Tuesday, July 20, 2010


The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

This book follows the fortunes of the Oakland A's around the turn of the century.

Under the guidance of general manager Billy Beane, the team compiled some wonderful winning records despite having one of the smallest payrolls in major league baseball.

In an early chapter, "Field of Ignorance," we learn about sabermetrics, a word coined by baseball nut, Bill James, who came to notice in 1977 when he self-published a mimeographed annual Baseball Abstract.

In it he described his thinking about the need for better baseball stats. He sold 75 copies.

Now, decades after that humble beginning, sabermetrics has become a mainstream concept. Some of the ideas mentioned in Moneyball:
  • clutch-hitting is a myth
  • bunting, base-stealing, and sac flies are counter-productive
  • on-base percentage is a more important stat than batting average or RBIs
Billy Beane's implementation of such radical new ideas makes for great reading, especially as he wheels and deals for players undervalued by traditional stats. People like submariner Chad Bradford, whose unnatural delivery kept scouts from seeing his true worth. His knuckles would actually scrape the ground when he threw.

And catcher Scott Hatteberg, whose damaged arm should have spelled the end of his career. He didn't have a flashy batting average, but he did have an uncanny ability to get on base, so the A's rehabilitated him as a first baseman. Says Lewis: "He waits for pitches like a man picking through an apple bin at a grocery store, looking for the ripest."

Hatteberg's patience at the plate, and his ability to foul off pitches he didn't like, furnishes a priceless anecdote. During a game a frustrated pitcher stepped off the mound and said to him, "Just tell me what you want. Tell me what you want and I'll throw it."

Billy Beane

Baseball is full of colourful characters, and Billy Beane is one of them. His own story is as fascinating as any in the book, first as a highly regarded prospect, then as a maverick GM.

It was hard to know which of Billy's qualities was most important to his team's success: his energy, his resourcefulness, his intelligence, or his ability to scare the living shit out of even very large professional baseball players.

J.P. Ricciardi, who was the A's director of player development, said that watching Billy do a deal was "like watching the Wolf talk to Little Red Riding Hood."

(Ricciardi took Billy Beane's approach with him when he was hired as the Blue Jay's GM. One of the first things he did was hire Bill James as a consultant.)

More Lewis

This book was so interesting, so entertaining, that I could not stop reading. I sped through it with increasing delight, and when I finished I immediately made plans to buy more books by Michael Lewis.

One of these has already been turned into a pretty good movie, The Blind Side. Moneyball is next, with Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane.