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 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 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 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.
Lewis, who previously wrote some of the best books on Wall Street's go-go '80s (Liar's Poker) and Silicon Valley's go-go '90s (The New New Thing), here turns his attention to professional baseball. Now, I should preface this by saying that I used to love baseball and these days it doesn't interest me much at all. There was a time when I was a total stats geek, I bought all the Bill James abstracts, played tabletop games, etc., but a combination of playing in college and the escalating money completely turned me off to the game. I knew this was supposed to be a good book but had no intention of reading it until Nick Hornby's rave review in his column in The Believer. I figured if one of my favorite British novelists liked the book, there must be something to it. I picked it up and within ten pages I was totally hooked.
The basis for the book is the question of how the Oakland A's, one of baseball's poorest teams as measured by payroll, managed to win so many games in the first few years of the new millennium. Lewis's potentially boring answer revolves around inefficiencies in the market for players, but he weaves this story around the A's General Manager, Billy Beane. Now, if you have some axe to grind with Beane, you might as well not read the book, 'cause Lewis tends to be rather fawning in many places. Still, Beane's own background and mediocre career form the perfect framework upon which to build this story about evaluating baseball talent. Beane was a hugely athletic, "can't miss" prospect, who turned down a joint football/baseball scholarship from Stanford to sign with the New York Mets out of high school. His pro career turned out to be utterly undistinguished, and this disconnect is what drove him to seek new methods of scouting and evaluating baseball talent. It also helped matters that the A's new owners refused to spend any excess money, and demanded that the team be treated as a business. Beane jettisoned conventional scouting wisdom (and to a certain extent, methods), to focus on statistical indicators not widely followed inside baseball. Here, the book takes a detour into the realm of "sabremetrics" (the statistical analysis of baseball), and various attempts to arrive at more meaningful ways to calculating a player's offensive value.
The result of developing a criteria of player valuation that was radically at odds with the prevailing wisdom of the market was that Beane was able to get the players he liked for very cheap. The rest of the book is devoted to detailing this process. Chapter 5 is probably the best, detailing how the A's orchestrated the 2002 amateur draft so that they got an inordinate amount of players they coveted for below market value. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the loss of their three star players after the 2001 season and how managed to compensate for this. To show the Beane methodology in action during the season, the reader is taken inside several trades and roster moves. This includes a chapter on the mid-season trade for relief pitcher Ricardo Rincon, bracketed by chapters detailing Beane's pursuit of certain players who were not considered major-league material (Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford). The book ends on a valedictory note, as the A's set a record by winning 20 games in a row and other teams start to buy in to their methods.
It should be noted that the book is far from perfect. Lewis has an unfortunately tendency for repetition when it comes to important points and themes, hammering them home, again and again. And although he does point out many of Beane's logical inconsistencies and emotional flaws, Lewis does often come across as more of an enamored fan than a strict journalist. Some critics feel that the A's success detailed in the book was based on several star players obtained the old-fashioned way, thus disproving the whole premise. However, it has to be understood that the practices detailed in the book can't really be proven to work one way or another for another decade or so. Still the insights into challenging conventional thinking and searching for alternative data or data patterns will likely appeal to readers of Lewis' other works and are applicable far beyond baseball. And while the jury is still out, several other teams have since hired general managers with the same basic philosophy as Beane. Ultimately, it's an interesting story, and one that Lewis tells very well -- even for non baseball fans.
on 23 December 2013
I came to this book through seeing, and really enjoying, the film. I found the film thought provoking, well portrayed, and brilliantly acted, and the book lived up to that level of expectation.
I'm not a baseball fan but rather a sports fan in general. You don't need an in-depth knowledge of baseball but a background awareness of at least the phraseology would be an advantage. If you love sport but are happy to occasionally have a wry smile to yourself about the nonsensical way it sometimes operates, then this is a great book for you.
The writing style is easy and engaging, and portrays the characters in a way that would make a writer of fiction proud. This may owe as much to the people themselves as to the author, but the two are merged seamlessly. The narrative moves along smoothly and is an easy and gripping read.
Any reader of sport-related books will enjoy this, but don't be put off if this isn't your usual genre and give it a go.
on 4 March 2015
Just from the off I need to point out that I'm English and not a baseball fan. However, I found this book fascinating. The way in which players are now looked at is extremely logical and I can't believe it took decades for this system to be used. It is explained really well and even baseball novices will find it interesting.
on 6 December 2011
I know nothing much about baseball but as a football (soccer) fan I loved this book as an in depth treatment of how a sports organisation bucked the trend by taking a more scientific approach (the approach is now commonly dubbed 'moneyball') towards building a squad of players and achieved success.
Although the 'moneyball' approach is not completely transferable to football, we know that top football clubs are also using statistical methods to help identify and target talent. So this book makes fascinating reading about how far a sport could go in using stats to build and maintain a team.
The book is written in a way that combines detailed analysis with human stories and real characters so it is a compelling read simply as a story as well. Highly recommended - one of the top 5 sports books out there in my opinion.