March 22, 2004

Moneyball

I've been doing a lot of reading over Spring Break (now over, alas). Another book I just finished is "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis. In this book, Lewis follows Billy Beane around. Beane is the general manager of the Hated Oakland A's. Yes, to everyone else, they are just the Oakland A's, but to me, having rooted for Texas and/or Seattle for my entire life, they are the Hated A's.

Sadly for me as a Texas fan, my team has a deeply stupid (and ardently Republican, by the way, but I guess that's redundant) owner named Tom Hicks. The guy knows enough about baseball to think he knows everything, and he's hired a collection of Standard Baseball Guys, the likes of which Billy Beane make to look like idiots in this book. Beane's basic philosophy is to try to make his team better by actually paying attention to why teams score runs.

That means you don't pay attention to things like how a guy looks in his uniform, his "leadership" qualities, clubhouse chemistry, RBI's, stolen bases or any of the other stupid things Standard Baseball Guys think is really important. Following in the tradition of Bill James and other baseball statheads, Beane is a believer in analyzing data. And the data show that on-base percentage (a high one means you are good at drawing walks) is highly correlated with offensive success. Though it is a small sample size, one could argue that Beane has proved his point with the A's for the last few seasons, with one of the 3-4 lowest payrolls in baseball and the best regular season record (except maybe the Yankees).

This book talks about how Beane started out, his history, how he has run the club, how the Hated A's tick, etc. It is very engaging, with the standard mix of funny little baseball anecdotes, like this one:

Kelly Heath had played second base in the Royals organization, and had exactly one major league at bat, in 1982, after the Royals' regular second baseman, Frank White, decided in the middle of the game that his hemorrhoids were bothering him. As one of the other scouts put it, Kelly was the only player in history whose entire big league career was made possible by a single asshole.

Or this one...

Fielder is the semi-aptly named Prince Fielder, son of Cecil Fielder, who in 1990 hit fifty-one home runs for the Detroit Tigers, and who by the end of his career could hardly waddle around the bases after one of his mammoth shots into the upper deck, much less maneuver himself in front of a ground ball. "Cecil Fielder acknowledges a weight of 261," Bill James once wrote, "leaving unanswered the question of what he might weight if he put his other foot on the scale."

This book probably comes as a big surprise to a lot of baseball fans and fantasy baseball fans and the like, but actually, my eyes were opened to this sort of thing long ago thanks to some knowledgeable friends (like John and Toby) and great web sites like Baseball Prospectus. Often times the things that truly correlate with success are undervalued by baseball teams. Lewis refers to this as a type of market inefficiency, and Beane takes advantage of it (and a few other teams are starting to do that as well ... obviously not the Rangers) to build Oakland into a strong contender very quickly with a very deep farm system.

That's why the analysts you find at websites like Baseball Prospectus have a pretty good track record, why people like Bill James (who finally has a paid position in baseball now, with the Red Sox if memory serves, and what the hell took baseball so long to use this guy?) are so well respected among intelligent baseball fans. It's a new, more scientific way of looking at the game, something difficult to do in, say, football because of the smaller, more subjective sample sizes.

I used to play in a fantasy league that used these sorts of "Runs Created" stats to judge a player's performance. After a couple of seasons, I even ran the league. What I could never do successfully, though, and what "Moneyball" doesn't really answer for me is: how do you predict good pitching? My pitching was always pretty horrible, but my Texas Leaguers did win the league once.

Anyway, it's a pretty quick read, funny and interesting. A lot of people are saying this is one of the best baseball books to come out in the last decade, and I'm inclined to agree. It's sure different from the standard player biography and certainly readable along the lines of "Seasons in Hell" and "Ball Four", which I mentioned earlier.

Posted by Observer at March 22, 2004 07:10 AM
Comments

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Hey. Nice work. I'm not sure what this is or if you're still reading it, to be honest, but I came across it by searching "stupid Moneyball" on Google to see what idiots were still critisizing the all time greatest baseball book. Your comments are very insightful and you seem to have understood the book to a full extent. However, I wanted to help with the pitching problem if at all possible. Moneyball did have a chapter on it, I believe it was called the anatomy of an undervalued pitcher. Voros McCracken's work is fascinating. If you want to know how to predict pitching stats, look at a stat called d-ERA. The stat is based on the only 3 outcomes of a pitch a pitcher can actually control, which is a walk or hit batsmen, strikeout, or home run. It is a much better indicator of success in future years than ERA, which is wildly inconsistent, as it is a result of defense and luck. To find a pitcher, look at his K/9, his BB/9, and, his GO/AO, which is groundball to fly ball ratio, or just his home runs allowed. That could have predicted Derek Lowe's future success, Matt Clement had a great chance of turning it around this year, and a candidate, judging by the stats, to be terrific next year is Jake Westbrook and Oliver Perez. To see a more in-depth look at this, go to http://www.sju.edu/~sforman/research/talks/baseball/node22.html. I assume you are using the smarter pitching stats. If you are using the meaningless ones mainly, like wins, era, only, then there isn't much you can do but hope this good performance also translates into a good showing in the less important stats. Best of luck to you.

Posted by: Bryan on July 27, 2005 10:07 PM

Actually, I read a lot more good stuff in Bill Felber's "The Book on the Book" which I talked about here. Lots of stuff about pitching and defense that I liked. The basic philosophy seems to be that it's better to draft college pitchers than high school pitchers, and even then, you can only bank on a small fraction being very, very good.

Felber had some good stuff to say about arm abuse on young pitchers, too, which goes against a lot of the stuff I've read on the subject.

Anyway, it's kinda funny how at the start of the 2005 season when Oakland was tanking, I read columns and heard play-by-play guys making fun of "Moneyball", since this is the year that some of Beane's draft class hits the majors from the book. They don't say much now that Oakland has put it together and started playing well. Funny.

Posted by: Observer on July 30, 2005 08:57 PM