Brendan's Reviews > Moneyball

Moneyball by Michael   Lewis
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Feb 19, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2012, audio, history-journalism, non-fiction, science, sports

I already wanted to read Moneyball before I saw the film because I like Michael Lewis' The Big Short. After seeing the film, I just knew it would be the kind of book I'd enjoy. I had, after all, devoured Game of Shadows, and this book offered an even better discussion of baseball, cool science, internicene fighting, and a David vs. Goliath story. I wasn't disappointed. In case you haven't seen the movie and don't know the story, Lewis writes about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics who began using a variety of statistical measures in the late 1990s and early 2000s to find "inefficiencies" in the baseball market, to determine who was being over-valued and who was being under-valued, and to do much better with his team than anyone thought was possible. A few thoughts:

As in The Big Short, Lewis' strength as a writer comes in knowing how to tell a complex story with lots of esoterica in ways that people not versed in that esoterica can understand and enjoy. He mixes the informational with the dramatic in precise ratios that drive the story along at a genius clip.
I love the profiles of the individual athletes Beane recruited. In particular we see two hitters, Scott Hatteberg and Jeremy Brown, and one pitcher, Chad Bradford, whom Lewis uses to explain Beane's approach to recruiting and team-building. Bradford's story is particularly compelling, to my mind. He was a not-particularly talented pitcher who threw in a weird way, but after some coaching let that strange throwing style evolve into something really deadly to batters. Like Hatteberg and Brown, Bradford becomes a key figure in Oakland because his strange throwing style makes him look "weird."
Lewis' chapter on statistics and their unwelcome place in Baseball is a masterful demonstration of how to craft compelling historical background for the reader. He describes Bill James' early Baseball Abstracts and explains how they introduce the scientific method into scouting by removing personal experience from the equation, then Lewis explains concisely and with convincing clarity why the baseball establishment was reluctant to follow that advice.
At its heart, much of the struggle over Sabremetrics (the name given to the statistical study of baseball) comes down to the old conflict between jocks and nerds. Lewis explains how most baseball leadership are former baseball players, often people who got recruited into the farm system and then didn't make it much past that, but with plenty of former pros as well. Their image of the game is one of myth and elegance -- the scouting corps that drove recruiting before the book looked for players who looked good, and couldn't usually see past players who had other faults, like being fat or having a weird throw. The subtle point that arises in the book but Lewis doesn't hammer on is that management is a different skill than playing, and the idea that a manager must be a former player (or even should be one) might just be outdated.
I enjoyed the film, but didn't think that much of it. In retrospect, the film is a good summary of the book, but the depth available to the longer-form nonfiction makes the narrative work better, in my opinion. The need for high drama to emerge in the 2-hour film undercuts a lot of the history and science that make the book compelling. The biggest failing of the film, to my mind, is the erasure of Paul DePodesta, Billy Beane's right-hand man who inspired the Jonah Hill character Peter Brand. The difference has to do with experience and position -- the film makes Billy Beane's discovery of Sabremetrics part of his meeting Brand, and a sudden decision, a kind of eureka moment. The book makes it evident that before Beane dove into the 2002 draft with the vigor the movie shows, he'd been working on this plan for a while, and Paul was a key part of the equation.

It's an excellent book, one I listened to very quickly and with an obsession that kept me finding chores to do that gave me book-listening time. As usual, Scott Brick brings emotion and clarity to the reading.
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