Playing Baseball by the Numbers

MONEYBALL: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis. Norton, 288 pp., $24.95.

Newsday, June 1, 2003

When Paul DePodesta talks about major league baseball as “a game of skill,” he doesn’t mean the fundamentals of hitting, pitching and fielding.

For DePodesta, the Harvard-educated assistant general manager of the Oakland Athletics, the true skill isn’t physical but cerebral, akin to coming from behind in Monopoly: the ability to best the competition with only a fraction of your opponents’ cash reserves. Likewise, author Michael Lewis, who made his reputation with “Liar’s Poker,” a worm’s-eye view of the ’80s boom on Wall Street, spins a zippy tale about the great American pastime – business – in which the commodities happen to be baseball players and the product happens to be wins.

Just as pork-bellies traders won’t stop to consider each pig whose futures they buy and sell in bulk, the A’s management does its best to look beyond individuals and distill everyone to a set of numbers. First, of course, come the salary figures. Oakland, like most small-market teams, can’t pay the multimillion-dollar wages demanded by proven veterans on the open market. Faced with a situation where the flushest team can spend three or four times more than the poorest, the A’s refuse to forfeit. Instead, they lean on hybrid statistical measures developed in the field of sabermetrics, which takes its name from the Society for American Baseball Research.

Sabermetrics began as a grass-roots effort by Kansan Bill James and other obsessive, highly numerate fans seeking statistical patterns (and a way to participate) in the game they loved. Through trial and error, it has matured beyond pseudoscience to produce complex ratios that predict the number of runs a hitter will create and measure a pitcher’s quality while factoring out the fickle behavior of the defense behind him. Still, the sabermetric approach caught on faster among hobbyists involved in rotisserie leagues than on the professional level. The traditional appraisers of talent – scouts, managers, broadcasters – earn their keep by trusting their gut and speaking of “intangibles,” and the executives, as in most businesses, prefer clinging to received wisdom, even if it guarantees mediocrity, rather than take a risk on the predictions of outsiders – especially when those outsiders were probably benchwarmers back in Little League.

Enter DePodesta’s boss, A’s general manager Billy Beane. A first-round draft pick who passed up a Stanford scholarship to join the Mets organization in 1980, Beane never fulfilled his athletic promise and hung up his cleats a decade later. It took a scholar manque with a small allowance and incontrovertible jock credentials to read all of Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts and to rely on DePodesta’s number-crunching, which ran counter to the wisdom of the scouts. “[W]hat set him apart from most baseball insiders,” Lewis writes of Beane, “was his desire to find players unlike himself … young men who failed the first test of looking good in a uniform.”

The A’s took on unshapely prospects and club-footed journeymen; since nobody else wanted them, they got good value for their money. After winning 102 games in 2001, Oakland lost key personnel – the leadoff man, the closer and franchise player Jason Giambi to free agency. Beane couldn’t replace them with other marquee players – if he could have, he wouldn’t have lost that trio in the first place – so he went looking to replace their statistical ability to create runs. With Giambi, it took several players, including his younger brother, Jeremy; David Justice, who’d been written off as over the hill; and Scott Hatteberg, a catcher who’d blown out a nerve in his throwing arm. What they shared, beyond their precarious position on the cusp of major-league employability, was an uncanny patience at the plate, which gets them on base and wears out opposing pitchers. In 2002, the A’s won 103 games and made the playoffs but lost in the first round to the Twins.

Anyone but a Yankee fan spoiled by their regular World Series appearances and George Steinbrenner’s bottomless bank account would consider Beane a success. Besides, it’s hard not to be impressed with a dealmaker cold-blooded enough to offload ineffectual manager Art Howe on the Mets. But Lewis also paints Beane as an object-throwing autocrat who can’t take pleasure in watching his team play and who never has a kind word to say about Miguel Tejada, the A’s free-swinging shortstop and last year’s Most Valuable Player in the American League. Why, then, is Lewis so smitten with this audacious businessman who recalls the heartless bond traders he encountered on Wall Street? Lewis would surely have struck a different tone if he’d been a prospect with the A’s instead of Salomon Brothers; perhaps it’s the fan’s attraction to the athletic executive who would still look good in a uniform.

Or maybe it’s the intangibles. As Sandy Alderson, who preceded Beane as general manager, tells Lewis, “Billy has the gift of making people like him.” Lewis has that gift, too, and while he sometimes offers more windup than payoff, he explains difficult ideas with the skill of the smoothest color commentator. “Moneyball” ties together many threads – athletics, business, statistics and culture – in a fast-paced story that, even if you already know how the A’s finished the 2002 season, offers more drama and excitement than most major league games.

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