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Michael Lewis Visits Athletics Nation, Part Two

As promised, the completion of the Michael Lewis interview. If you happened to miss part one of the piece, click here for Michael Lewis Visits Athletics Nation, Part One.

Blez: I want to get some insight as to where you are with the follow-up book. It sounds like you're pretty far away from completing Underdogs, but what have you seen this season? You've seen Jeremy Brown, Mark Teahen, Blanton, Swisher and the other guys close up. You've probably seen them more than most people have.

ML: I'd argue that I've seen them more than anyone has because that's all I've been doing. Their manager has seen them more, but I don't think anyone has spent more days collectively in the presence of these guys. I've seen quite a bit of them. It's been fun to watch. They're still growing. It's still unclear what their future is, even some of the more prominent ones. There was 40 guys that they drafted and 25 of those are really front office picks. They say that they signed 30 of the 40 they drafted. A lot of these guys, their futures are very ambiguous. You just don't know what's going to happen to them. Blanton, it's kind of clear already. I'd say with Swisher it's very clear already. These are going to everyday, possibly extremely well-known, big league players. I'd say that Teahen too that's true of. But you have to look at them everyday to see-- no I don't mean look, I mean pay more attention to their stats than just their batting average. In particular, Swisher. The stats tell you everything you need to know about him. If you look at his walks, it's insane. He's 23 YEARS OLD in a league filled with 30-year-old players who've spent time in the big leagues. And he's got like 78 or 80 walks and the next closest guy has 60? How does that happen? It's freakish. He's got 16 bombs, who cares that he is hitting .260? Last time I checked, he was like sixth in the league in on-base percentage and that's at 23 years old. When you go see him and you look at the numbers, what you see when you watch him just confirms the numbers in that he has a really amazing tendency/ability to control his encounters in the batter's box. He does have a remarkable control over the encounter. He really does have a very, very good eye and just great discipline. He doesn't mind taking his walks. In the big leagues, it's a little harder to get those walks, but it's not that much harder. He's sort of made it clear that he could be given a starting shot next year. Those guys in a way are the rabbits, and the tortoises are more interesting in a lot of ways than the rabbits. The rabbits will be there.

Blez: Can you tell me about some of the tortoises?

ML: I don't want to tell you because I don't want to blow what's in the book.

Blez: Can you mention any names that have stood out to you then?

ML: I hate to even mention them at this point. But one fun part of the project that didn't occur to me when I was conceiving it was that it was going to be fascinating to figure out ways to evaluate the draft. That's honest and valid. The people who said it was a bad draft or a good draft, well there isn't really a valid argument for that yet. You've got to sort of say, "Compared to what? Compared to the other guys that were drafted that year? Compared for what they spent?" You've got to take all these things into consideration when evaluating it. And that's something that I'm going to have to sort through. And then measuring what they got in return. I mean, if you look at what Billy has gotten out of that draft already, it's kind of amazing. He's gotten Dotel for a period of time. And he got Redman. He traded Bill Murphy for Redman. The obvious value are the ones that get to play for the Oakland A's for six years before they go off to free agency. That's an obvious value. But there's a secondary value is the ones who are used as chips in trades and Teahen and Murphy have already served that function.

Blez: Are you going to stop following them now that they're out of the system or will you continue?

ML: I'm going to continue following them. In fact, I talk to Teahen every few days. It's getting harder though.

Blez: The more they disperse you mean.

ML: Yes. They are scattered to the four winds right now and it's only going to get worse.

Blez: What do you think and what has been the impact of Beane and DePodesta being separated? They truly seemed to be the ying to each other's yang.

ML: They're better together than they are apart. That's real clear. I think Billy's biggest loss has been Paul. It's too bad they couldn't find some way for it to be gratifying for both of them to stay together.

Blez: Either in Oakland or someplace else?

ML: Yeah, or even someplace else. It would surprise me if they were someday reunited in some other kind of operation.

Blez: Where it's baseball or not?

ML: The only thing I could imagine reuniting them is some kind of conglomerate of a baseball, a basketball and a football team where they were running all three together.

Blez: Really?

ML: Yes. That was their fantasy when I met them. It probably still is. Paul's got his own thing going now. But three or four years from now, who knows how interested he'll be in that?

Blez: I'm guessing they still maintain a very good relationship?

ML: Oh, very good.

Blez: How are your feelings on the way the book has been taken? I mean, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but it's got to be somewhat gratifying but also at the same time frustrating that so many people misunderstood the basic premise of the book. And to this day we still have people like Bill Simmons on ESPN.com write that the Red Sox are a nightmarish softball version of Billy Beane's Moneyball dreams.

ML: (Prolonged laughter)

Blez: Well, the reality is that you can't even call the Red Sox that because Moneyball was about an idea of beating the system...it's right in the subtitle, The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. And you can call the Red Sox lots of things, but you can't say that they aren't part of the system the A's are trying to beat.

ML: Exactly. They are unfair the other way. Now they're going to get Randy Johnson because Schilling and Pedro aren't enough. But to answer the question about my feelings about the response to the book... look, the truth is that the worst thing that can happen to a book is that it get ignored. The best thing that can happen to a book is that it get read. And this book got read. It would be a bit rich for me to complain about the response to the book. It's been fabulous. Sure, it's frustrating when people write things that I think are stupid about the book, even when they're kind of flattering. It is frustrating when I feel like I haven't been understood, but it's mildly frustrating. It's delightful that anybody's paying attention at all. It's a little hard for me to imagine a better response. The people who are angry about it keep it in the news. If everybody just loved it, nobody would be talking about it anymore. So it's very helpful that the Yankee announcers go on and on and on about how dumb it is when the Yankees are playing the Red Sox. That's just so helpful. You can't buy that kind of publicity. I'm sitting here trying to think of a complaint I could generate about the response to the book. An honest complaint. It's true that it would be nice if everyone had the same high level of reading skills, but they don't. You can't do anything about that. The only thing that I would've liked for the book in its fantasy, and it wasn't going to happen, was that I wish it had gotten a little more serious intellectual attention and literary attention. It got this fabulous review in The New Republic from an economist and a law professor in Chicago, both of whom I admire immensely. But because it's baseball, I think they were the limit to how up-market it was going to go. Literary people were not going to grab for it, and I had those ambitions for it, and those weren't completely realized. But as far as the response in baseball, in the business world and the noise in the papers and stuff, it really doesn't get any better. It couldn't get any better. If you want your book to get attention, you have to put up with people misinterpreting it. In fact what they do misinterpret it when it comes out, it just serves to give me more material. So you can't really complain about that either.

Blez: You know I mentioned this to you in an earlier exchange, but I believe this book belongs in hotels next to that "other book" and is one of the best books I've ever read.

ML: That's really nice, but you do have a little bit of an interest. It confirmed your passion. (laughs) It dignified your passion. You're an Oakland A's obsessive. And now it makes a lot of sense to be one.

Blez: Exactly. It just justifies every single reason why someone needs to root for this team as the underdog. And if you think about it in a lot of ways, Moneyball is a "true American story." It's about looking for a better way to do something.

ML: Absolutely!!! I completely agree. That innovation is at the center of this culture's soul and that it's being done in a game that everyone thought they knew; that makes it a very rich story. It's one thing when people are just inventing new gadgets, but when you've got something that is as high bound and as seemingly perfectly understood as baseball, and right in the middle of it, someone is trying to reinvent it, that's an incredible story. And it's a very American story. It would be like if someone reinvented soccer...I'm trying to think of the European equivalent. I couldn't believe how good a story it was. After I sold the book to my publisher and I was sitting here with a stack of notes four or five months later thinking that the only constraint for this story was my talent. A lot of times the material itself is a constraint. There's only so much you can do with it. I've had that feeling a lot, but in this case, I just knew if it's no good it's my fault. That's such a great feeling, a scary feeling, but a great feeling because there's no doubt. You know you've stumbled upon something terrific. To have that feeling a few times in the lifetime of writer is all you can ask.

Blez: How often are you still around the Coliseum? Are you around a lot to go see the big league club?

ML: Rarely because I'm off at minor league games. At some point in September when the minor league season is over, I'll be there quite a bit. But not before then. And then I'll probably get a press pass because some of my guys are probably going to be September call-ups. Even if not, I've got some interviews to do in the big league clubhouse. The big league players can tell you an awful lot about minor-league life. So I'll be over there in September for three, four or five games.

Blez: How long did it take you to learn and understand the language of Bill James?

ML: You know, I read everything that he wrote in the press box during games. This project took a year and it was very quick. From the moment I engaged to the moment I handed in the manuscript, it was a year. I stumbled upon Bill James a month into it, so I spent 11 months dragging old abstracts around with me to baseball games. I went and visited with him in Kansas and spent some time with him there. But only after I'd felt like I'd earned the privilege, reading everything and grappled with it. So that's how long it took, a year. I'm not everyone ever completely understands Bill James, but that's the amount of work I put into it generating the piece of material that I wrote about him in the middle of the book.

Blez: How do you feel about the pressure some of the kids are under and the scrutiny they are under? It's like the new school applications are kind of hinging on these kids being successful. And how are they dealing with that type of pressure?

ML: I think they are kind of oblivious to it. I mean they weren't at first. Jeremy Brown, for example, everywhere he went people would tease him about being fat. But other than that, they are kind of oblivious to it. And the truth is that there are two more draft classes after them that were drafted the same kind of way. So they're just the first, they're not the only. This is something I'm going to have to say right at the beginning of the second book, but this theory about how to evaluate amateur talent won't be proven or disproven by a single draft class. There's just not enough guys and you need a bigger sample. So it would be false to draw any radical conclusions from a single draft class. So I don't think it's necessarily true that everything hangs on them.

Blez: I've actually talked to a couple of baseball writers who've claimed that this wasn't something that was revolutionary. It was something that was going on in baseball, it was just Moneyball that had brought it to light. Did you get the feeling from Billy and others that this had been going on for some time?

ML: No. Everyone always wants to say I already knew that, but that's bullshit because there was very little good reporting, in fact, virtually none being done on the Oakland front office. So you couldn't really read about what they were doing in the newspapers. They had the sense that what they were doing was very different from what the rest of baseball was doing. It is true that for the most part, that most of their ideas were completely unoriginal. There was a literature out there they just seized upon. It wasn't like they put chocolate in their peanut butter and discovered Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. What they did was that they ate them and they were the first to do that. You can see from the response to the book that there wouldn't be such hostility to it if there was nothing new to it. If everybody was already doing it, it wouldn't be threatening. You wouldn't have the St. Louis Cardinals firing their scouting director and hiring a computer geek to analyze statistics of amateur players. You wouldn't have the New York Mets having their front office read the book. In Boston and Toronto, they have a sense that what they're doing is different. Look, they're still playing the same game so the innovation is a matter of degree. It's not like they've changed everything about the game. To say there was nothing innovative about what they were doing is crazy because I think the response just shows that it was innovative.

Blez: You mentioned the defense becoming more of a part of the equation, for example no Jeremy Giambi in left field anymore. How do you feel the team has evolved since you wrote the book? Do you think they are already trying to figure out the new measure to stay ahead of the teams like the Red Sox and Yankees?

ML: I think the market is getting more efficient so I think the opportunities are drying up. The biggest opportunity is the draft. If they're right about the draft and if these classes of college players they've evaluated in a particular way pan out at a higher rate than past drafts then they're going to successful for another decade. They're going to be successful for a long time. Because they're going to have more good professional players than they'll know what to do with. So that's by far the biggest opportunity. Whatever edge they have there, if they have it, is the most lucrative one. The evaluation of other team's professional players and their farms systems on the other hand, well, there are enough other teams that are looking at and valuing things roughly the same way that there's not huge opportunities there for them. I don't think that they have huge intellectual advantages. I think that Boston and probably Toronto and now Los Angeles for sure. For example, whatever they're thinking about defense, it's mentioned in a slightly complicated part of the book- the AVM - that's the source of their defensive analysis. I think they all have that. The draft is the biggest thing. There are other things that get less attention like the health of pitcher's arms. That in itself could be a wealth machine. If you can draft 15-20 good college pitchers each year and if they're all healthy, then three or four of them are going to be good major league pitchers, then you're in great shape. But that goes back to the draft. If there is anything of extra value of what they've done starting in 2002 to draft players, then there is nothing to worry about for the Oakland A's. They are going to be very good for a long time because they won't even need all the good players coming up through their system. As long as they trade them smartly, which I'm sure they'll do, there is going to be some much value there that it won't matter that they can't play in the free agents market.

Blez: The health of the A's is a natural segue to my last question then, would you call yourself an Oakland A's fan?

ML: Yeah, of course. How can I be anything but? Every time they win, I sell a book. It's more than being a fan. I'm a partner. I feel like a business partner at this point. I feel like my commercial fate is tied to the fate of that team, so I can't completely detach myself from them. I became a fan while I was watching them. Once you understand there is a war of ideas taking place on the field, you're engaging in a different way and I find myself completely engaged in that way.

Thank you very much for taking out the time to answer my questions Michael. Athletics Nation greatly appreciates your considerable contribution here and I'm sure the majority of us can barely stand the fact that Underdogs is coming out three years from now.

Oh and thanks for outing the fact that I'm an obsessive. Wait a minute, AN already knew that.

Next up in Athletics Nation: A's Assistant General Manager David Forst took time between signing draft picks to answer questions for AN. That will be running sometime this week, so stay tuned for AN's version of Best Week Ever.