Book: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

About baseball management; interesting even to this non-fan

Michael Lewis
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
W.W. Norton, 2003
ISBN: 0-393-05765-8
288 pages

I am not a baseball fan. I've never been to a baseball game and I don't recall ever having watched one on television all the way through. I am, however, something of a Michael Lewis fan. I've read his books Liar's Poker and The Money Culture and liked them both very much. And a buddy of mine told me that you don't need to be a baseball fan to enjoy Moneyball. He was right. Being a baseball fan is probably a bonus, but it's not necessary to enjoy this fine book.

Mr Lewis explains his book better than I could. The first paragraph of his preface is:

    I wrote this book because I fell in love with a story. The story
    concerned a small group of undervalued professional
    baseball players and executives, many of whom had been
    rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned
    themselves into one of the most successful franchises in
    Major League Baseball. But he idea for the book came well
    before I had good reason to write it -- before I had a story to
    fall in love with. It began, really, with an innocent question:
    how did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland
    Athletics, win so many games? (p. xi)

Let me expand on that a bit: It seems, naturally enough, that most of the people who recruit and manage professional baseball players are former players. They choose and promote players according to their notions of what abilities are important. But you'll notice that that's a closed system; people who got their jobs by meeting particular standards will be apt to perpetuate those standards by recruiting and promoting other people who meet them.

Billy Beane was just such a player. He had everything that the scouts and managers were looking for in a baseball player. But he didn't succeed as a player. Now, he's the general manager of the Oakland As and he and the people who work for him have painstakingly accumulated statistical information about what really is valuable in a player. And what they know is often at odds with the received wisdom.

Put that way, the book would have been at least a little interesting to me. But that summary leaves out Mr Lewis's marvelous ability to tell a story. The narrative flashes back and forward; Mr Lewis goes into statistics and he tells baseball stories; he talks about the history of the statistical approach to baseball and he shows us Billy Beane's difficulty in retaining his equanimity while the real world sometimes defies his statistics. And it all hangs together in a coherent whole that's a pleasure to read.

Every time I was sure that Mr Lewis had run out of interesting things to say to someone who's not particularly interested in baseball, he came up with another interesting story, fascinating observation, or memorable character. I confess to being mildly surprised that I enjoyed the book from beginning to end, but I certainly did. I'm also probably the only person who has read the book who didn't know in advance the outcome of the game that decided whether the Oakland As would have a record-setting 20-game winning streak in 2002.

Mr Lewis hasn't made me a baseball fan, but he has certainly persuaded me that the management of baseball teams can be interesting and even exciting.

Posted: Mon - February 28, 2005 at 09:07   Main   Category: