This was a great book, and I’m sure you know all about it. Michael Lewis wondered why a low budget team, the Oakland A’s, so consistently did better than teams with so much more money, and so he spent a year investigating. At first he went to a number of teams and the story he had planned to write was going to be much more broadly based, but after awhile he saw that the Oakland A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane, were the most interesting part of the story, so he ended up focusing the large majority of the book on them.
Beane and the A’s were pretty surprised by this development, Lewis says, when they saw the early release copies of the book. I imagine they were. Lewis says that
“Each member of the staff had a slightly different reaction to it. Bean’s was something like horror. He was surprised that so much of the thing was about him, and disturbed that I’d portrayed him as a maniac.”
The impression Oakland had, that they were just a portion of a larger story, probably worked to Lewis’s advantage – they were probably less self-conscious in front of him, thinking they would be only a part of a bigger story. (Clever, Lewis. Clever.)
The book give a nice quick overview of the history of sabermetrics in baseball, telling Bill James story and talking about the other “pioneers” of baseball statistical analysis. It’s a great overview/opening for anyone interested in that aspect of baseball. Interesting, I think, that there is so much of that in baseball. Baseball uniquely lends itself to this sort of study, perhaps because, though it is a team game, it is built largely upon individual match-ups, in particular the pitcher against the batter. The fact that there are many years of available historical data also was a probably a key factor — though this data proved inadequate for heavy duty use, they were perfectly adequate to open the door to deeper thinking on the game. It does take a certain kind of mind to ask these types of questions and then to delve into the records exhaustively to find answers, or, as in this case, to create a whole new system of record keeping in order to find answers. One might ask, to what end? What’s gained by all this effort? This being just a game – perhaps nothing of real importance. But then again, Knowedge is Good, or so they say. And let’s not totally discount that there’s a certain amount of fun in figuring out how something works, in the discovery of the hidden game. Like working a huge puzzle.
I’ve read one other book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short, which was a look at the financial crisis and how some people saw it coming and profited because of that. It was also quite good, and did a good job of explaining complex issues in an understandable way. Both of these books have a similar theme, illustrating how a small group of people, thinking differently, see a totally different market reality than everyone else, and then take risks based on that view of the market, and are successful. Nice theme. I wonder how often he can write on that? What are some other examples?
I remember when the Twins acquired Beane in 1986. For some reason I thought this was during the Howard Fox era, because I remember hating that trade and I hated all the trades Howard Fox made during his brief tenure, from 1984 to 1985. (Fox was kind of a placeholder when Griffith sold the club; Griffith had it in the deal that the current team management would stay in place, but Griffith was general manager when he owned the club, and I think Fox replaced him at the time of the sale. Fox was replaced by Andy McPhail in August of 1985.) So, given the time frame, I guess MacPhail pulled the trigger on this. I suppose Beane’s potential was undoubtedly pretty tempting. Still, at the time, it struck me as a Foxian deal, and I hated it.
One thing that struck me on this reading was the post-script, where Lewis tees off on critics of the book and of Billy Beane and the whole sabermetrical take on baseball. This seemed unnecessary, though probably very satisfying to write, and his response to the critics seems quite on target. I suppose that critics who are loudly and publicly asinine should be called on it.
It would have been interesting for Lewis to compare and contrast the A’s success with the Twins success in that same time period, especially as the Twins were also a money-challenged team. It seems highly likely that the Twins assembled their team using the “old-school” methods of evaluating and developing players, and they certainly had their successes. Perhaps not as sustainable as the A’s? Looking at the records since 2001, the A’s have the edge in record, with 1129 wins and 955 losses, compared to the Twins 1078 wins and 1006 defeats. That’s a 51 game difference over 12 seasons, a bit over 4 games a season. On the other hand the Twins have finished first in their division 6 times, to 4 times for the A’s. So we’ll call them about even.
There’s been a lot of concern (amongst Twins baseball fans who like sabermetrics, at least) that the Twins don’t use sabermetrics all that much in their evaluations of players. ESPN had an article about this in 2010 – I wonder how true this is today? In 2012 SABR had their annual convention in Minneapolis, and at that time I believe Ryan gave a talk indicating that the Twins are trying to do more in this area. But baseball blogger Aaron Gleeman suggested that the Twins are probably in the bottom five as far as use of statistical data go. Which is unfortunate. (Again, knowledge is a good thing, ain’t it?)