Sunday, November 4, 2012

This Week's Book: Moneyball

Another sports book. They're too much fun, really.

October 28-November 3: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Non-Fiction (2003 - 208 pp.) 

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is a very fun, very quick read. For those who have missed out on it, it tracks Billy Beane's rise to stardom as general manager of the Oakland Athletics. In the late '90s and early '00s, he assembled a team capable of competing with any in the major leagues, usually beating them (they won 102 and 103 games in 2001 and 2002 respectively), with one of the lowest payrolls in the league. Doing this required new ways of thinking about baseball, from valuing draft picks more highly relative to veterans all the way to the use of sabermetrics. The statistics-based approach to baseball was understandably upsetting to old-style scouts, just as mercilessly flipping proven stars for compensation draft picks must have been to the fans. 

Two things struck me about Moneyball, aside from the great storytelling and interesting asides into individual players. (Recalling how fresh-from-injury Scott Hatteberg was made to play first base is up there in the latter category.) The first is how Beane's Athletics teams had not won a playoff series even when they had won 100+ games in a season. Since then, they have only won one playoff series (2006 ALDS), after which they were promptly smoked 4-0 in the ALCS. A little more explanation for their lack of success in the playoffs, and intermittent sub-.500 years between those appearances, would be interesting nine years later. Beane explains the playoffs away as luck in Moneyball - would he still do so now? The other one is how statistically driven baseball can be. Similar attempts have been made since the early days of SABR to turn basketball and football, the sports I know far better than baseball, into statistical test trials. That they've worked to only a limited extent in those sports despite their massive success in baseball speaks to baseball's uniquely stat-driven nature. 

Moneyball is an approach I know only somewhat well to a game I know only somewhat well. It may be a little difficult for those unfamiliar with baseball, but at least of the North Americans reading this, hopefully that won't be an issue. It's educational about baseball, and perhaps a little about statistics. 

Ease of Reading: 8 
Educational Content: 6

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