Michael Lewis


Non Fiction


Date Reviewed:

May 22, 2006

I am not a baseball fan, I am an NBA fan. I also watch the NFL and Notre Dame football, but I am not interested in baseball, I usually don't watch the world series. Yet I found Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, to be a tremendously interesting read. I finished it in four evenings. It is the inside true story about how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, is forced to try a novel approach to winning baseball games because his owner is not rich enough to compete with the wealthy clubs like the Red Sox and the Yankees. The A's limited budget forces Beane to use novel statistics when evaluating baseball players, as he sifts through the legions of available players, trying to find hidden gems. You wouldn't think a book about offbeat baseball statistic would be so compelling, but Lewis apparently has the knack to write about anything and make it interesting, much like Malcolm Gladwell and John McPhee. (This is the first book by Lewis that I have read, but if he is this good an author, maybe I should look into Liar's Poker or the New New Thing. Just a few more books on my ever expanding to-be-read-someday list!)

Beane doesn't invent the new baseball statistics, but he is the first general manager with the courage to make decisions based upon them. The grandfather of the idea of re-evaluating baseball by taking a different look at baseball statistics is Bill James, who published the Baseball Abstract for about a dozen years in a row. James asks questions, and then sets out to find statistics that will prove or disprove the question. It turns out that the best offensive baseball statistic is on base percentage. A team gets only 3 outs per inning, so it stands to reason that the higher a percentage that a player gets on base (ie: doesn't make an out), the longer the inning is extended and the better the chance is for scoring. This statistic leads Beane to try and get unpromising players who are great at getting walks.

It is a riveting read to be inside the Oakland A's headquarters on the day of the baseball draft. The A's have targetted 20 players that they think are desirable, based upon their unconventional methods of evaluating players. One strategy - avoid high school players, instead draft college players who have a proven track record against tougher competition. Any body can dominate in high school, but how does a player respond when the competition is tougher? Indeed, we learn that Billy Beane himself was a star high school draft pick, a can't miss prospect who lacked the mental toughness to meet the high expectations, and so never succeeded as a player. The A's want a guy named Nick Swisher, but through phone calls they despair that the Mets will take him. Moneyball was published in 2003, I checked on the MLB website, and find that there is indeed a guy named Nick Swisher on the A's roster (as of the moment of this writing in May 2006, Nick is hitting .305, with an on base percentage of 1.023, but he has 40 strike outs in 167 at bats - that sounds like "free swinging", which is exactly the opposite of the A's conservative "get on base" strategy.) Eventually, the A's end up with 16 or so of the players on their wish list, an astonishing number, considering they would have been elated to get six or seven of the twenty targetted players.

We get the story of Jeremy Brown, a fat catcher from Alabama, who leads all of college baseball in on base percentage, but he looks so unlike a pro-prospect that apparently not a single team has any interest in him. When the A's contact Jeremy Brown prior to the draft, they promise him they will take him if he will sign a below market value contract. Faced with not getting drafted at all, Brown readily agrees. This is one way the money-strapped A's try to compete, by getting players cheap. (Brown is currently listed on the MLB website as an Oakland A, but he has no statistics for the last 3 years, so apparently he has never gotten into a game.) Thus, the A's get David Justice for one year, when he is 36, because everyone else sees him as a washed up player, but the A's see him as a bargain considering the production versus what he commands on the open market. There are some interesting numbers on player payroll compared to the number of team wins, of course the A's are the most economical, because they make the playoffs with the second lowest payroll.

I would never have picked up a baseball book unless my friend had recommended it, but now I wonder if shouldn't pick up Ball Four, which is supposed to be another classic baseball book.