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Peace, Love and Moneyball
2004-02-26 07:27
by Jon Weisman

Moneyball author Michael Lewis reappears with a pitch-perfect article in this week's Sports Illustrated (not available online, unfortunately). The article is part clarification of his arguments, part rebuttal to his critics and part fascination with how many of his critics either misunderstood him or made no attempt to understand him.

Here's hoping you are encouraged to go out and find the whole article, based on these excerpts:

The point is not that (A's general manager) Beane is infallible; the point is that he has seized upon a system of thought to make what is an inherently uncertain judgment - the future performance of a baseball player - a little less uncertain. He's not a fortune teller. He's a card counter in a casino...

[The A's] don't score more runs because their on-base percentage is not, in fact, that great; it's much worse than it used to be. The market for major league players with a high on-base percentage has tightened, thanks, in large part, to Oakland's success. ... Anyway, the point is not to have the highest on-base percentage but to win games as cheaply as possible. And the way to win games cheaply is to buy the qualities in a baseball player that the market undervalues - and sell the ones that the market overvalues. ...

I had gone to some trouble to show that all the ideas Beane had slapped together were hatched in other people's brains. Indeed, any reader of Moneyball who had read Bill James, or followed the work of some of the best baseball writers (Peter Gammons, Rob Neyer, Alan Schwarz) or the two most sophisticated analytical websites, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Primer, might fairly wonder what all the fuss was about: We knew this already. ...

On the fact that several baseball figures believed that Beane had written the book:

It was, in a perverse way, an author's dream: The people most upset about my book were the ones unable to divine that I had written it. Meanwhile, outside the Club, the level of interest and reading comprehension was as good as it gets. The Oakland front office had calls from a cross-section of U.S. business and sports entities: teams from the NFL, NBA and NHL, Wall Street firms, Fortune 500 companies, Hollywood studios, college and high school baseball programs. ... Every nook and cranny of American society, it seemed, held people similarly obsessed with finding and exploiting market inefficiencies. The people most certain they had nothing to learn from the book were in the front offices of other major league teams. ...

In business, if someone comes along and exposes the trade secrets of your most efficient competitor, you're elated. Even if you have your doubts, you grab the book, peek inside, check it out. Not in baseball ... baseball executives bragged that they hadn't read the book ...

Indeed, one way of looking at the revolution in baseball management is as a search for new Jackie Robinsons: players who, for one irrational reason or another, often because of their appearance, have been maligned and underestimated by the market.

Again, the point is not to accept everything that Michael Lewis says or that Billy Beane does as gospel. The point is to be open to learning - to sift what is useful and discard what isn't. Deliberately avoiding understanding of one side of the debate serves no purpose.

As a side note, those who would argue that Sports Illustrated isn't relevant anymore should at least tip a hat to the magazine for continuing to help Lewis foster an intelligent debate.

(More coverage: Bronx Banter, The Futility Infielder)

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