on 29 July 2003
If you love the underdog, you will love the story of the Oakland Athletics from the last few years. I enjoyed this book a great deal, racing through it in a couple of days. Lewis has done a great job of showing just why the Oakland Athletics have been competing with the New York Yankees the past few years. The revealing chapters on Oakland's draft strategies and approach to trading show their general manager, Billy Beane, to be a guy who is flying by the seat of his pants, trying to eke out any tiny advantage he can, getting the most from every single dollar he spends on his team.
Although this book will appeal to any disciple of baseball analysts like Bill James and Rob Neyer or the Baseball Prospectus team (all who receive positive mentions in this book), I found the moments where the book dwelled on the statistics and theory to be very dry and boring. Luckily, there was probably on 20 or so pages of this in the entire book, and the rest of the time it concentrates on the more human side, the psychology and the baseball. The chapters devoted to two individual players who became successful despite the odds were particularly enjoyable.
Overall this is an essential book for any baseball fan. Traditionalists may balk at some of the ideas and thoughts contained, but any baseball fan with an open mind will find it a joy.
on 5 December 2012
Moneyball is ostensibly a book about Baseball, superfIcially a book about the Oakland A's (equivalent of Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce) and their General Manager (equivalent of a 'Director of football') Billy Beane in the late 90's/early Noughties and how a club with scarce financial resources consistently out-performed its more wealthy rivals and it is! But it is so much more than that, this book has more layers than an onion.
On one level this is a book about Baseball and a maverick who subverted the consensus view on how the game should be played and understood but on a deeper level this is a case study of an idea. It is behavioural economics as applied to sport.
The book demonstrates how Billy Beane used the insights of a Baseball statistician named Bill James (a cipher for Nobel winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, author of 'Thinking, Fast and Slow'?) and the practical mathematical genius of Paul Podesta (a Harvard graduate with no Baseball experience) to outsmart his competitors.
'Reason, even science, was what Billy Beane was intent on bringing to Baseball...... Paul wanted to look at stats because the stats offered offered him new ways of understanding.....That was James's most general point: the naked eye was an inadequate tool for learning what you needed to know to evaluate baseball players and baseball games.'
On one level level this is an old-fashioned David vs Goliath story but on a deeper level it is a book about two competing views of human nature. The view being triumphed in this book is that of 'behavioural economics.' In short, that human beings are inherently irrational. Trusting one's gut, or intuition, is inherently flawed and is subject to systematic biases/limitations/flaws/illusions which can only be rooted out by a sophisticated analysis of relevant statistical data.
The author Michael Lewis is really an economics writer and what he has managed to do is something that many writers (including Daniel Kahneman, whose writings in my opinion tend to be turgid in the extreme) seem unable to do, and that is:- make seemingly complex ideas come alive by embedding them in real-life situations with real people. Moneyball is a great sports book but it is also popular social science writing at its finest too.
In 1990 I fulfilled a long-standing ambition and went to the first two games of the World Series. Cincinatti Reds were on their way to sweeping the Oakland As. The previous year, the As had won the Series for the ninth time, a total still exceeded only by the New York Yankees and the St Louis Cardinals. But in the 21 years since that defeat the World Series hasn't seen the As again.
In Moneyball, Michael Lewis suggests a simple explanation: the game's finances had gone stratospheric, leaving the As unable to compete for the superstars. At the same time, he explains how they remained seriously competitive without going bankrupt: they disregarded the gut instincts of scouts immersed in subjective assessment of players, adopting instead an analysis of statistics weighted in favour of certain key elements.
At first, the book looks at how and why the analysis worked, but it evolves into the story of a single season when it was the essential rationale that governed the way Oakland identified and signed players. So it becomes a human story, focussing on the unlikely heroes out on the diamond and on the General Manager who believes implicitly in the information emerging from the computer of his Number Two. The General Manager is Billy Beane, a former player who should have been a star but never quite made it, and is now a quixotic leader who prefers to be somewhere else when his team is playing. It will be a hard-hearted reader who fails to empathise with Beane as the season unfolds. Never mind the mathematics, the book is worth reading if only to sit beside him while he trades away his best players in order to sign unrated others.
Lewis doesn't claim that the As found a one-size-fits-all infallible blueprint; unarguably, several million dollars into the annual bank balance of a Barry Bonds, an A-Rod or a Jeter make for an interesting alternative. Moneyball, really, is simply a one-off example of brilliant sports writing by an author whose true beat is big business. In this edition, Lewis unfortunately, cannot resist an appendix to deal with a faction in baseball that decries his efforts. He should have let the book speak for itself. It is certainly good enough.
on 22 December 2011
Michael Lewis is better known for his books giving an insider's view into the world of high finance and economics so knocking out a book on baseball may seem somewhat incongruous. However, a few pages in and the parallels between the two subjects seem suspiciously close - like Liar's Poker and The Big Short and their investors trying to make a killing on the markets by staying ahead of the game using information and careful blagging, Moneyball tracks cash-strapped baseball team the Oakland Athletics and their unconventional manager Billy Beane as they successfully compete against the wealthy teams by careful analysis of players' statistics and doing the complete opposite of what is generally expected. Picking up a rag-tag line-up of players that don't look the part for knockdown salaries - fat kids, kids that throw funny, kids that are scared to hit the ball, older players thought past their prime - they give the multi-million dollar players more than a run for their money, continually defying the odds season after season to finish near the top. This is a book packed both with wit and fascinating insight into the science of baseball (you don't need to be an enthusiast to start with but you may end up being one at the end!) and a very engrossing read, highly recommended!
I would suggest trying to pick up the edition with the "new afterword" which discusses the response to the book from the "baseball industry" which treated as arrogant bragadocio from writer Billy Beane, totally missing that it wasn't actually written by Mr Beane and was hardly boastful or arrogant. The baseball industry - the writers, scouts, managers etc - continues to perpetuate their myths even as other smaller teams (and some of the bigger teams) adopt the A's modus operandi with similar successful results.
on 28 April 2004
Being a British naturalised Kiwi, I could not possibly know (or, to be honest, care) less about baseball. Nonetheless, I found this to be a fascinating book, and have been recommending it to everyone I meet. It contains a fundamental truth of investing that anyone could use, useful precisely because most people (like the low-scoring reviewers on this site) think they know best:
If all armchair sports fans think they know better than the others, it stands to reason that most of them are wrong.
The fact that the Oakland A's never won the world series is absolutely not the point. If the market was functioning efficiently, on their budget, they should never have got within cooey of it: The buying power of behemoths like the Mets should have ensured that. What is remarkable - and important - is that the A's consistently, massively, exceeded *their own* expectations.
Sport is a business. I mean that figuratively as well as literally: profit can be measured in dollar terms but also in percentage of wins to losses. Fans seem to forget that. In business, consistently exceeding expectations is an even better thing than winning the World Series, because it necessarily means you've made MONEY. If you're the favourite and you win the World Series, you have only met expectations, and you may even have made a loss.
If baseball were a perfect market, it wouldn't be possible to exceed expectations over a long period. Over a few games, maybe - that could be a fluke. Over two seasons, it almost certainly couldn't be. That means two things: (a) conventional wisdom about the value of certain baseball players and certain attributes is wrong; and (b) The Oakland A's have worked out what is right, or at any rate their model is better than the conventional wisdom.
This is the sort of thing Billy Beane should have kept as quiet about as possible. Michael Lewis' book ought to be a Eureka moment for everybaseball manager: if it is, then the market mis-pricing will disappear,everyone will acquire players on the strength of the new valuation methodology and the Oakland A's will gradually fall down the rankings to where they should have been in the first place, given their budget. I dare say that has already started to happen.
What it ought to do is open eyes of managers from other codes, and indeed other businesses: The key is in having sufficient data. If you have enough good quality data (like baseball does) then if your analysis of it is better than your competitors, then as long as your approach is disciplined and consistent, you will, over time, turn a virtually risk free profit. It's called arbitrage.
I haven't even got onto the fact that Michael Lewis is one of the most insightful and witty writers writing in business at the moment, and this book is a pleasure to read from start to finish, notwithstanding my ignorance of its subject. I have read a number of business titles recently, and compared to the rest of the pack Lewis is, if you'll excuse the pun, a major leaguer amongst amateurs.
Highly, highly recommended.
on 4 April 2008
Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, takes as its central focus the exploits of the Oakland A's and their svengali general manager Billy Beane. Ignoring conventional baseball wisdom, he and Paul DePodesta have developed a whole new strategy, using the groundbreaking work of the likes of Bill James, for competing in the big leagues on a fraction of the budget of teams like the New York Yankees.
In essence this very readable book can be divided into two distinct styles, the personal and the scientific. When Lewis addresses the history and use of baseball theory, that is to say statistical analysis in the judging of players and games, he creates a sense of an almost academic approach to a national passtime. While this could be utterly confusing to a non baseball fan, to anyone with an interest in the game his discussions come as something of a revelation and can only serve as a starting point to further reading.
But where this book really comes into its own is in the personal stories and psychology of Billy Beane and his team. While it is made abundantly clear that Beane is no ordinary GM, the insight this book provides into the workings of a front office and its relationship with both the playing staff and management is utterly compelling.
All in all, for a baseball fan this is an absolute must read and for everyone else, you are guaranteed to find something of interest.
on 17 January 2005
This is a good book about a fascinating story. In a nutshell it is the story of Billy Beane and how he defied conventional baseball wisdom. Billy Beane was (is) the general manager of the Oakland As, a relatively poor, small market team attempting to complete with the big boys (the New York Yankees) with only a small fraction of the budget.
How could he compete? His approach was to eschew the conventional view of what a good baseball prospect is and to use the statistical methods developed by Bill James et al to help him get good players at a reasonable price. The story is made more poignant because Billy was a 'great' prospect' who only managed a fairly mediocre career - essentially his method means that he is only interested in players who are not like him. For example: he favoured college players over high school players (for one thing they have played for longer so there are more statistics, for another they are statistically more likely to succeed); he believed that on-base percentage was the fundamental baseball percentage and was not something that could be easily taught. Finally he had the nerve to put it into practice.
The style of the book is highly anecdotal, which works well most of the time, particularly in the chapters about the unlikely success of certain players, but it does occasionally grate. Unlike some of the other reviewers, I think that he includes just about the right amount of statistical detail - enough to be interesting; not so much as to become tedious.
In many ways the most interesting thing about the book is the reaction from the Club (as he calls the collection of baseball 'insiders') - who seem to a) not really understand the book and b) hate it because they are the custodians of conventional wisdom.
Highly recommended for baseball enthusiasts and sports fans in general
on 4 January 2011
A good story about the beginnings of a major change in the way baseball works in recruitment, development and valuation of players.
The only criticism I have is that, despite the mass interest and 'controversial' status in the US (in baseball to be more accurate) the book doesn't seem to have an actual point ! It seems almost by accident that it is as good as it is - it doesn't seem to be driving at a point....just telling a story.
I didn't know anything about baseball before I read it, and still enjoyed it. The only parts I didn't get were some of the numbers (stats) from baseball, but they were fairly easy to work out what was good and bad, even without context.
Anyway, I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in sports - the application of the principles described here will probably effect each and every sport where players' values are based on subjective opinion, rather than objective facts.
on 1 April 2013
Moneyball is by "Liar's Poker" author, the excellent Michael Lewis (formerly of Salomon Brothers), who generally specialises in great stories surrounding financial or market incidences.
This book focuses on the Oakland Athletics, their General Manager Billy Beane, and their analytical, evidence-based, "sabermetric" approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite (due to one of the lowest revenues in the league) having one of the bottom payrolls in Major League Baseball.
If you've seen it, the subsequent movie showed some examples that the book details in depth of scouts and coaches and their subjective assessments of a player's talent and value. ("He looks good in jeans" was apparently a direct quote). Beane had been a highly "rated" player who benefited initially from these subjective assessments, being drafted out of high school as the number 23 player in the game. His career as a pro ball player never got going though - although those subjective assessments got him contracts with three other clubs - influencing Beane heavily in his rejection of the system that had evaluated him.
Faced with the challenge of being competitive with no club profile and a total wage bill less than a third of some teams, Beane looked for three things:
- places to fish for talent where others weren't,
- metric assessments of players, and rejection of subjective assessments,
- opportunities to use arbitrage principles to sell players at their peak value and buy at their lows.
Within those three, the A's shifted focus to university graduates rather than high school, and On-Base Percentage rather than traditional batting averages.
Beane was good at one other thing that is critical in taking an idea and making it part of your success - whether from frustration or just strength, he made tough decisions and forced others too as well as long as they were for the good of the organisation.
A sports exec told me a couple of weeks ago that, in his sport or club's case, that there was no clear signs that player spend affected results. It was suggested to him that spending badly, lazily or randomly on players would definitely kill that correlation. In every other sport, spend matters. It's the wrong decisions on a player that result in losses vs spend.
The key to this book and understanding its practicality (especially in sport) is not to focus on the issue of statistics, but on three key lessons:
- The challenging of conventional wisdom and historical behaviours in favour of results-oriented principles,
- The rigor of player recruitment and development throughout the organization in applying those principles - and accountability for actions and decisions,
- The importance of all results and projections being relative to the market valuation (of a player, coach, etc) and seeking inefficiencies if the market place allows.
Subsequent to the book, another lesson is reinforced: the requirement to be able to replenish the organization and to stay ahead of the curve - the A's have lost office personnel to other teams seeking the same result who have copied their methods, making those inefficiencies more difficult to obtain, as they are now open knowledge, and the methods are now competitive situations.
The A's haven't won a World Series (30 teams) yet, but have won division titles, including 2012 - still poor, and playing out of a very ordinary stadium in Oakland that they share with a football team.
on 31 January 2013
I read this book about 5 years ago whilst in the Caribbean. The World Series baseball was on TV which helped enormously with the technical terminology. The book centres around Billy Beane and his quest to put together a cheap (well, in major league terms) team that can also punch above its weight. Cue statistical analysis ... basically they're looking for the good honest professionals who can do a job but are no fancy Dans. If you're English and like cricket, they're after the Paul Collingwood not Kevin Pietersen. Lies, damn lies and statistics would have been a good title as it tries to unravel the stats behind the stats... e.g. a player may have an amazing batting average but he could just pummel lower opposition and strike out against the big players. BB was looking for players that consistently held their own.
The book itself is reasonably well written but in the 10 years or so since its release, every sport in the world is now using the premise of BB and his stat-man to outwit the opposition. It doesn't apply to every sport but that doesn't stop them from trying! Above all, the book made you think about its application to other sports that you're probably more interested. The downside is that its use is now so commonplace that the book itself is now outdated but from a historical perpective, you can appreciate why every sport is analysed down to the studs in the boots and it's because of BB.