Moneyball, Ten Years Later

Tom Pennington

First it was a book, then a brouhaha, and then a movie. Now, a decade later, "Moneyball" still seems to be a mystery.

In the fifth inning of the June 28 Cardinals-A’s game, Glen Kuiper and Ray Fosse, the TV guys, had this dialogue inspired by a Josh Donaldson ten-pitch walk:

Kuiper:

So, anybody who wants to do this “Well, on-base percentage, ‘Moneyball’, that kind of thing…that’s [the Donaldson walk] what it’s all about, right there.

Fosse:

Oh, yeah. You try the at-bat; if you don’t get a pitch, you take the walk. You take it after you attempt to drive in the run.

Huh? Did Kuiper and Fosse just agree that “Moneyball” was all about taking a lot of pitches? Since I had recorded the game, I replayed their conversation. Maybe Kuiper was discussing hitting techniques and just had a “Moneyball” brain fart. Or, maybe he simply didn’t get the concept behind “Moneyball.” Evidently, I was not the only one who was confused. The following exchange occurred in the comments of the AN game summary:

ORthey:

Kuiper said "On-base percentage and Moneyball and all that" And I was like, seriously? This again?

4-6-3:

Didn't he dismiss those things and say that getting a lot of pitches is a big part of Moneyball? Maybe I imagined it. Doesn’t sound like Kuiper.

KURT15BRIGG5:

Yes that is what he said. He said that Moneyball isn’t all about on base percentage, it’s about grinding out at bats. Which is still wrong, Moneyball just being finding undervalued commodities whatever those are at the time, but not a terrible guess.

4-6-3:

I don't completely agree. As expressed in the book, part of it is to take a lot of pitches. Their starters are their best pitchers, get them out of the game. Wear out their pen by the late games in the series. According to Lewis, Billy said it and that pretty much makes it Moneyball canon, even if it doesn’t involve money directly.

Wow! Then I was really confused. I didn’t recollect “Moneyball” being about any of that. Jeez, if our own guys don’t understand “Moneyball,” how can Joe Morgan ever get it right? Then, I had a terrible thought, “What if I’m the one who doesn’t get “Moneyball.” How embarrassing would that be?

So, ten years after reading the book the first time, I read “Moneyball” again.

There’s a certain dread that goes along with re-reading one of my favorite books. Would it hold up? How have my perceptions of it held up? Is it a misunderstood classic, or just an overrated glorification of Billy Beane?

I am a big admirer of Michael Lewis’ work. I believe he is not only the foremost financial writer in the country, but one of the best writers, period. He has an uncanny instinct for a good story. (I truly envy him that.) He’s a smart guy and he has the credentials to show for it, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History from Princeton and an MBA from the London School of Economics, Mick Jagger’s alma mater.

[Trivia note: Michael Lewis was not the first Princeton guy to write a bestselling book about the Oakland A’s. In 1990, George Will (Princeton Ph.D. in Political Science) wrote “Men at Work,” which profiled Tony LaRussa, among others.]

Out of school, Lewis was hired as a bond trader by Salomon Brothers. Several years later, he quit the job to write his first book, “Liar’s Poker.” At the time, 1988, he was earning $250,000 a year, and he just chucked his job in order to write. That was one gutsy move, one I don’t think many of us could have made.

“Liar’s Poker,” about the bond trading business at Salomon, became a bestseller. There were other bestsellers, too, “The Blind Side,” about Baltimore Ravens tackle, Michael Oher, and “The Big Short,” about shenanigans on Wall Street during the near-meltdown in 2008.

Lewis is not a baseball guy, or even a sports guy. He’s a finance guy who knows how to tell his story to people who may not care about baseball. My wife, for instance. “Moneyball” is the only sports book my wife has ever read. She is a VP of Marketing who doesn’t know an RBI from a rutabaga. If “Moneyball” were about hitting techniques, or taking walks, or anything too basebally, she would have dropped the book in a New York minute. But she knew instantly what “Moneyball” was all about, and she was fascinated. She fights the same battle the A’s do every day: finding the overlooked value in the marketplace and the undiscovered advantage over her better-funded competition.

So, what is “Moneyball” all about? What did I find re-reading the source material and sorting through the confusion of the book, the movie, the concept, the controversy, and the passage of time? I rediscovered one helluva book.

I had forgotten the complete title of the book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” For all the discussion in the book of science, mathematics, and statistical analysis, Lewis chose not to call it “The Science of Winning an Unfair Game.” I had missed that subtlety the first time around. One of the smaller lessons I sensed from the book was this: determining the problem requires science, but solving the problem requires art.

I also rediscovered how funny the book is. I had completely forgotten about the legend of Phil Milo, one of Beane’s obnoxious former assistants, who had pissed off everybody in the organization. They detested Milo so much they concocted a sentencing technique based on his name and likeness. The death knell for a prospect was when someone ordered, “Put a Milo on him,” and a tiny magnetized picture of Milo was placed beside the prospect’s name. Hilarious!

The episode in which Beane acquired Ricardo Rincon from the Cleveland Indians is complete absurdist theater. (It was scaled back and featured in the movie.) But there are many more episodes, equally silly. Lewis’ comic descriptions of certain people are falling down hysterical. Here’s how he described A’s scout, Billy Owens (Billy O): “Billy O is what you’d get if you hammered Shaquille O’Neal on the head with a pile driver until he stood six foot two.”

“Moneyball” is a great character study. Lewis writes, in the Afterword, “Beane’s reaction [to the book] was something like horror. He was surprised that so much of the thing was about him and disturbed I had portrayed him as a maniac.” Ah, but what a maniac! Lewis quickly saw that Beane’s personal experience as a player and his management experience as a GM provided the perfect point-counterpoint for the narrative. (The movie focused on the same tracking plotline.)

But Lewis went further and matched Beane, the impulsive, un-credentialed, action-oriented, flim-flam man, with Paul DePodesta, the rational, methodical, Ivy League analyst. (In the movie, DePodesta was replaced by the invented character, Peter Brand, played by the portly Jonah Hill.) In “Moneyball,” Beane is Achilles to DePodesta’s Odysseus. Yes, that is a reference to Homer, and not the Hawk Harrelson kind.

But other characters are just as memorable, Scott Hatteberg, Chad Bradford, and Jeremy Brown. I think those characters, and many others, are what distinguish “Moneyball” as one of the best American books. Here are just some of the other surprising things I re-learned:

  • Paul Depodesta was offered two different General Manager jobs before he eventually accepted the ill-fated Dodgers position. He was offered the Toronto Blue Jays job, which he turned down. (His assistant, J.P. Ricciardi, accepted the gig.) Then DePodesta inherited the Athletics’ job after Beane verbally agreed to take the GM slot at the Boston Red Sox. Part of what changed Beane’s mind was what he saw when he returned to the A’s office after speaking with Red Sox owner, John Henry. “I’ve now got two Harvard guys on my sofa (DePodesta and his new assistant GM, David Forst) trying to figure out how they’re going to screw me.”
  • Scott Hatteberg was not as forlorn and destitute as the movie made him out to be. The Colorado Rockies had actually offered him $500,000 to play for them in 2002. The A’s secured Hatteberg’s services with a $950,000 contract. I would love to be so destitute.
  • The Billy Beane-Art Howe conflict was vastly overplayed in the movie. Howe was much more compliant with Beane’s plan. In fact, Beane assigned Howe the job of cutting Mike Magnante in the aftermath of the Rincon deal. As you recall, in the movie, the Billy-Brad character had a heartfelt sit-down with Magnante and sensitively eased him out of the clubhouse. Never happened.
  • Though Jason Giambi’s loss was major, Beane didn’t consider the desertions of Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon any big deal.
  • Beane and DePodesta, the guys who took Jeremy Brown in the famous 2002 draft, had no interest drafting Prince Fielder…because they considered him too fat!
  • Consider the current A’s roster, then read this passage: “His talent for avoiding strikeouts was another of his secondary traits that, in the Oakland calculus, added value, subtly, to Scott Hatteberg. The strikeout was the most expensive thing a hitter routinely could do.” Yikes! Have Chili Davis and Brandon Moss read this book?

To repeat the essential question of this piece, what is “Moneyball” about? Some of the confusion about “Moneyball” comes from Lewis himself. The title describes several subtly-different things. First, it describes the state of the game as Lewis found it when he started writing the book.

“For more than a decade, the people who run professional baseball have argued that the game was ceasing to be an athletic contest and becoming a financial one. The gap between the rich and poor in baseball was far greater than in any other sport, and widening rapidly. …The raw disparities meant that only the rich teams could afford the best players. A poor team could afford only the maimed and the inept, and was almost certain to fail.”

Second, the term, “Moneyball,” was a new metric for baseball.

“A leading independent authority on baseball finance, a Manhattan lawyer named Doug Pappas, pointed out a quantifiable distinction between Oakland and the rest of baseball. The least you could spend on a twenty-five-man team was $5 million, plus $2 million more for players on the disabled list and the remainder of the 40-man roster. …the fewest games a minimum-wage baseball team would win during a 162-game season is something like 49. The Pappas measure of financial efficiency was: how many dollars over the minimum $7 million does each team pay for each win over its 49th?”

And, third, “Moneyball” referred to a new team management paradigm practiced by the upstart A’s.

“At the bottom of the Oakland experiment was a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why. …Many of the players drafted or acquired by the Oakland A’s had been victims of an unthinkable prejudice rooted in baseball traditions. The research and development department in the front office had liberated them from this prejudice, and allowed them to demonstrate their true worth.”

But the meaning of “Moneyball” is simpler than all that. If you don’t want to read the whole book, just peruse the four-page preface and the 14-page Afterword. Eighteen pages, for cryin’ out loud! Lewis himself tells what the book is all about. The book isn’t about hitting techniques (taking a lot of pitches, looking for walks, etc.), drafting strategies (selecting college pitchers, etc.) or favoring certain statistics (OPS, VORP, etc.). Michael Lewis, again:

“The point is not to have the highest on-base percentage, but to win games as cheaply as possible. And the way to win games cheaply is to buy the qualities in a baseball player that the market undervalues, and sell the ones that the market overvalues.”

If you refer to anything as “moneyball,” and nowhere else in your reference is the word, “money,” then you are unclear on the concept. And, for that, I’m going to have to put a Milo on you.

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