Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is a book by Michael Lewis, published in 2003, about the Oakland Athletics baseball team and its general manager Billy Beane. Its focus is the team’s analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, despite Oakland’s disadvantaged revenue situation. A film based on the book starring Brad Pitt was released in 2011.
The central premise of Moneyball is that the collected wisdom of baseball insiders (including players, managers, coaches, scouts, and the front office) over the past century is subjective and often flawed. Statistics such as stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, typically used to gauge players, are relics of a 19th century view of the game and the statistics that were available at the time. The book argues that the Oakland A’s’ front office took advantage of more analytical gauges of player performance to field a team that could compete successfully against richer competitors in Major League Baseball (MLB).
Rigorous statistical analysis had demonstrated that on-base percentage and slugging percentage are better indicators of offensive success, and the A’s became convinced that these qualities were cheaper to obtain on the open market than more historically valued qualities such as speed and contact. These observations often flew in the face of conventional baseball wisdom and the beliefs of many baseball scouts and executives.
By re-evaluating the strategies that produce wins on the field, the 2002 Athletics, with approximately $41 million in salary, were competitive with larger market teams such as the New York Yankees, who spent over $125 million in payroll that same season. Because of the team’s smaller revenues, Oakland is forced to find players undervalued by the market, and their system for finding value in undervalued players has proven itself thus far.
Several themes Lewis explored in the book include: insiders vs. outsiders (established traditionalists vs. upstart proponents of sabermetrics), the democratization of information causing a flattening of hierarchies, and “the ruthless drive for efficiency that capitalism demands.” The book also touches on Oakland’s underlying economic need to stay ahead of the curve; as other teams begin mirroring Beane’s strategies to evaluate offensive talent, diminishing the Athletics’ advantage, Oakland begins looking for other undervalued baseball skills such as defensive capabilities.
Moneyball also touches on the A’s methods of prospect selection. Sabermetricians argue that a college baseball player’s chance of MLB success is much higher than a traditional high school draft pick. Beane maintains that high draft picks spent on high school prospects, regardless of talent or physical potential as evaluated by traditional scouting, are riskier than if they were spent on more polished college players. Lewis cites A’s minor leaguer Jeremy Bonderman, drafted out of high school in 2001 over Beane’s objections, as but one example of precisely the type of draft pick Beane would avoid. Bonderman had all of the traditional “tools” that scouts look for, but thousands of such players have been signed by MLB organizations out of high school over the years and failed to develop. Lewis explores the A’s approach to the 2002 MLB Draft, when the team had a nearly unprecedented run of early picks. The book documents Beane’s often-tense discussions with his scouting staff (who favored traditional subjective evaluation of potential rather than objective sabermetrics) in preparation for the draft to the actual draft, which defied all expectations and was considered at the time a wildly successful effort by Beane.
In addition, Moneyball traces the history of the sabermetric movement back to such people as Bill James (now a member of the Boston Red Sox front office) and Craig R. Wright. Lewis explores how James’ seminal Baseball Abstract, an annual publication that was published from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, influenced many of the young, up-and-coming baseball minds that are now joining the ranks of baseball management.
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