This article originally appeared October 10, 2013, in Issue #27.
When you wonder why strikeouts are designated with “K” on a baseball scorecard, please direct your complaints to Henry Chadwick, an Englishman by birth and a sportswriter by trade, who adopted the cricket box score around 1859 to create a record of exactly what transpired in a baseball game.
Chadwick gets credit for establishing the use of consistent statistics against which multiple games, teams, and seasons could be compared. But despite that early start, baseball executives, sportswriters, and fans spent most of the next 144 years making decisions from the gut: observation and experience trumped any underlying story that numbers might have told.
But a change took place that moved numeric wonkiness from periodicals like The Bill James Baseball Abstract or Web sites like Baseball Prospectus, which were for a long while the sole concern of hardcore enthusiasts, into the broader sphere of public consciousness.
We can circle the date on the calendar when this happened: it was in 2003, when Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, hit bookshelves.
Subtitled “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” Moneyball outlined how the Oakland Athletics were able to pursue champagne aspirations on a near-beer budget. For the 2002 season that Lewis chronicles in Moneyball, the A’s won 103 games, tying the New York Yankees for the best record in baseball. The A’s spent a shade under $42 million on player salaries to win those ballgames; the Yankees spent in the neighborhood of $126 million.1
The blueprint outlined by Lewis could essentially be boiled down to: stop trusting old assumptions and start looking at hard data. Other teams overpaid players who tallied up empty stats like batting average and runs batted in; the A’s looked for undervalued players who excelled at getting on base. (Or, to put it another way, not making outs.)
While their opponents were busy bunting and stealing bases, the A’s were drilling into the minds of their players and coaches that those strategies didn’t pay off. And when it came time to scout players for the amateur draft, the A’s defied the conventional wisdom of the era by favoring collegiate players over high schoolers, preferring the predictability of performance over projecting what an 18-year-old might one day become.
“Too many people make decisions based on outcome rather than process,” then-assistant general manager Paul DePodesta tells Lewis at one point in the book. He’s talking about a particular at-bat in a particular regular season game, but really, that quote could be stamped on every other page of Moneyball and still be contextually appropriate.
I was an A’s season ticket holder (right-field bleacher seats) during the season Lewis wrote about in Moneyball as well as during the year the book came out. And for me — and I suspect a good many A’s fans — the book offered not so much a glimpse into another way of looking at the game we love so much as a validation of our choice in teams.
Being an A’s fan means forgoing the certainty of meaningful postseason baseball (something the dilettantes who’ve pledged their troth to the New York Yankees take for granted) in favor of a greater ideal.2 To root for Oakland is to root for the beauty of revealing greater truths about baseball, about life over mere championships.
A’s fans have to overlook a crumbling stadium and the series of penurious owners since the beloved Walter Haas went to the big ballyard in the sky so that we can live and die with the team we love.3 And what Moneyball told us was that we had chosen wisely. “Your team is doing things correctly,” the book might as well have said. “Smart, intelligent fans realize that, even if braying sports talk radio types do not.”
If we felt something of a vicarious thrill thanks to Moneyball, imagine how the people actually profiled in the book made out. The book became something of a sensation in business settings, where its themes of exploiting market inefficiencies and finding value where your visionless competitors did not resonated.
Billy Beane, the A’s general manager, became a popular figure on the corporate speaking circuit, which he remains on a decade later. (In fact, while the A’s were fighting for a division title in September, Beane jetted off to Prague to fulfill one of his corporate obligations.) At any rate, you know you’ve won the acclaim of the larger world when Brad Pitt is tasked with playing you in the movie.4
The baseball establishment, however, was not so smitten with the book. And that’s understandable. When the central premise of your book is that a lot of people running teams do dumb things for no good reason, the people doing those dumb things may not appreciate the constructive criticism.
The blowback came not just from Beane’s fellow GMs and the baseball scouts who felt that Moneyball gave short shrift to their role in spotting talent, but also from writers and columnists who had appointed themselves Guardians of the Game. Antipathy from the former was certainly understandable; the reaction of the latter, though, reeked of a kind of anti-intellectual hostility to anything that challenged conventional wisdom.
Lewis wound up detailing the anti-Moneyball reaction from within baseball’s establishment in a postscript added to a later edition of the book, titled “Inside Baseball’s Religious War.” “There are many ways to embarrass The Club,” Lewis wrote, referring to the coterie of old-school baseball executives and beat writers making lemon faces about his book, “but being bad at your job isn’t one of them. The greatest offense a Club member can commit is not ineptitude but disloyalty.”
And so the critics took their shots — at the A’s, at Beane, at anyone who thought the team might be on to something with how it was approaching the game of baseball. The A’s weren’t a real success story, the critics suggested, because the team hadn’t won a World Series using Beane’s crazy schemes. (It’s easy to see how Oakland might have been able to out-think people who found the results of a five-game sample size more illustrative than a full 162-game season.) Billy Beane was an egomaniac, they griped. (As compared to the selfless, modest souls who otherwise find success in sports, one might counter.) An especially laughable contingent of the Flat Earth Society wing of baseball commentariat even concluded that Moneyball wasn’t the work of Lewis — who after all had only written Liar’s Poker and The New New Thing, among other books — but rather of Beane himself.
The most strident voice in that chorus belonged to Joe Morgan, who used his position as both a Hall of Fame player and lead baseball analyst for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball to routinely blast everything about Moneyball at the slightest provocation. Morgan’s rhetorical assault on the book might have proven more effective had he not only bothered to properly identify the author but actually read the damn thing, too.
“I played The Game,” Morgan says in a 2005 SF Weekly profile that perfectly illustrates the obstinacy that greeted Moneyball in some quarters. “You’re reading it from a book. I played. I watched. I see everything. I know what happens out there. …My baseball knowledge is accumulated over 20 years of playing, 20 years of watching The Game, so that’s what I care about. I can’t care if next week somebody comes up with a new way to evaluate The Game. Am I supposed to say, ‘Aw, that’s good. I’ll go that way now’?”
It shouldn’t matter, of course, that Joe Morgan has to perform mental and verbal gymnastics to explain how a team that wins 103 games on a workman’s wages is, in fact, a miserable failure. It shouldn’t bug me that Bruce Jenkins, the baseball beat writer whom I grew up reading but who has now become the sort of “old man yells at cloud” columnist who invites parody and routinely peppers his columns with diatribes about “stats-crazed dunces” who are ruining baseball for all right-thinking people.
But it does — and not just in the tribal “someone is saying something bad about the team I like” way. These are people paid to write and commentate about baseball, and when it came to one of the biggest shifts in how people think about that sport, Morgan and Jenkins and their ilk couldn’t be bothered to do the assigned reading.
Well, we’ve only had a decade since Moneyball’s publication, not the 20 years Joe Morgan demands to reach any concrete conclusions. Still, there’s been a marked shift in the attitude toward the notions in what Lewis called a book about an idea — though it would be a bit premature to declare total victory for that idea just yet.
This means WAR
Flip through Moneyball these days, and the ideas seem fairly quaint and self evident, like someone excitedly telling you something that you thought had long been accepted as common knowledge. These days, I can launch ESPN.com’s Gamecast feature for real-time play-by-play accounts and get calculations for how likely it is that a run will score if there’s a runner on first and nobody out in an inning. A mainstream site like ESPN offering that kind of math in 2003 would have been unthinkable.
During last year’s debate over the American League Most Valuable Player award, an advanced stat like WAR (Wins Above Replacement, a nifty way for calculating a player’s value against his peers) got bandied about alongside traditional numbers like RBI and batting average. (True, a lot of columnists brought up WAR just to dismiss it out of hand — “WAR, what is it good for?” was the low-brow pun of these sorts of columns — but still: baby steps.)
After a five-season fallow period, the A’s got back to winning, first with an improbable division crown in 2012 and then with a slightly more expected triumph this season. The team has found a new market inefficiency to exploit: platooning, in which the A’s find one player who can mash right-handed pitchers and another who can do the same to left-handers, and pay each far less than what an overvalued everyday player might command.
It’s also worth noting that the A’s of 2013 do things that the team profiled in the 2003 book never would have considered, like selecting high school players with first-round draft picks. That’s because the lessons of Moneyball weren’t a series of rules carved in stone and handed down by a bearded prophet to his acolytes in Oakland; rather, it was a state of mind about identifying things your competitors were failing to do and jumping on them. “The point is not to have the highest on-base percentage,” Lewis tries to explain in his postscript, using small words so that the book’s critics might be able to finally grok the moral of the story, “but to win games as cheaply as possible.”
It’s a lesson other teams quickly caught on to. The Boston Red Sox, owned by a commodities trader named John Henry, were soon embracing a lot of the principles espoused in Moneyball and wound up with two World Series titles to show for it. (The $100 million-plus payroll also helped, admittedly.) The Tampa Bay Rays, as sad sack a franchise you could have found in 2003, had their own statistical rethink on how to assemble a winning baseball team; they’ve just completed their sixth consecutive winning season.5
In fact, of the five teams that are contending with Oakland for the American League pennant this fall, four of them are well known in the baseball business for their fascination with number-crunching. (The fifth, the Detroit Tigers, seem content to pursue a strategy in which they spend owner Mike Illitch’s Little Caesars money on fat guys who can hit baseballs great distances.) Even the most stat-averse teams have someone tucked into a cubicle somewhere poring over spreadsheets, even if they’re not exactly sure what to do with those numbers.
If analytics have found their way into most corners of baseball, the last holdouts seem to be the people who write and talk about the game for a living. To be sure, analysis-heavy sites like Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs have their followings, and a number of sportswriters — chief among them is Joe Posnanski — have incorporated talk about advanced stats into their coverage.
Some of the more vocal opponents of the modern stat-based approach in general and Moneyball in particular have lost their platform. Joe Morgan, who thought everything about the book was a joke, became a bit of a joke himself thanks to FireJoeMorgan.com, which made a sport of taking him and other logic-challenged sports pundits to task for their fact-averse commentary.6 Morgan was also removed from his Sunday Night Baseball gig a few seasons back, but before we take to the streets to rejoice, keep in mind that one of his replacements was the sharp-as-a-bowling-ball John Kruk.7
Still, buy a newspaper, fire up a Web site, turn on a cable sports channel, and you’re likely to come across someone trotting out the same “nerds in a basement with a calculator” dismissal of baseball analytics or acting like Moneyball, and all the writing that came before and after it, never existed. They’re the soldiers marooned on a remote island who haven’t heard that the fight is over — only they have access to mass media.
For a particularly dispiriting example, look no further than the MLB Network, a cable channel that has 24 hours of programming to fill and is largely populated by ex-players mouthing the same empty platitudes about How To Play The Game that were statistically disproven years ago. One of the lone nods the network makes toward acknowledging the influence statistical analysis has on the game is an hour-long show called MLB Now, but even this is framed as a tedious debate in which a stats-savvy analyst is pitted against an ex-player, and they mostly talk over each other at ear-splitting volume.
“You think that the average fan is wrapped up in WAR and all these asinine, dopey statistical thoughts that you guys can come up with,” an MLB Now guest named Chris Russo shouted at the stat-minded host on a recent episode that I had to grit my teeth to get through for the purposes of this article. “Watch the ballgames,” he added in a voice that would have had to have been lowered several decibels to be considered at the top of his lungs. “If you watch the ballgames, you can figure out who is a good player, who is not a good player.”
Well, that’s an argument, I suppose. Not as convincing as “Because, OK?” but we’ll accept it if only to move on.
Say it’s so, Joe
“Basically, everything you know about baseball when you are 14 years old, you know from baseball announcers,” a fellow named Voros McCracken tells Michael Lewis in Moneyball. Fortunately, McCracken — who did some pioneering research that revealed pitchers can control walks, strikeouts, and home runs but very little else about balls hit into play — had his eyes opened by some of the early writing done by baseball statistic trailblazer Bill James. “Here was this guy who was telling me that at least 80 percent of what baseball announcers told me was complete bullshit, and then explained very convincingly why it was.”
And that’s the good news, 10 years after Moneyball’s release. There are a lot more people like Bill James explaining to even more people like Voros McCracken that the stuff they’re hearing from baseball pundits shouldn’t go unchallenged. “Teenagers [are] discovering the world for the first time,” baseball writer Rany Jazayerli said on a recent episode of the Baseball Show, which he co-hosts. “So you have no preconceived notions that you need to get rid of when you read something that has the power of truth of behind it.”
The people who read Moneyball as teenagers and had enough talent to play baseball are just coming into their own as Major Leaguers.8 The ones who became sportswriters are working their way up the chain in journalism, where they’ll eventually supplant the columnists who see advanced stats as something to be derided instead of understood. And the rest, the vast majority who simply remain fans of the game, will wonder why anyone ever argued about something so obvious.
“The world is run by people of a certain age,” Jazayerli said in his podcast. “And once people who grew up with these principles reach a point in their life where they are naturally in positions of influence, that’s when you’ll start to see changes made.”
Just in time for the next revolution.
Illustration by Jenn Manley Lee.9
It’s not like Lewis got lucky by picking an aberration of a season: Between 1999 and 2006, the A’s enjoyed winning seasons every year. Only the Yankees and the Atlanta Braves won more baseball games. ↩
I will not claim to be an A’s fan by birth. I grew up in Southern California, which meant rooting for the Dodgers even after my family moved to the Bay Area and whatever live baseball I could attend was usually an A’s game. I stuck with the Dodgers right up until News Corp. bought the team because, really, what sensible person can endure living and dying for something owned by Rupert Murdoch. I switched my allegiance to the A’s, and this only becomes awkward during discussions of the 1988 World Series, which ended well for me at the time. ↩
Walter Haas was an heir of Levi Strauss & Co. who essentially bought the club to give his son-in-law something to do, and he treated the A’s as one of the many civic and cultural institutions he helped bankroll. My favorite Walter Haas story, recounted in Glenn Dickey’s Champions, is when Haas was touring the Oakland Coliseum shortly after buying the team and noticed a storeroom full of official Major League baseballs. “Do you think I can have one of those?” he asked the stadium staff. They decided that he could. ↩
Pitt was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Billy Beane in the 2011 movie adaptation of Moneyball. Your author, who plays an extra in the crowd at the Oakland-Kansas City game near the movie’s conclusion, was not nominated for anything. ↩
Like the A’s, the Rays also have a book chronicling their reversal of fortune, called The Extra 2%. I should disclose that the author of the book, Jonah Keri, once worked at the same newspaper I did. That fact doesn’t make me inclined to endorse his book; the fact that I have beat him at poker, however, does. ↩
Kruk once predicted that Randy Johnson would win 30 games a season pitching for the New York Yankees — a bold forecast considering that in an era of five-man rotations even the most durable starters get around 35 starts a year. To be fair to Kruk, Johnson did win 34 games as a Yankee, though it took him two seasons to do that. ↩
An example would be Brandon McCarthy, a pitcher who used advanced statistics to reshape his career. ↩
Jenn Manley Lee resides in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse Kip Manley and daughter Taran in a house full of books, geeks, art, cats, and music. You can find more of her work at JennManleyLee.com as well as Dicebox.net. ↩