I know, I know. I’m following baseball this closely, but have not read perhaps the most important book written about the sport this century? Yes, I’m behind the times. You’re right. I’m humble enough to admit it.
One of the premises of this book is that the estimation of players’ values has been looked at backwards since the professional game started way back when. Almost all of baseball’s scouts, coaches and managers are also behind the times. But one man figured it out before the rest. Technically speaking, that man’s name is not Billy Beane, though he is the main subject of this story. No, that honor could go to a number of men. Perhaps most noteworthy, though, is Bill James – a man who worked on his own to figure out how to boil baseball down to a science. And he did so quite well. He made the egregious claim that batting average, runs batted in, stolen bases, and so on, were antiquated, useless stats. As were errors for fielders. Throw earned run average on the garbage pile, too. As he wrote and produced annual volumes of his thoughts (and the data to prove them), his cult following grew, until a small but dedicated core of men began creating their own brand of baseball numbers.
What was at the core of run production? Keeping innings alive. How did one go about doing this? By not getting out. So what was the ultimate important statistic to determine a hitter’s value? On-base percentage. (The ability to extend an inning.) It was the one statistic, the one skill, that could be reasonably well predicted as a player rose up the ranks. A disciplined player would get on base frequently no matter how hard the competition got. A hacker who blasted 40+ bombs in the minors might find himself whiffing at record rates and sitting on the bench in the majors. (Or getting sent right back down to the minors, for that matter.)
What is an error? A judge’s determination of what a fielder “should have” done (or not done). So a fast fielder who got himself into position to make a play, but then didn’t, got charged with an error. But the more sluggish (or less adept) fielder who was out of position while the ball got past him, well, he got off scot-free. Clearly there needed to be a better way of measuring a player’s defensive competence.
And what is earned run average? If a pitcher was throwing while a bunch of slow, clumsy fielders were on the diamond, he might find himself with a bloated number of hits and runs against, when in fact he had coaxed weak contact from most of the hitters. For that matter, weak contact did not necessitate outs, nor did good contact necessitate hits. A better way to measure a pitcher’s greatness is to track the three things he has the most control over: strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. All the rest involved too many factors out of a pitcher’s control.
With that logic established (and cleverly woven into the plot of the story, which flows beautifully), Lewis covers roughly a year in the life of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in the early stages of the 21st century. On the verge of losing three of his best players (1B Jason Giambi, OF Johnny Damon and closer Jason Isringhausen), and facing perhaps the tightest budget in all of baseball, how could he put a competitive product on the field? The answer: by looking at the game in a new way, using approaches to drafting and bench coaching that most veterans of the game considered outlandish. Don’t replace players. Replace numbers. Find guys other teams didn’t want for one reason or another, whose positive contributions (OBP, etc.) closely resemble those of the departed stars. Closers were a different matter altogether. Saves were another ridiculous figure and oftentimes, closers were more replaceable than managers thought.
And so the story starts in the A’s pre-draft meetings. Beane and the scouts (one of whom was former Hanshin Tigers pitcher Matt Keough) pool their ideas together of which players they want. The list they end up with would be laughed at by the rest of the league. But Beane had to remind the scouts time and again: we’re not drafting these guys to sell jeans. The shape of their bodies was far less important than their body of work, their makeup as a player.
Naturally, Lewis takes us all the way back to Beane’s childhood and professional baseball days, to show us how this GM became the man behind the success of the A’s. It’s a fascinating tale of a man who appeared to have the talent to become the face of the game for his generation, but in the end could not bring the scouts’ visions to fruition.
Without giving away too much more of the content of the book, I wish to make a single comment about the book’s conclusion. (Don’t worry, this is not a spoiler. Most people probably overlook these words because of the impact of the rest of the book.) The Oakland A’s reached the playoffs several times with players that no other teams would have given half a chance. They also bowed out of the postseason early, to teams who were (theoretically) worse than they were. Why? How? Does it matter? Beane himself did not care much for the playoffs. Naturally, baseball fans and the media do, though. But what to make of all the teams who succeed so greatly in the regular season, only to crash when games “matter the most”?
Baseball writer Pete Palmer postulates the following thought. The score gap created by skill on any given night is roughly one run per game. The score gap created by luck (bloop hits, errors, etc.) is roughly four runs per game. So an inferior team can compile four more runs than a superior foe on any given night. (The reverse is also true, of course. The good teams can get four extra runs through luck.) The “luck factor” will balance out over a long regular season schedule. What separates the good teams from the bad, over the long haul, is skill. However, in a short series in the postseason, luck plays a much bigger role. A team can get unlucky several games in a row, and before they know it, find themselves thinking of what “could have been” instead of showering each other in suds.
This is why Billy Beane does not put as much weight on the postseason. His crowning achievement as general manager was putting a team on the field that could slug it out for 162 games and come out on top. History may not remember them because they did not win the World Series. But does that truly make them any less great?
And so, ladies and gentlemen, here is my point. Maybe Nippon Professional Baseball and its media, arcane and in sore need of an update in so many ways, have gotten this one thing right. Maybe the pennant winners deserve all the accolades at season’s end. Those two teams truly are the best in baseball, regardless of what happens in the playoffs. Their skill needs to be applauded and recognized with a place in the history books.
As does this fine piece of writing. It may have taken me a long time to get around to reading Moneyball, but I will not forget the baseball lessons it taught me.