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Michael Lewis Returns to AN

I recently sat down and had lunch with Michael Lewis as I mentioned last week. I just spent several hours transcribing our interview and I wanted to run it in its entirety.

Progress on Underdogs is slow as Lewis explains in the interview, but I think it's going to be just as insightful and resonant as Moneyball still is today.

I also added links (bottom righthand corner of the Web page) to two books that I think AN would be very interested in. Lewis's new book about his high school coach, called "Coach" and Will Carroll's outstanding look at the steroid issue in baseball.

Without further ado, here is the AN interview with Michael Lewis.

Blez: Last time we talked you told me about Underdogs and what your initial plans were about them being two books. I wanted to ask you how the progress has been since we last spoke, how you feel it's developed and where you think it is now?

Michael Lewis: The truth is that it's a mess. I still don't know what exactly the book looks like, but I have a mental model. It's a strange project because most of the books I've done have been in and out within two years. From the moment I actually conceived it to the minute I handed it to my publisher, it was exactly two years. When this is all wrapped up, this is going to be about a seven-year project, maybe. I will have written other books in between. So I'm constantly saving the string for it. But it needs to be this way because they have to live their lives in minor league baseball. And they have to get to the point where we can start making somewhat definitive statements about what these careers are going to be.

Let's take Jeremy Brown who everybody loves to point to as an example of a failure because he was highlighted in Moneyball. They don't focus on the whole draft, but they focus on Jeremy Brown because they think they can make that argument. They say, "They drafted him and they thought he was going to be great and look what he is doing. Jeremy Brown, it's true he's in Double-A, but probably should've been in Triple-A except that Jon Baker who is in Triple-A needed some defensive work and Tony DeFrancesco, the Triple-A manager, is the most qualified to work with Baker. If someone went down at the big league level (at catcher), Jeremy is the one most likely to be called to the big leagues. He's got a .400 on-base, a .460-.470 slug, catching pretty well. This is not a disaster and it certainly isn't over. If Jeremy Brown ends up being a really useful back-up catcher in the big leagues, he will have been a good investment. There's every reason to believe that he's still going to get there. I don't want to be in the business of making snap judgments based on a very small slice of the player's career. So I want to wait six or seven years and write it from that perspective. In a funny way, it's hard to conceive the book until I get out there. I'm just trying to be on the scene of the crime often enough so I can write it as if I was there. And that's hard because there are almost 25 players.

Blez: Was Andre Ethier in there?

Lewis: He was the year after me.

Blez: You were talking that many years, are you still looking at a 2007 release?

Lewis: 2007, maybe 2008. I think I'll know. I'll know when it's time to write it. I just have to make sure I make it a point to get out and spend time with the players so I don't miss anything. There are some players, and Nick Swisher is an example, where you could write something that sort of stood the test of time about his career at the end of this season. Certainly at the end of next season. But there are other players that it's just not true about. Most of the players that are drafted don't get to the big leagues, right? The vast majority don't get to the big leagues, so what you're looking at right up front is a kind of disaster story. 25 guys crash in a plane in the Andes and only five of them are going to get out so it's a story about these other ones who die. The deaths in many cases are slow.

Blez: Are you looking at the percentages? Because one of the main points of Moneyball was that they were trying to increase the percentage of players that get drafted and get to the big leagues.

Lewis: They're thinking of them as assets so they're thinking about maximizing return on investment. They're thinking if we pay Jeremy Brown $350,000 as a first round draft choice even though he's generally not considered to be first round draft material, will we get a return on that $350 grand. I think that I'm going to analyze the draft as you would analyze an investment portfolio. What is the return on the draft more generally, which is a more complicated equation because you have to take into consideration not just how much money they invested and what they got in return for it, but what was available in that draft, who did they miss and how much better could it have been? The big question then becomes why. Why did they make the decisions they made and what did they learn from their mistakes?

Blez: It almost sounds to me like it would be even more of a business book than Moneyball.

Lewis: It's very hard to have a book that is set in the minor leagues and have it feel like a business book. It's almost like a frat party. There's just too much color. I suspect that it's going to be harder to persuade people that it is a business book more than Moneyball was. But yes, there will be a connection to Wall Street. I'm still very interested in this whole business of how people's value and contribution in a team setting is measured. And the biases that enter into the measurement and the mistakes that people make. So those things will be present in the book.

Blez: You've been around to a lot of the minor league ballparks to see a lot of the kids. What's it like to be a part of that minor league existence, even for just a short little while? I think so many people see the players at the major league level and all the money they make, but they don't see how many kids just struggle at the minor league level and fight to get to where they get to.

Lewis: When they're 22 and unmarried, it's one thing. The life is not pleasant. They eat badly. They sleep badly. Long bus rides. They get out of shape during the season. The skinny ones get skinnier and the fat ones get fatter. How that happens, I don't know. Where the life becomes much more poignant is when they're married and have small children and are making $14,000 a year and I could be making $40,000 a year doing something else, how long can I cling to the dream? What's surprising to me is how many of these players, immediately upon going into minor league baseball married some girl and got her pregnant and put a degree of pressure on themselves that they really didn't need. In many cases, it's very transparent that the insecurity of life in minor league professional baseball is the origin of the decision to get married. They're looking for some stability in this inherently unstable life. But there's an awful lot of pressure on them and if you think about it and think about what's going on and what you're watching. You're watching a vast pool of potential big league baseball players at the last window of the process. There are three or four million kids playing little league baseball and in the end there are a few thousand playing minor league baseball. Then you're going to take those and turn them into the few hundred who play big league baseball. There's a ruthlessness about it and an arbitrary quality to it. A lot of the decisions that are made aren't exactly fair.

Blez: Actually, that's an interesting point you bring up and I was going to ask you about that. I'm not sure how much you follow the stats of the guys who weren't a part of that draft class, but if you follow someone like Matt Watson, who is down in Sacramento, the kid has been performing really great. In my eyes, he should've gotten a shot by now. Yet someone like Swisher, who was drafted highly and has the name and all the stuff that goes along with it gets the shot before Watson does.

Lewis: That is completely true that there's this attempt, by all organizations, to justify the money that they've spent. They have no sense of sunk costs. No sense of making decisions based on how much money they've sunk in that player. Having said that, Swisher's year last year wasn't just a great year because if you look at his age, he was one of the youngest players in the league. I think he led the entire minor leagues in walks and 29 home runs.

Blez: All with a bad thumb.

Lewis: Yes, all with a bum thumb. I watched a lot of his games. It was extraordinary the degree to which he controlled the encounter with the pitcher. He also got better in the outfield and he's so much younger. He's on the steepest part of the curve, so you can understand why Swisher was given the opportunity. But it is true. Let's take another example. While Matt Watson was playing right field most of last year, Mike Edwards was playing left field. But now at least he's now getting a chance with the Dodgers. There is a lot of luck involved. It seems cruel that these players have gone through this incredible journey to get to that point where they're on the cusp of the big leagues and then it turns on luck. Now how could that be? You'd think that it would get ever more fair the closer you got, but instead it gets ever more arbitrary.

Blez: I heard that the Moneyball movie was alive and then dead. Do you know where it stands right now?

Lewis: It's never been dead. Columbia Pictures owns the rights. They have a script. They have an idea they want George Clooney to play Billy.

Blez: That's so funny, I actually suggested that Clooney play him in my interview with him and he laughed.

Lewis: Well, he's perfect for the part. Now they have a script or a rewrite of the script coming into the studio very shortly if it isn't there already. Then it goes out to directors. What it has going against it is that Hollywood always considers how well a movie is going to do overseas. A baseball movie is not likely to have an overseas market, although perhaps in Japan it will. What I'm told is that the guy wrote a really good script and it's fun to read and it might be a good movie.

Blez: I'm wondering how they would make it into a movie.

Lewis: I'm not sure how they would do it, but they're going to have to change a lot.

Blez: What do you think the vehicle would be? A narrator?

Lewis: I think the key would be to take a character who wasn't in the book, Billy's daughter, and turn her essentially into me. Asking the stupid questions and being on the scene who has this emotional connection to Billy. But I haven't seen the script, so I don't know.

Blez: So you don't have any rights over the project?

Lewis: No. This is the fourth or fifth time I've sold a book to the movies and the process has always been the same. The studio throwing huge sums of money into getting the script and then nothing happens. But the weird thing is that the minute it gets bought, it's as if you don't exist. The author becomes completely irrelevant. It's postmodern; Moneyball, as far as the studio is concerned, is something that they're going to create. There's a mystery about the movie. Even the poor screenwriter, he won't get any credit either.

Blez: Do you know who they had write the script?

Lewis: Yep and I talked to him briefly on the phone. I didn't know him and I don't know what he's done. I really don't know anything about him.

Blez: So it will be a surprise to you just like the rest of us.

Lewis: Yeah, that's right. I'll probably see it when you see it.

Blez: Did you happen to see last week during an ESPN chat that Joe Morgan admitted, and proudly, that's he's never read Moneyball?

Lewis: It's not the first time he's said that.

Blez: Then he recommended that everyone read Three Nights in August instead. Will the guy ever let up?

Lewis: Joe Morgan, and I've said this many times, with enemies like Joe Morgan, who needs friends?

Blez: The guy can't stop talking about it. It's like he has an addiction.

Lewis: No, he doesn't stop talking about it. I think he goes to sleep at night and dreams about Moneyball.

Blez: But how can the guy dream about something or make comments about it when he's never even read it. It's the height of ignorance.

Lewis: Well, he obviously has issues with it.

Blez: It's like you've personally attacked him or something.

Lewis: Yeah, he wasn't even in the book. I did go after him a bit in Sports Illustrated after he had gone on and on about it. I wrote a reply to him, well, more critics of the book, but he was singled out.

Blez: But he was on it long before Sports Illustrated.

Lewis: Oh yeah, he was on it long before then. He was one of the people making noise about it. He's just lazy. You can tell he's lazy. He's coasting. You can tell when he's doing his games, he's coasting. That's all right. There's really no level of incompetence that baseball won't tolerate in the announcing booth, in the sports columnist's game. The game is really designed for a kind of "make work" program for former ballplayers. There's nothing Joe Morgan can do, short of scandalizing himself-- as the Governor of Louisiana once said, the only way Joe Morgan can lose his job is if he got caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. Short of that kind of thing, there is no level of stupidity that he could express on ESPN that would get him canned because he's Joe Morgan. What are you going to do about it?

Blez: Well, they seem to be adding to that. Now, John Kruk and others are just piling on. Although I am going to be on ESPN on a special coming up about steroids in baseball. They're going to ask me why people are still cheering for Bonds.

Lewis: That's interesting. I gave a talk at a local university and I brought up Bonds' name and mentioned steroids and they booed. I think what it is that so many people find that there are aspects of the sports media that are so inherently repellent that anything that comes out in the sports media that's critical of the ballplayer gets negative reactions from the fans.

Blez: I think people always assume there are underlying motives.

Lewis: But in this case it's a little strange to me. It seems to me that these kids are blaming the media for making a big deal out of Barry Bonds using steroids. They don't care whether he used them or not.

Blez: Since we just chatted about steroids, how has steroids use affected how the book has come together? I read the piece in the New York Times Magazine that was very good that seemed to imply the steroids could earn a place in the book.

Lewis: No, not really. Steroids are pretty peripheral. The minor leagues are pretty drenched in them. If that many people got caught, you wonder how many people didn't get caught. The book isn't about steroids. The truth is that I don't know because I haven't started writing the book. But the truth is that there are a lot of other things that are more interesting to me. Short of player's performance clearly being affected by having steroids taken away from them, I probably won't get into it too much.

Blez: What's it been like to watch Swisher and Blanton rise through the ranks so quickly? You've been there every step of the way.

Lewis: And Mark Teahen, who is the Royals third baseman. They're already starters in the big leagues, which is amazing. It's been a gas because I've been spending time with these players since they were in Vancouver and rookie ball. You see them make little jumps. But you take Swisher and his jump from Double-A year to Triple-A year, it was like a different player. But the other two kind of just coasted up the ladder and they seem to be the same players they were when they were drafted into the big leagues. It's interesting to see the continuum. There isn't that much a difference, it's so miniscule between a minor leaguer and a big leaguer. But it's also fun. When you walk into a big league locker room, with the exception of a couple of players, when you walk into the A's locker room, most of them have their hard shell on. Most of them don't want to be seen being pals with a writer. They're big leaguers and you're not, that sort of thing. Swisher and Blanton can't do that sort of thing to me because I knew them when they were babies. When Swisher came up, in his first game in Toronto, I flew out for that series. I saw him first before he played, he gave me a big hug and he was excited. But after the game, he did something special, he hit a home run or he had done something great. His locker was surrounded by journalists and he had this look on his face when I walked in, like please, please don't let them know that I know you. He didn't know what to do, it was a socially awkward moment. I was like the kid from the poor neighborhood that he didn't want to remember. Mercifully, I stayed clear of him. It's funny, Tyler, because it's a different kind of relationship because I've been in their lives for a few years now and I'm hoping that I'll be able to talk to them about what they do in a different way. I got to that place with Scott Hatteberg in Moneyball. But Scott's an odd cat. He's not like most big league ball players. I'm trying to get there with a lot of players who you don't normally get there with. It'll allow me to capture the experience in a different way.

Blez: You mean taking the relationship to a more personal level.

Lewis: Yep, that's right.

Blez: I want to jump to this season with the A's. What did you think when you saw the Hudson and Mulder deals go down? Did you see that as kind of an addendum to Moneyball in that the market for starting pitching had suddenly gone wild?

Lewis: That's what I thought. I wasn't that close to it. I do other things besides watch the A's, believe it or not, although my wife would disagree. I thought when Russ Ortiz got that deal with the Diamondbacks, I thought, "My God, this market is so out of whack." And then when he started dealing the Big Three, the only thing that surprised me is that he stopped at Zito. I thought that if the market was going crazy and he knows he isn't going to be able to keep all these pitchers, he had to think, what is the most opportune moment to trade them. When are you going to get the most for them? If it was there, why not just do it all? The only question I had was that I didn't really know any of the players that we got. I knew who Haren was, but it's going to take a while before you can evaluate the trades.

Blez: Everyone already wants to call the Hudson deal a catastophe. My opinion is that you can't judge a deal based on 34 games. It might take until 2007 before you can really look back and judge the deals.

Lewis: That's exactly right. What if Hudson gets hurt tomorrow and doesn't play another game?

Blez: Yeah, and the chances of Hudson having another hip problem at some point are probably pretty high.

Lewis: That's right and what people don't understand is that you can't judge any of these things by outcomes. What you have to do is look at the process and evaluate the risk intelligently. How would you evaluate a blackjack player in a casino? If you see someone hitting on 19 all the time and he won the first time. You're wrong to say that he's a genius because he hit on 19 and won the first time. He's a fool. He's a fool who got lucky. Similarly, if you see a guy who doesn't hit on 19 and loses, you don't say he's a fool, you say that he's a smart blackjack player who it didn't work out for. And what the A's have to do, they HAVE to be if they are going to succeed is be the smart blackjack player. If they are the smart blackjack player, sometimes it will work out, but sometimes it won't. But it will work out more often well if they're the smart blackjack player. You've got to evaluate the trades the way you evaluate a smart blackjack player. Look at what they were looking at. They had two pitchers, both with health problems, possible health problems, both of whom they know they aren't going to be able to keep for more than two years in one case and one year in another case. One of whom had such a spectacularly bad second half of the season last year that it was hard to know exactly what it was. If you don't trade them now and you take them into next season and one of them gets hurt or continues not to perform, what do you have then?

Blez: Well, I agree that that's why he had to do it. But it also leads me to believe that the market for Zito wasn't very strong.

Lewis: That may be true, maybe there wasn't a market for Zito. I just don't know. I was surprised there was such a good market for Mulder. I thought the Cardinals made a really scary deal there.

Blez: I thought that was a scary deal too, especially since no one knew if he was going to get it back.

Lewis: That will be a good deal for the A's. Right now, if you look at how the regular season started, you would say that neither one of those trades look great. But whenever you're dealing with young players and minor leaguers, you just can't predict right away and you just don't know.

Blez: That's just the thing. 27 or so games into the season, had a story evaluating the Hudson and Mulder deals. Let me say that again, 27 games in!

Lewis: The news just can't be intelligent about baseball because news by definition is small samples. Because it's daily, right? The most typical opinion in sports is the opinion about something that just happened. If you listen to them, they are always rationalizing the most recent events. If someone hits a home run, it becomes a reflection of that person's whole career. And they make these vast generalizations about the home run. If someone walks in the game winning run, it's a reflection of that player's character. So it's always taking some event that just happened and trying to make it signify more than it does. There's an inherent idiocy in baseball commentary. It's particularly idiotic in baseball commentary because you do have this pool of data that's available from which you can actually make some pretty intelligent statements which is just being ignored in that moment because you want to explain that moment. So you go from the announcer's booth to the ESPN studio and ESPN may not just go on that day alone, but there's always an attempt to be the first to say it. My goal with the second book is to be the last to say it. You have to wait until you have enough information to make judgments about something.

Blez: But that goes against our society's desires where there is a demand for immediate gratification. I completely agree with you. Our society's desire for immediate gratification is in opposition with the ability to make intelligent statements about baseball because it's something that plays out over 162 games and six months. And I feel it because the fan part of me wants those immediate results and wishes we had Hudson and Mulder right now.

Lewis: (Laughing)

Blez: But sometimes I have to step back and be rational and realize there's a long-term plan. In all likelihood, this will be better for the organization. But we're all impatient because we want to be associated with a winner today.

Lewis: I would still say that it is not clear whether or not those trades would make this team less likely to win this year. Based on what's happened already, I would still say that the A's are not necessarily worse off, even this year, from those trades. Nevermind the future. It's funny how people want to rush to opinion instead of observation. But that is the nature of the sports fan. The sports fan kind of lives for his opinion. That's nice and it's fun for sports fans. But if you're running the team, you have to be oblivious to that. The truth is that most people who run teams are not oblivious to it. A lot of deals are done because they will look good in the newspaper the next day. And those that earn them praise. There's a certain logic to that. If you do the things that sportswriters praise you for, the sportswriter having praised you is sort of stuck a little bit the next time he wants to bash you. He liked what you did, so how can he complain when it doesn't work out? The situation in Los Angeles with the Dodgers is very, very telling. Paul DePodesta comes in with his Moneyball ways.

Blez: Plaschke has been all over him.

Lewis: Not just Plaschke.

Blez: Simers too.

Lewis: Yeah, Simers and all these guys. They're upset because he's undoing things that they approved of in the first place. He takes them to the playoffs for the first time in what, 10 years? And there isn't a peep about that. No one says, "Oh, I'm sorry, I must've been wrong." They just go right on with it and waiting for the moment when they fail. They don't know what to do. You're in a bad, bad position if you're covering a team and you're rooting for them to fail to justify the things you've written, but I think a lot of those guys are. If you're going to be biased one way, be for them.

Blez: See that's why I think the Web sites are so popular now because they're for fans, by fans. They're by people who feel the same passion for the team that you do.

Lewis: Baseball management is getting more intelligent and for someone to instantly presume that they know more about what the Oakland A's front office did and why they did it is a little silly. They do actually know things and have that expertise. And Paul DePodesta in Los Angeles knows things. And Theo Epstein in Boston knows things. The intelligent move to any front office move, instead of reacting to it immediately and saying, "ah, it's stupid" or "we're gonna lose" is to actually think it out and try and find the reason why they made the move.

Blez: That's in part what we do on the site. We try and figure out what the team is doing and why it's doing it. You can't necessarily deny your first gut reaction as a fan to trading Hudson and Mulder. You're going to be emotional. But take a step back and look into it.

Lewis: In Oakland, at least, they've earned the benefit of the doubt.

Blez: Yeah, 95 wins a season for five straight seasons. That earns you some faith.

Lewis: Exactly. Something of their message is out there. What they're doing is explicable. Not only is there this great history of returns, but you can explain why there's this great history of returns. That's a lot more interesting than a guy who rolled the dice and got lucky for a couple of years.

Blez: You've mentioned that other teams are starting to catch up with them. Last year you seemed to think that defense was where they would have the difference moving forward. Do you think that's still where they're going?

Lewis: If I had to guess, something like this has happened in the market. A couple of economists at Clemson University did a study about on-base percentage, if you Google it and Google Moneyball, on the first page or so you get to this study, it shows that on-base percentage was pretty badly underpriced and the underpricing has now vanished. It will show you what the A's were taking advantage of. I think there were systematic mispricings in the market just a few years ago. There were systematic mispricings of speed, of defense, of walks, of anything. I think a lot of the systematic stuff is out. I think what does happen now is what happened in the offseason. There's a moment where starting pitching just pops and there's a panic and it's bid up and you can take advantage of it. Or individual players get mispriced because, say people don't know how to price or value defense. There's a two-part problem. The first part is, how do you value what the player has done? Now, three years ago, most front offices didn't have the ability to do that very well. I'd say a lot of them do now. And that's a hard science. You can measure what they have done, but the problem is that they're human beings and projecting what they will do from what they have done is never going to be an exact science.

Blez: Like Eric Chavez this season.

Lewis: Well, yeah, but you're looking at age curves. You look at all kinds of data. You can't predict injuries.

Blez: You can probably guess probability though.

Lewis: Yes, sure. But you can't know for sure. It's inherently uncertain. I think that what happens now is that individual teams get very emotional about individual players, both negatively and positively, in response to small sample sizes or myths about a player's decline. So while they might understand what a player's done, they still make bad decisions about what a player will do. I think that's something that might be exploited. I think things are going to get harder and harder for Billy Beane and Oakland. I think there is only one opportunity that Oakland can exploit that will keep them competitive for a long time. And I think they've been exploiting it for a few years, but I don't know how much longer it will last. And that is, amateur players. If they are even a little better, the effects on the organization are huge. Even if they're just a little better than everyone else. It does seem that the draft can be very fertile for them. Huston Street, Ethier. They are generating a lot of talent. That will keep them afloat.

Blez: That just brought up a good question then. If the draft is a differentiation point where the A's can really exploit the market opportunities, then why deal Hudson and Mulder and not just keep them and get draft picks in return when they leave?

Lewis: It's true that part of Hudson's value as an A is the draft pick that will come with it when he leaves. I think they thought that even when you factor those draft picks in, that what they were getting in return was that much more valuable. I think they thought and still think that Dan Meyer, even though he's off to the start he's off to, is going to be a very valuable big league pitcher. I think that Cruz, even though he's off to the start he's off to, will be a very valuable pitcher. I think they also think Charles Thomas is a very useful fourth outfielder. I think they felt like they were getting more than they were giving up, still. But you're right. It takes an extraordinary pop in the market for them to part with those pitchers because those draft picks are more valuable to the A's than other teams.

Blez: I wanted to ask you from a fan's standpoint. There's the Chavez and Tejada talk. People are now asking why we didn't just keep Tejada and move Crosby over to third. A lot of people pigeonhole Chavez now as not having the leadership qualities. I just want your opinion on this. I still think Billy made the right move for a number of reasons, most of which is because it isn't easy to ask a 22-year-old to move over to third base. I want to get your feelings on those deals.

Lewis: I think that it's a little early to judge it, especially if people are basing it on the first five weeks of this season. It matters what Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez are doing right now. But it also matters what they are doing three years from now. And that is all part of the calculation, right? I don't know. It's an inherently uncertain decision right now. But I can certainly see the reasons why they made the decision they did. It seems to me that they made the right decision based on the probabilty. As far as Chavez not caring, I think this is something that fans do that's a little anthropomorphic. You look at the pig in barnyard that's running around and behaving a certain way and you think, oh that's the smart pig. You look at players and you impute to them certain emotions or feelings if you look like that. I think the thing about Chavez is that he is wound as tight as a drum and he cares a lot. You don't get to be that much better at third base as he's gotten without caring. He went from being a terrible defensive third baseman to being the best in the big leagues. That's partly God-given talent. But it's also a lot of hard work.

Blez: I just think a lot of people make these assertions after watching him on TV or reading a small quote from him in the paper.

Lewis: Well, it's true that he isn't as vocal as Miguel Tejada. His English is better though. (laughing)

Blez: What's the next step in the book? Are you traveling with the kids all year?

Lewis: Well, I'm doing other things. But I'll take a third to half of my summer traveling with these kids.

Blez: You also have the other book out now, right?

Lewis: Yes, Coach.

Blez: That's about your college coach, right?

Lewis: High school coach. It started as the cover story for New York Times magazine and it generated a bigger response than anything else I've ever written. Because there are many schools around the country where meddling parents are getting in the way of tough coaches and teachers. Because it generated so much interest, my publisher said, let's bring it out as a book.

Blez: Thanks so much for everything, Michael. I really appreciate it.

Lewis: No problem. It was a pleasure.