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Baseball, Damned Lies and Statistics

Moneyball by Michael Lewis


Do you feel that you missed a trick somewhere? Did you start off well and then fail to fulfil your initial promise? Do you feel you have talent but the current ways of measuring things don't seem let people recognise your true value. Of course, you may have a terrible case of "Pop Idol Syndrome" convinced that you can sing like an angel when you can hardly deliver pizza, but maybe there's something about you that the people who claim to be in the know have missed, maybe you really could still be a star.

In a way Moneyball is a good example of the very thing that it's trying to demonstrate. It's a book about baseball, it has a picture of a baseball on the cover, so naturally it should be of no interest whatsoever to anybody who doesn't know what being "on base" is or what on earth a "pop flyer" should be. If you don't know anything about baseball this book should be dismissed out of hand, shouldn't it? Well it turns out that this book is about baseball, but also about hidden value, value for people who have no idea about baseball, and maybe never want to have. It's such a persuasive argument for the study of mathematics that it made me go out and buy (and actually read) an idiot's introduction to statistics.

The basic story is of a good looking guy named Billy Bean. Not only does he look good, he plays baseball like a god. He should be a superstar. All the scouts whose job it is to shuffle onto the benches at unattended high school games and look at baseball players think he's going to be a superstar. They're offering him the big bucks and fighting over him because they're certain he's on the way to the top. It doesn't quite turn out like that. Billy finds out the hard way (what would be an easy way?) that the god-like performances he managed on the school playing fields hid a bad flaw. He couldn't fail. Not that he didn't fail, but he did he had no way of dealing with his failures other than pure rage. All the way through his baseball career he shows flashes of brilliance, the promise that everyone saw in him when he was a boy, but it never really turns into runaway success. Finally, after many painful years, he has to admit to himself he can't play baseball as he, and everyone else around him thought he could. He gives up - the thing in films about sporting heroes that nobody is ever supposed to do. He stops his own career rather than slug it out to the very end - perhaps the first indication that Billy Bean doesn't think like many other also-rans. If he can't play in a baseball team, he thinks, maybe he can manage one. All he has for inspiration are some dog-eared self-published pamphlets on baseball statistics written by a nobody from Kansas called Bill James.

This is the central story of the book - a man who's lived the emotional dream of baseball and watched it turn into a nightmare seeks solace and salvation in logic, numbers and reason. Necessity makes him the father of invention. He gets a job as a manager but his team has no money, at best they can pay about a quarter of what the top teams are paying in salaries for their players. Using statistics rather than the baseball scouts usual "gut instinct" as a guide he hires people who can't run, can't catch, can't diet. With a laptop, access to an enormous store of data about baseball and a spreadsheet, he can give the enormous collection of numbers gathered in baseball "The Power of Language". Nerds who've never been near a baseball field can understand which of all the bewildering statistics actually make a difference ("on base percentage" is the real killer apparently, "walks" is another one although I still don't know what either of these actually mean). The numbers suggest a set of players for Billy Bean to put on his shopping list: the once promising but passed over, the fat, the lame and the downright strange that have a statistically good chance of delivering the goods, even though no one else would touch them. And it works! Year on year the Oakland A's win more games until they get themselves into the play-offs (which I think is a bit like the late rounds of a cup-final and definitely a good thing). There you have it. Maybe it is a sports movie after all. Initial promise, disaster, long hard slog, redemption, it's like the basic plot of a Rocky Movie, but with more regression testing.

When somebody comes up with a way of getting great sports results on the cheap, you'd think other people who manage teams in the sport would be interested in how they did it, wouldn't you? Isn't there a bit of money associated with professional sports these days? Don't you tend to get more of it when you win? When somebody as readable and enthusiastic as Michael Lewis lays out how this magic money-making machine works in a mass market paper back, you'd think that managers would be hammering on their 1-click buttons to buy it on Amazon wouldn't you? They weren't. The difference between the dream of baseball that they live and breath and the weird, number-crunching reality was too much to take. Managers of baseball teams queued up to claim that they hadn't read it. The inner-circle of baseball club staff and the coterie of journalists and sports presenters that surround them manage to convince themselves that the best-selling book contains nothing worth knowing and that the whole thing is just an ego-trip puff piece for Billy Bean. After all, nobody likes a smart arse. But at the same time, few can afford to ignore who's actually right. 2003, the year that the Oakland A's make it to the playoffs is the year that Billy Bean their manager gets a record-breaking transfer offer to the Boston Red Sox guaranteeing him $12.5 million over three years - the most that had ever been offered to a manager at that time.

Lewis is very gentle about pointing out what the lessons from Moneyball are for the world outside of baseball. Like all the best teachers he lets you have the "eureka" moments all by yourself. But the message that Bill James, a baseball nerd who should have been a great American novelist, passed onto Billy Bean obviously does apply all over the place: "If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways of doing things much better than they are currently done...don't be an ape. Think for yourself along rational lines. Hypothesize, test against the evidence, never accept that a question has been answered as well as it will ever be." And other people did figure it out "The Oakland front office had calls from a cross section of American business and sporting life: teams from the NHL, NFL and NBA; Wall Street firms; Fortune 500 companies; Hollywood studios; college and high school baseball programs. Even some guy with a chain of hot dog stands...don't ask."

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