Book Review: Moneyball: The Art of a Winning an Unfair Game
A cursory glance through my other hubs will show I am a bit of a sports nut with my views on football (soccer), rugby and rowing among others! However, my horizons don't just extend to those sports popular here in the UK and I have more than a passing interest in American sports like Ice Hockey, Basketball and, to a lesser extent (and mainly when I have just been watching something like Friday Night Lights or The Blindside!) American Football. There is though one popular US sport that I have never really been able to get in to, Baseball.
I am certain that experiencing a game with friends at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park must be a great time and if I ever have the opportunity I am sure to take it (I am just admiring friends photos on Facebook from recent visit to see Seattle Mariners). However, just like the sport of cricket over here in the UK, from what I have seen of the sport there is too much time when little is happening, team interplay is reduced and it is also one of those sports that I struggle with when the stars can be overweight as to me sports people should be prime specimens! (Also as a non-North American, I have always taken some umbrage with an event being called the World Series when it only includes North American teams!)
That said, despite my aversion towards the sport, there is one story that has been on intrigue to me for a couple of years. The majority shareholder in my football team, Arsenal, is American Stan Kroenke (also owner of US franchises such as St Louis Rams in NFL and Denver Nuggets in the NBA) and a couple of years ago, in a rare interview he mentioned how Billy Beane was a big fan of our longstanding manager, Arsene Wenger. I'd never heard of Beane at this time but became aware of how he had managed to gain relative success on a lower budget in the MLB and whilst I personally saw a lot of differences as well, I could see where there would be a link. This interest was spiked further when in 2011 a film adaptation of this very book was released staring Brad Pitt, a film I have subsequently bought and watched. When I was looking for a new book to read and was perusing an article of the best sports books this book ranked high and I thought it would be a good read.
If you are unaware of the story behind Moneyball, it is a true life look into the relative success of the Oakland Athletics MLB team in the early 2000's. Despite regularly having one of the lowest wage bills in the league, the team kept 'overperforming' reaching the playoffs several years on the trot. The author of this book originally set out to look in to why this was and over time it formed in to the book you read today that focuses on the management team headed up by Billy Beane and how they used scientific methodology to upset the odds. Statistics are huge in many sports but in one such as baseball, the whole game can be broke down to individualistic impacts and as such, the stats take even greater precedence. By analysing historic trends and looking for the key statistics, the Oakland A's were able to pick up players overlooked by other clubs and build their success. The concept of using analysis in baseball wasn't a new idea but with Beane it found it's way in to the game properly for the first time, much to the annoyance of the traditionalists in the sport who put undue focus on certain attributes and skills that mathematically had been proved to be less important.. Whilst I'm not surprised their methodologies were considered strange to start, it does surprise me reading the later chapters how much resistance there still was to change even after the book was released with opponents quick to jump on any reason to question the overall use. However, the longer people fought the system, the longer the A's kept an edge.
The reason that this book and story was of so much interest to me is linked to my professional background where I work in the field of Revenue Management. In similar veins to the Sabermetrics utilised by Oakland, my role involves looking for patterns and then maximising their potential, even when this goes against common, long held wisdom and this was the challenge that Beane faced.
Where the author Michael Lewis has succeeded is identifying why Beane was willing to take on the traditionalists as a result of his own professional playing career. As a High school student he was drafted as the 'Next Big Thing' as physically he had everything that scouts and professional teams looked for, in the process giving up a college education and whilst he did play in the MLB, he never quite hit the heights as he was deficient in other areas and as such he could appreciate what should be looked for. He has written great chapters that I found hard to put down, in particular when the team were trying to draft as many players as possible, including the overweight and overlooked Jeremy Brown in the 2002 draft. Some have tried to point to Brown's lack of success as a failure for the Oakland experiment but I look at it as they also saved money versus higher cost 'flops' like Beane himself could have been classed.
The other chapter that sticks in my mind was one around a trade window where I sometimes had to pinch myself as players were traded like stocks and shares rather than the human beings that they are. I'm used to transfers being driven as much by the player here in the UK yet in the space of a few minutes Beane effectively forced one man in to retirement and got another to switch dressing rooms pre-match to play against people who just hours earlier had been team-mates.
I did find this a fascinating read. I won't lie that often I struggled with a lot of the terminology as I don't understand the game of baseball (the Wikipedia page on baseball terms got a lot of hits!) and if you aren't mathematically minded at all then you may not enjoy as much but overall, I really enjoyed looking deep in to an occasion where the numbers work and you don't need to be a baseball fan as I myself can attest to.
If like me you are based in the UK then please find the book here at Amazon.co.uk!
In 2011 a film adaptation was released starring Brad Pitt, a film I bought on DVD having read the book, this is the trailer for that film.