Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game. Jacques Barzun
Baseball is a particularly American game, not just because it was born and bred here, but because it contains within it each component of our national greatness: one player standing at a plate, defiantly facing down nine other players whose sole purpose is to defeat him, is a perfect metaphor for our rugged individualism, can-do attitude, and determination to succeed no matter what the odds. In the field, a community of players working as one unit reflects our ability to come together to achieve a common end. Baseball is a meritocracy: players are judged by their skills alone. The baseball diamond harbors no affirmative action, although it did host one of the watershed events of the Civil Rights Movement. Baseball is also, we now learn, a place where a man of intelligence and industry can build a better mousetrap, and succeed where others have failed.
The conventional wisdom in baseball circles is that the gap between the richest and poorest teams has become so great that the game has become not an athletic competition, but rather a financial one. The richest team, the New York Yankees, began the 2003 season with a payroll of more than $149 million, while the waifs of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were living in relative squalor at just under $20 million. The story goes that the have-nots at the bottom can never hope to unseat the robber barons at the top; ergo the system is unfair, and needs to be remedied.
But one team has been giving the lie to this line for three years running. From 2000 through the 2002 season, the Yankees spent more than $328 million and won 285 games; during the same period, the Oakland Athletics spent a little more than $105 million and tallied up 296 wins. That's right: the Yankees outspent the A's by more than three-to-one and, in terms of regular season wins, fared worse. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has called the A's success story "an aberration." But that couldn't possibly account for such a wide disparity, could it? Michael Lewis's new book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is the chronicle of his search for the answer to this question: "How did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games?"
The answer, it turns out, involves a lot of statistics. This shouldn't surprise most fans, since baseball is, famously, a game of statistics. If you want to know the frequency with which Don Baylor was hit by pitches in 1986, there is a statistic for it (once every 19.6 plate appearances, in case you were wondering). The measures by which players and performances are judged, earned runs average, runs batted in, fielding percentage, etc. are the measures by which they have been judged since the mid-19th century. They are a key component of the received wisdom of the baseball illuminati, passed down from generation to generation. Yet, according to the architects of the Oakland A's, they are at best grossly misunderstood, at worst utterly meaningless. Major League Baseball insiders have been evaluating, scouting, playing, and paying ballplayers for the wrong attributes all along. There was an inefficiency in the market, and sooner or later, someone was going to discover it and exploit it for all it was worth.
Lewis tells the story of that discovery and exploitation by a motley cast of characters who, in some sense, should never have been allowed in a baseball front office in the first place: amateur statisticians, Ivy League mathematicians, misshapen minor league oddballs, and a former "next big thing" who never panned out are at the heart of Lewis's narrative. But Moneyball is more than the revenge of the nerds: it is the story of the triumph of reason over subjectivity, of facts over appearances; it is a chronicle of baseball's enlightenment.
A's General Manager Billy Beane knew he had to rethink the way baseball is managed in order to field a successful cash-poor franchise. He also knew that the market for players was badly skewed in favor of rich teams like the Yankees. So he set out to devise a precise way of placing value on baseball attributes. He realized that the ultimate goal of baseball is the scoring of runs, so his search centered around the production of runs, and learning exactly how and why runs are scored. In other words, he sought to develop a kind of metaphysics of baseball.
Beane learned, for instance, that on-base percentage (hits+walks/plate appearances), as opposed to batting average (hits/at-bats), was the better predictor of offensive success. Baseball people had been rewarding players with high batting averages for more than a century, while financially penalizing the players who drew a lot of walks and got on base more often. Beane realized that a walk was as good as a single; it just didn't cost as much on the baseball market. So, he began to do what any Wall Street trader would do: he bought low and sold high. He knew that other teams would be willing to pay dearly for things like batting average in return for a slew of guys with good on-base percentages. Beane had run the numbers, and knew exactly what each attribute was worth to his team. What's baffling is that nobody else had figured this out. His superior knowledge, combined with his charm and uncanny ability to manipulate other general managers, resulted in an unlikely, yet absolutely predictable, story of baseball success.
At the end of Moneyball, however, we're left with some nagging doubts. True, the A's have won more regular season games than their more well-heeled competitors over the last three seasons, but in each of those seasons they have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, twice by the Yankees. The problem with the postseason is a problem inherent to statistics: sample size. What works in predictable ways over the course of a 162-game season predicts nothing about a best-of-five or best-of-seven series. As Beane, puts it: "My [method] doesn't work in the play-offs. My job is to get us to the play-offs. What happens after that is… luck." This doesn't invalidate the A's entire system, of course. But it does serve as a warning against those who would put too much faith in rational analysis. Baseball is as susceptible as any other activity to dumb luck. One pitcher has an off-day, one key player gets injured, one player plays significantly better or worse than usual, and there's no telling what can happen in the short run. The worst team in the league can beat the best team on any given day.
The other doubt is more serious. The A's have shown that talent trumps money, but what will happen when the rest of professional baseball comes around to the A's way of thinking? There are signs that this is already happening. Baseball empiricists, some from within the A's system, are settling into front offices around the league in astonishing numbers since the end of last season. The Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rangers, and Indians have all made personnel changes that indicate an interest in adapting the A's methods to win more games and spend less money. Once the rest of the league catches on, the difference between teams once again will be money. The wealthier teams will simply evaluate talent more effectively, buy up the best of it, and the A's and Devil Rays of the world will return to their places at the bottom of the league.
Detractors label this argument "baseball socialism," but that is a misnomer: the health of the game depends on competition. Naturally, there are only so many professional-quality players to go around, so talent will always be at a premium. The wide discrepancy between what the richest and the poorest teams can afford to pay their players ensures that most teams will be perpetual also-rans. This only serves to alienate their fans, which hurts the game as a whole. The A's are an exception, and a significant one, but their success can be replicated by teams with more resources at their disposal. While Moneyball is a terrific read and an engaging glimpse at where the game is headed, it fails to offer long-term solutions to the game's biggest problems. Where it succeeds is in demonstrating that the most useful knowledge is still attained by looking at first principles, and making conclusions on that firm foundation.