Benjamin Franklin once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results.
Every year, Major League Baseball teams fall all over themselves to spend millions of dollars to sign and trade baseball players, hoping to give their team a better chance to get to the World Series, even though it doesn’t always follow that the team with the biggest payroll and biggest stars automatically wins the Commissioner’s Trophy. Yet every year, teams continue to plunk out the cash to recruit players, relying on subjective scouting and incomplete statistics to make these costly moves.
Unfortunately, in 2002, the Oakland Athletics didn’t have the mega-sized payroll to bring in expensive talent and compete with other teams and their ready cash. What they did have was the guts to try something completely different. And they succeeded at it beyond anyone’s comprehension. Michael Lewis’ amazing book, Moneyball, is not only the story of the visionary A’s front office, but also the birth of a new way of thinking about baseball.
Billy Beane, a one-time professional baseball player, was selected 23rd overall in the 1980 MLB draft, choosing to go to the pros rather than attend Stanford, where he had a free ride. Scouts and coaches all over the nation were enamored of Billy’s clean swing and amazing stats. Beane would later come to regret his decision to forego college for the pros, and would be out of baseball by 1989. He believed that scouts were too easily swayed by what they wanted to see in a prospective baseball player, rather than what was really there. When Beane read a series of abstracts by a statistician named Bill Jame,s which broke baseball players down into cold, unfeeling stats rather than the gut feelings and subjective impressions of scouts, he believed he had found a cheaper, more efficient way of putting together a baseball team. This approach would rock the boat of conventional scouting, recruiting, and signing of baseball players, giving heretofore unknown players a chance to make it to the big leagues, and giving smaller market teams a chance to compete with their more expensive rivals.
Having loved Lewis’ other book The Blind Side, where he tackles the heartwarming story of Michael Oher and his rise from poverty to riches through football and the love of his adoptive family, I was prepared to love Moneyball too, especially after I saw and enjoyed the movie last weekend. I often find myself bored when I read a book right after seeing the movie, but this was not so with Moneyball. I thoroughly enjoyed it, maybe more so than the movie. Lewis has such a down-to-earth style, explaining the somewhat overwhelming statistics and insider thinking in baseball, and he is so good at getting into the heads and hearts of his characters. Billy Beane’s complex character is is hilarious one minute and unhinged the next minute, smashing bats into walls and throwing chairs, choosing to go to the gym and work out during games because he was too nervous to watch. I can imagine the stress he must have been under, to prove to the rest of baseball than his unorthodox choices had method to the madness and were considered and purposeful, and how awesome it must have been to succeed even against bigger and seemingly more talented teams. His willingness to think outside of the box and go against the grain of the outdated and stubbornly entrenched thinking of major league baseball are awe-inspiring. Lewis’ portraits of the overlooked, unknown players Beane would recruit, such as unorthodox pitcher Chad Bradford, catcher-turned-first baseman Matt Hatteberg, and oversized catcher Jeremy Brown, were awesome. You were really rooting for these guys, and laughing at the old-timer scouts who overlooked and undervalued them.
There wasn’t much not to love about Moneyball. The only part that didn’t appeal to me was the epilogue, where Lewis explains how major league baseball reacted to his book. It seemed to me a bit defensive and kind of whiny. Other than that, it was an amazing book. The movie was also really good. I’m not a Brad Pitt fan, but he did a great job as Billy Beane. Check out both the book and the movie.