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Books: Moneyball

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis

How did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games? Fascinated by this question Lewis begins an investigation that takes him into an area of baseball that was shrouded in mystery about a decade ago. This was an area dominated by people who believed that to truly understand baseball you have to use numbers. Not just any number from a box score (such as an RBI) but those that were shown to be related to winning (such as on-base percentage).

In other words, paying less importance to subjective skills (such as speed and strength) and more importance to objective performance that leads to wins (such as slugging percentage, as opposed to base stealing). Later known as sabermetrics, this area was essentially invented by Bill James who was not a baseball insider by any stretch. The cash poor Athletics, first under Sandy Alderson and then more emphatically under Billy Beane, implemented Jamesian ideas (interestingly, without actually meeting or knowing him) to overcome the disadvantage of payroll non-parity in baseball, leading to several consecutive post-season appearances. Lewis follows Beane and the A's through the 2002 MLB draft to fully and entertainingly describe their philosophy toward finding value in players. More than any other book, Moneyball brought the sabermetric approach to the game into the popular consciousness. Its tone also served to create a backlash among baseball traditionalists and an ongoing debate between the inside and outside approaches that has now spilled over into other sports such as football and basketball. While the book is entertaining, Lewis's ultimate contribution may have been to popularize the idea that a non-traditional, numbers-based, outsider perspective to sports is possible and can provide new ways of understanding old games.  Football Outsiders, perhaps the best analytical football website used to proudly advertise itself as "football for the Moneyball era".

Michael Lewis, a journalist and former bond trader, wrote Liar's Poker (about Wall Street) and The New New Thing (about Silicon Valley) before Moneyball, and has since written Blindside: The Evolution of the Game (about football). Blindside chronicles the rise of the second highest paid position in football after the quarterback (the left tackle) by following one phenomenally talented player who is expected to hit the NFL draft in the next year or two.  Click here to read an interview with Michael Lewis that provides an introduction to his thinking.


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Guest Tuesday, 26 May 2020

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