In Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis offers a behind-the-scenes account of how the Oakland Athletics (A’s) major-league baseball team has outplayed wealthier teams with much bigger payrolls. Accompanying the A’s during their 2002 run to the Western Division championship, Lewis focuses his attention on the efforts and background of the team’s unorthodox general manager, Billy Beane, and on Beane’s staff, especially Paul DePodesta, a Harvard-educated “number cruncher.”
The problem faced by Beane and the general managers of other small-market teams is how to compete with large-market teams that can outspend them by a wide margin in the quest for high-priced players. In Beane’s case, Oakland’s payroll was less than half that of the New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, or Texas Rangers. The A’s, however, had stunning regular-season success in 2002. In exploring their solution, Lewis dissects Beane’s history, strategies, and style. Lewis also looks at the influence of sabermetrics, that is, the detailed statistical analysis of baseball fomented by selected fans but resisted, until recently, by the major-league establishment.
More specifically, Lewis looks at the role of pioneer sabermetrician Bill James, one of DePodesta’s guiding influences. Finally, Lewis describes in detail two examples of how key personnel decisions made by the A’s allowed the team to reap substantial benefits from players discarded by other teams. These lines of inquiry lead Lewis to conclude that the success of the A’s is owed to their elevation of objective (or rational) business-oriented solutions over subjective (unempirical and antiquantitative) subservience to the orthodoxies of organized baseball. This advantage in systematic knowledge enables the A’s to exploit market soft spots and avoid overvalued commodities in the quest for a winning combination of players. Obviously, Lewis’s book has as much to do with business prowess as it does with baseball know-how.
Billy Beane’s personal history is integrally related to his approach as general manager of the A’s. Beane was a first-round pick of the New York Mets in the free-agent draft of 1980. His raw tools as a high school player (especially his running speed, batting power, and throwing arm) were such that the Mets considered making him the very first pick in the draft over Darryl Strawberry, who would go on to be a sparkplug for the 1986 world championship Mets team. In Beane’s case, there were already ominous signs of failure. His high school batting average had plummeted by his senior year, and he did not deal well with adversity, launching into temper tantrums after strikeouts and struggling to adjust to the changing patterns of opposing pitchers. In addition, Beane was not enthusiastic about playing professional ball as opposed to attending college. In the end, a sizable bonus swayed him to sign with the Mets.
The results were, in terms of his playing career, frustrating. Beane struggled mightily, even in the minor leagues. His raw tools were good enough to give him a shot in the major leagues as a fringe utility player, but by 1993 he had opted to pursue a career in Oakland’s front office instead. He ultimately became General Manager Sandy Alderson’s assistant, inheriting Alderson’s scientific approach to the game as well as his appreciation of bases on balls and the importance of on-base percentage. When Alderson moved on, Beane became the general manager. He not only continued in Alderson’s footsteps but also heartily reinforced his predecessor’s wisdom, with references to his own failed career as a player.
As a player, Beane had lacked discipline at the plate, striking out in bunches and rarely walking. His attitude had also predicted failure. Finally, Beane had been signed out of high school. This gave scouts far less data on his abilities than they had for college players. For Beane, ability to make solid contact would trump the more spectacular tools. A player’s makeup would be of paramount consideration. College players would be preferred to high schoolers. These priorities put Beane into conflict with much of his organization. A’s scouts still drooled over young stallions and undervalued less flashy players. Coaches craved speed and were infatuated with the stolen base. Part of Beane’s task, therefore, was to give solid organizational expression to his philosophy. This he did by making the on-field management completely subordinate to the front office.
The unorthodox nature of Beane’s approach would prove to be advantageous in the quest to outdo other teams in various transactions. These teams still primarily...
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