MoneyBall: The Art of Winning and Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (2003)

How can you tell which students are the most college-ready? We have standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT. Those exams don’t cover every aspect of college-readiness, but they’re all we’ve got.

Once upon a time, baseball was just the same. Scouts from the major leagues would fly all over the country to find the fastest, strongest high-school and college players and try to assess how well they would fare as an Astro or Yankee or Angel. Once word got out about the best hitters and pitchers, the richest baseball teams would snag them, leaving the poorest teams with the worst players and perpetuating the cycle of rich teams getting richer and the poor performing poorly.

But nowadays, baseball teams keep detailed statistics on every player out there. They go beyond batting average and into things like slugging and on-base percentage. Computers and data collection have optimized the quality of players on a baseball team, and are more capable of objectively picking out the diamonds in the ruff than traditional assessments ever were.

But what happened in between then and now? Why did some baseball team suddenly decide to recruit based on the statistics? And once they did, what happened next?

It all began when Billy Beane, general manager for the Oakland As’ major league team, hired the Harvard statistician, Paul DePodesta, to help him recruit new players. The Oakland As had a new owner, a tighter budget, and an overwhelming disadvantage against compared to more successful teams; it was now up to Billy and Paul to find the best players at the cheapest prices and help Oakland claw its way out of the vortex of failure.

Moneyball is the story of their meteoric rise to success.

Entertainment: 3/5

Intellect: 4/5

Overall: 7/10

3 STARS

Entertainment:

The Good:

The first half of Moneyball absolutely astounded me with its story. The beginning chapters tell about the way that baseball used to operate, and just how flawed it was. Baseball scouts would reject recruits for being overweight, even if they were far superior hitters than anyone else. They would take the best athletes without testing whether or not they could handle the pressures of being in a stadium. But the Oakland As picked players based on how well they played. They picked based on the final product, not by looking at someone’s top running speed or body shape and then guestimating how well they could play.

I also found Billy Bean’s backstory absolutely fascinating. The book claims that the Oakland As became the team to employ baseball statistics because of its low budget, but it’s also incredibly poetic that the Oakland As had the only general manager who had been chewed up and spit out by baseball’s faulty recruiting system. They happened to have the one manager who saw the flaws in baseball tradition and was adamant about changing them.

The Bad:

In the second half, it felt like book ran out of things to say about the Oakland As’ story and just went into a few specific case studies. This happens after the book discusses the art of not swinging at pitches. The rest was a bit hard to get through, though it wasn’t entirely boring.

Intellect:

The Good:

Where there is success, there will be people analyzing the reasons for that success. Moneyball is no exception. The book is full of little observations about the world and how to succeed in it, from combating prejudice to practicing patience. The former produced my favorite quote from the book:

[One could succeed by exploiting] irrationality and the opportunities 
it created in human affairs to everyone who resisted it.

Lewis tells a story of an underdog team that learns how to see through the prejudices and fairy tales of baseball tradition, allowing it to get ahead in the game (quite literally). Humans are imperfect and make imperfect decisions, and so a lone soul who learns how to make logical decisions will be able to make out like a bandit.

All at the same time, not only do the Oakland As present as underdogs; they also present as the ones who will give the underestimated a chance. Countless pitchers and hitters who were declared unusable by traditional baseball scouts were picked up by the Oakland As. Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta saw promise in the rejected and brought them to stardom, molding the Oakland A’s into an “island as misfit toys.” It reminds you of the rejections taken by Harry Potter before it was published, the failed businesses left behind by the creator of Uber, or the financial ruin experienced by Disney before he found success.

Moneyball features stories of rookie scientists strangely obsessed with a “pointless” hobby who eventually were offered high-paying jobs as baseball statisticians, players whose brains outdid raw physical strength, and proving the world that it was wrong. This book absolutely abounds with both conventional and unconventional wisdom to live by.

The Bad:

There are a few holes in those stories, however. For instance, the book mentions that Billy Beane was in the habit of picking up unknown rookies and then dropping them by the next season, which undermines the narrative of giving chances to the overlooked talents. But the thing that bothers me the most is the narrative displayed in the title: the poor teams outsmarting the rich. This is shown several times in the novel, but the story ends once other baseball teams start catching onto the idea of using statisticians. Once the world found out about Oakland’s little secret, wouldn’t the richest teams be able to hire the best mathematicians? Or, if every calculation brought every team to the same conclusion, doesn’t that mean that the richest teams would be able to get to the best players faster than the poor teams, just like in the past? These questions go unanswered, so as far as I know, Oakland’s math strategy only gave them an advantage for a few choice years before the intellectual playing field was once again leveled, and the only boost remaining came from resources.

Overall:

Moneyball is not what I expected it to be. I expected it to be a depressing account of how math and machines are slowly going to stamp out our individuality, but the narrative I read was quite different. It was about merit triumphing over appearance, about strategy outdoing wealth, about brain beating brawn, about overlooked young rookies finally being given a chance. It’s one of those untold, hope-inspiring stories of a quiet revolution happening right under our noses.

You don’t need to know much about baseball to get into this book. It isn’t incredibly addictive or life-changing, so if you’re only mildly curious, then Moneyball might be hard to get all the way through. I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t tell you if it’s a good substitute.

But I can tell you this: Moneyball deserves one.


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