Thursday, June 23, 2005

Book Review: MoneyBall

MoneyBallI just posted the following review on Amazon:

You need not be a baseball fan to appreciate Michael Lewis' MoneyBall. Lewis tracks Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, who built a series of powerhouse ballclubs with a major handicap. Despite having a payroll that was petty cash to teams like the Yankees, Beane's clubs excelled. A series of excellent finishes, culminating with a playoff series that took the Yankees to the limit, solidified Beane's reputation. But how did he do it?

Beane's unconventional methods were the key. Using Bill James (of Baseball Abstract fame) as an inspiration, the A's GM hired the best and brightest statisticians and dispensed with the conventional wisdom of opinionated scouts. So what if a college catcher had a "bad baseball body"? Beane didn't care. He was concerned with metrics like on-base-percentage, which turns out to be a much better predictor of major league success than any scout.

Dealing with players as business units, each with measurable ROI (return on investment), Beane bought low and sold high. If a closer cranked out a bunch of saves, Beane figured he could trade him for higher value than he was really worth. Saves were a misleading statistic: strikeouts, walks, and home-runs-allowed were the only true ways to measure a pitcher's performance. A "superstar" was simply a stat-generating machine and if the same amount of money could be leveraged on someone else that could yield similar stats, why not make a trade?

In retrospect -- and like all great ideas -- Beane's tenets are remarkably simple. It's just interesting that it took baseball over a century to figure out that stats such as ERA and RBI are pretty much meaningless. What matter are stats that historically prove to be predictors of baseball victories: on-base-average and slugging average for batters, for instance. A quick, fascinating read, MoneyBall is an elegant look at a smart GM and his godfather: Bill James.

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