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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

David's New Slingshot
Book Review by Ron Kaplan

Michael Lewis. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2003, 288 pp., $23.95, cloth.

 

One of the reasons baseball fans remain so steadfast in their devotion to the game is a sense of tradition. During interminable rain delays and constant pitching changes, broadcasters often wax nostalgic about constancy: for over a hundred years there have been nine men on the field, bases ninety feet apart, three strikes you're out, and so forth. Perhaps it's this comfort level that makes change so difficult. "This is the way things have been done and this is how we're going to keep on doing them" seems to be the general mindset of proponents of the old school.

School might soon be out for baseball's traditionalists, however, argues Michael Lewis in his thought-provoking new book, Moneyball. Using the example of Billy Beane's success as general manager of the Oakland Athletics, the author shows how new concepts in scouting and developing players could revolutionize the baseball world.

Unable to spend as freely as their upscale brethren, small market teams like the A's must be content to pick up the detritus of other clubs and scout out the high school and college players that others might find less desirable. In fact, while the team's own veteran scouts drooled over the "potential" (that damnable word) of talented schoolboy athletes, Beane preferred to go with the relatively more mature and established college prospects, contrary to baseball wisdom.

The results, however, have been stunning. Unlike other cash-strapped clubs, Beane and his associates have managed to build pennant contenders seemingly out of straw.

Part of the new philosophy of assessing personnel is the art of taking a pitch, making the opposition wear itself down by going deep into the count. Why else would Beane aggressively pursue Scott Hatteberg, a catcher left unsigned by his former team (and whom no one else wanted), and convert him to a first baseman? Because Hatteberg is a student of the school of how to work the pitcher.

Beane, himself a coveted high school star and the Mets first-round draft pick in 1980, could serve as an example of how the highly-touted can fail to live up to expectations despite the consensus of the crew-cut, tobacco-chewing bird dogs. Too analytic to make a go of it as a player, Beane developed into a keen administrator and student of talent.

Some of his success can be traced to the influence of Bill James and his band of "sabermetricians" on Beane's decision-making process. On-base percentage and runs created became the measure of a batter's value, as opposed to batting average and runs batted in. "The [traditional] statistics were not merely inadequate: they lied," writes Lewis. "And the lies they told led the people who ran major league baseball teams to misjudge their players, and mismanage their games."

Lewis offers several examples of the A's forward thinking. As a group of batters gather around the videotape machine to study breakdowns against pitchers, he notes how "they're no longer playing a game; they're playing game theory."

The in-depth coverage of the draft process—with its tactics, subterfuges, and stomach-churning tension—provides a wonderful insider's view of this annual event. With the help of his numbers-crunching assistant, Beane carefully analyzed players' tendencies rather than raw numbers. Lewis compares the GM and his crew of "computer geeks" to "card counters at a blackjack table" (some might say the draft is really more of a crap shoot). To carry the non-baseball analogy further: when describing the machinations involved in the A's selecting Nicholas Swisher as their first pick in 2002, it seems as if the author is writing not so much about baseball as about chess.

Lewis, a business writer whose previous books include Liar's Poker, The New New Thing, and Next, tells this revolutionary tale with a mixture of keen insight, thoughtful prose and—at times—too much detail, which sometimes detracts from the overall picture. Many of his references are financial in nature, as when he speaks of "derivatives"—those fragments of the game such as how the next pitch after a one-and-one count can make a huge difference in a batter's performance. Perhaps because of this, however, Lewis comes at the reader with a fresh set of eyes, remarking on issues the average fan fails to notice both on the field and behind the scenes.

—EFQ

 

RON KAPLAN, a frequent contributor to EFQ, is a freelance writer from Montclair, New Jersey. His work has appeared in such publications as Baseball America, Nine, Mental Floss, and American Book Review.

© 2003 Ron Kaplan

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