performance scouting.” They prefer players “you could dream on.” As they discuss who they will draft, many of the scouts are irritated by the ubiquitous presence of Beane’s assistant, Paul DePodesta. Paul, armed with his laptop and his Harvard education in economics, has Beane’s ear even though he has never played professional baseball. Lewis explains that Beane “intended to rip away from the scouts the power to decide who would be a pro baseball player and who would not, and Paul was his weapon for doing it.” Paul is unusual because he ignores the five tools and focuses on on-base percentage.
Beane plans to test Paul's method in the 2002 draft, which is an important draft for the A’s because they cannot afford to buy players at market prices. Drafting and signing good players is essential for the poor A's because they can control that player’s contract for seven years in the minors and the first six years in the majors. The A’s have just lost three of their top players—Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen—to richer teams. However, they will receive these richer teams’ draft picks, which means that this year Beane will have an unprecedented...
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The third chapter, “The Enlightenment,” begins with Beane’s career with the Mets. He has just been signed along with another high school phenom, Darryl Strawberry, and Roger Jongewaard thinks that Beane is more ready for pro ball than Strawberry. The Mets send Strawberry to their rookie league but advance Beane to play with their college players. They think that Beane is better equipped to deal with the pressures and frustrations of the majors. Unfortunately, Lewis explains, Beane “didn’t know how to think of himself if he couldn’t think of himself as a success.”
Beane returns home after the season and enrolls at the University of California at San Diego, though he would not graduate. By the following year, he would be playing alongside Strawberry, who would go on to be named the most valuable player in the Texas League. During this time, Beane lives with Lenny Dykstra, who did not have Beane’s tools, but was mentally built for baseball because “he was able to instantly forget any failure and draw strength from everyone success.” It was from Lenny, Beane would later explain, that he began to learn what a baseball player was. Over the following years, Beane would continue
grinding his way up through the minor leagues, propelled by his private fears and other peoples’ dreams. The difference between who he was, and who other people thought he should be, grew day by day.
On the field, Billy was able to make spectacular plays, but he continued to struggle at bat. Mentally, Beane would unravel if he struck out.
In 1985, Lenny joined Strawberry in the Big Leagues. In 1986, Beane was traded to the Minnesota Twins, where he starts in left field. Though he gets five hits in his first game, he goes hitless the following two nights and is taken out of the starting lineup. For the next three years, Beane would play “up and down between Triple-A and the big leagues, with the Twins, the Detroit Tigers, and, finally, the Oakland A’s.” Before long, the consensus is that Beane was failing because of mental reasons, not physical ones. Harvey Dorfman,...
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In the fourth chapter, “Field of Ignorance,” Lewis tells the story of Bill James and his methodology of baseball statistics. James self-published his 1977 Baseball Abstract: Featuring 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just Can't Find Anywhere Else, and he managed to sell 75 copies of it. Encouraged, James continued to collect statistics. Lewis explains that baseball is a game that lends itself to counting, and that although an observer might not be able to see the difference between a .300 player and a .275 player, new statistics would reveal the difference. James believes statistics that people have traditionally followed, like batting average, often say very little about a player’s value. He suggests that some statistics produce "numbers," but other stats are like "language" because they are capable of telling stories.
Many of the most useless statistics, Lewis suggests, can be traced by to Henry Chadwick. The RBI, or “runs batted in,” for example, is a statistic that seems to depend upon luck more than skill. So why use it to predict a player’s worth? However, it has been used to evaluate players, and has led players to swing at bad pitches in a desperate effort to add to their RBI totals. It is ironic that Chadwick’s statistics, which were designed to improve the game, often led to inaccuracies in player evaluations. James would soon come to term these new statistics “sabermetrics.” Over time, Lewis explains, James began to prioritize offense over defense. Realizing that batting average is an inaccurate way to measure the amount of runs a player contributes, James would produce his own "runs created" formula for measuring the offensive abilities of players. His formula was:
Runs Created = (Hits+Walks) x Total Bases/ (At Bats+Walks)
It turned out to be a more accurate predictor than the formulas used by professional baseball teams.
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The fifth chapter, “The Jeremy Brown Blue Plate Special,” returns to Billy Beane’s story in his role as the general manager of the Athletics. The 2002 draft is about to begin and Beane has a list of 20 players that he covets. His top priority is Nick Swisher, a hitter. Though Beane has never seen him play, he has heard a great deal. More importantly, he has seen the statistics on Paul DePodesta’s computer. Beane does not sleep for two nights before the draft because he is so excited. However, on the day of the draft, Beane is worried that he will not be able to sign his top picks.
The major league general managers all know each other and before the draft begins, they call each other in the hopes of finding out...
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In the sixth chapter, “The Science of Winning An Unfair Game,” Lewis explains how Beane uses market inefficiencies to compete with richer teams. The problem is that the Athletics have $40 million to spend on twenty-five players and the Yankees have $126 million. Beane argues that it would be wrong to try to do what the Yankees are doing because latter has three times the money to spend. So while the Yankees can afford to buy major league stars that are in their prime, the A’s cannot. Beane is forced to find young players and veterans that are undervalued by the market.
In 1999, Major League Baseball studied whether the poorer teams were hurting the competitiveness of the league. The Commissioner’s "Blue Ribbon...
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In the seventh chapter, “Giambi’s Hole,” Michael Lewis recalls one of the times he visited the Oakland Athletics clubhouse. He explains that the clubhouse is “famously the cheapest and least charming real estate in professional baseball and the video room was the meanest corner of it.” From this video room, Lewis will watch the Athletics play the New York Yankees, who have recently signed Jason Giambi, Oakland’s best hitter in the previous season.
To fill the void left behind by Giambi, Beane and DePodesta have decided to “recreate the aggregate.” Though they cannot afford to replace Giambi, they can replace his on-base percentage. It will not be easy, since Giambi’s on-base percentage is...
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The eighth chapter, “Scott Hatteberg, Pickin’ Machine,” explains how Scott Hatteberg, a catcher, came to thrive playing first base for the Athletics. Hatteberg had played catcher for the Boston Red Sox. However, when he lost his throwing ability due to a ruptured nerve in his throwing arm, the Red Sox dropped him. The Colorado Rockies signed him briefly, but ultimately gave him up to free agency. The minute (literally) after his contract with the Rockies expired, Paul DePodesta calls his agent to offer him a chance to play with the Oakland Athletics. It is only after Scott signs with the A’s that he learns that Beane intends for him to play first base. Beane promises not to suggest that he will be replacing Jason Giambi....
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The ninth chapter, “The Trading Desk,” begins with the Oakland Athletics playing the first of three games against the Cleveland Indians. Art Howe, who manages the A’s, has put Mike Magnante (Mags) on the mound to end the game. Art has done this because Mags is a left-handed pitcher. Art has also done this in spite of Beane’s specific instructions to pitch Chad Bradford, whom he has described to Art as the “closer before the ninth inning.” Mags gives up five runs. Meanwhile, the Indians’ left-handed reliever, Ricardo Rincon, earns a save.
It is late July, and the trade deadline is approaching. There is a whiteboard wall in Beane’s office, and on it are the names of the several hundred players that the...
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When the tenth chapter, “Anatomy of an Undervalued Pitcher,” begins, the Oakland A’s are on a phenomenal winning streak, largely thanks to the addition of Ricardo Rincon and Ray Durham. They are now at the top of the very competitive American League West. On September 4, 2002, the A’s are playing to beat the American League record for consecutive wins. They just have to beat the Kansas City Royals. At the top of the seventh inning, the A’s are winning 11—5, but just as suddenly, Tim Hudson gets into trouble. Howe looks at his bullpen and remembers Beane’s command to turn to Chad Bradford.
Lewis notes that many major league pitchers are eccentric. Turk Wendell, for example, brushes his teeth between...
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The eleventh chapter, “The Human Element,” finds the A’s streaking for their twentieth consecutive win. The Kansas City Royals are a weak team and would usually draw a small crowd, but tonight is a media sensation. Though Beane would rather go for a drive, he is talked into a media junket before the game. The A’s take an 11—0 lead early. Art Howe calls Chad Bradshaw in to close the game. However, Bradshaw is in the middle of a psychological slump. For the first time, he is the only one that doubts his talent, as opposed to the only one that believes in it. And he cannot get over it. Howe takes him out of the game before the inning is over, but by then the Royals have scored five runs.
Lewis finds himself...
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The twelfth chapter, “The Speed of the Idea,” finds the Oakland Athletics in the first round of the playoffs against the Minnesota Twins. Although Beane has defied all expectations and led his low-payroll team into the playoffs, no one is prepared to acknowledge his accomplishments. Instead, the media criticizes his approach, arguing that the playoffs are different. In the playoffs, teams need to be aggressive. They need to “manufacture” runs rather than just avoid outs. In other words, they need to steal bases and make sacrifice bunts. Beane does his best to convince his coaches of the theory behind the A’s stats-based strategy.
However, the A’s end up losing to the Twins in five games. Beane tells Lewis...
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