Moneyball: Baseball Statistics, Oakland, and Why Oilers Fans Should Care


Ten years ago, a business writer named Michael Lewis noticed something curious about the standings in baseball, one of his favorite sports. It had long been accepted as conventional wisdom that the success of an MLB team was directly proportionate to their payroll. This seemed logical; after all, the disparity in dollars between rich and poor teams in America's pastime could be as extreme as 4:1. However, one of the poorest teams in baseball stood out from the pack; the Oakland A's (short for Athletics) were consistently trouncing their richer counterparts despite their comparatively pathetic finances. In fact, in 2001, the A's posted the second-best record in baseball (102-60) despite starting the year with the league's second-lowest payroll.

As Lewis explains, a lawyer named Doug Pappas originated a system for evaluating financial efficiency in baseball that compared marginal salary to marginal wins. The minimum that any MLB team could spend on its 40-man roster and disabled list was $7 million. However, luck played such an enormous role in any baseball game that, by Pappas' estimate, even a team composed entirely of minor-league players would inevitably win around 49 games in a 162-game season. Thus, Pappas broke out his long division skills and applied a simple test: how many dollars beyond that original $7 million was each team paying for each win after its 49th? As it turned out, the answer in almost every case was over a million dollars per win. One of the notable exceptions, and by far the most efficient team in baseball, was the Oakland A's.

(Some of you may be wondering, incidentally, what any of this has to do with hockey or the Oilers. Be patient, the answers are coming below the jump…though the attentive among you will no doubt have noticed the similarities between the above paragraph and Derek's recent discussion of marginal cap efficiency, which should give you a clue.)

This anomaly prompted Lewis to research the subject of how money was spent in baseball, and the statistics by which players were evaluated. He spent part of the 2002 season following the progress of the Oakland A's, interviewing the team's key decision-makers, and at times even traveling with the team. The result was his 2003 non-fiction novel, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which seeks to answer the question of why the A's were winning so darned many games for so little money.

Although I've occasionally watched baseball in the past, the lack of any significant Canadian presence has meant that I've never really considered myself a fan. As a result, I only recently became aware of Lewis' book due to the upcoming film of the same name that is loosely based (extremely loosely, judging from the trailer) on Moneyball. My curiosity was piqued, so I bought a copy of the book and read it. What I found within led me to conclude that it was a book that would be of interest to hockey fans in general, and to readers of Copper & Blue in particular. I have no doubt that a number of you (including the blog's writing team) are already familiar with Moneyball; however, I suspect that there may be others like me who are unaware of the book, and so I decided to review it here.

By the end of his 200-odd pages, Lewis has reached two conclusions in his book. The first is that many of the traditional statistics by which baseball players are chiefly evaluated (hits, runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage, fielding errors, and for pitchers, earned runs allowed and saves) are largely unconnected to the success or failure of a baseball team, or at the very least, enormously overvalued. The second is that because baseball's internal society of GMs, managers, coaches and scouts is largely closed off to outside recruits (not unlike hockey's), an intolerance of new ideas and fetishization of the "seen him good" approach pervades the ranks of baseball's decision-makers. Lewis combines these two conclusions to argue, quite convincingly, that not only is the traditional evaluation of baseball players unscientific, but that it is actively hostile to a scientific approach, and that a team that employs such an approach has an opportunity to run rings around the competition.

Over the course of the book, Lewis introduces readers to sabermetrics, the intellectually rigorous study of baseball. Many of the same approaches and arguments that Lewis presents have the same origins as non-traditional stats in hockey (such as scoring chances or WOWY charts). In short, this is a book that shows how a professional sports organization was able to use non-traditional statistics and an outsider mentality to obliterate its competition despite severe disadvantages that would otherwise have sunk the team. Not only is this material really quite interesting, it's a fascinating look at the early days of a new way of thinking about baseball…an approach that is very similar to the new ways of thinking about hockey that this blog so often discusses.

Interesting though the underlying material may be, it wouldn't be worth a tinker's damn if the presentation wasn't up to the task. Thankfully, Moneyball is structured extremely well and engages the reader immediately. Despite occasional sidebars, the book is effectively telling the story of the 2002 Oakland A's in general, and its unconventional general manager, Billy Beane, in particular. The story of Beane and his coconspirators reconsidering decades-old assumptions in baseball, and effectively running an elaborate con game on other teams who are still stuck in old ways of thinking, is incredibly compelling. Lewis presents Beane and his subordinates as if they were richly drawn fictional characters, and the result is not just an interesting look at how to rethink professional sports, but also an entertaining character study. By the end of the novel, we are rooting for Beane as strongly as we would for any fictional protagonist, and the book is all the stronger for it.

The book isn't perfect; a few basic baseball terms that go unexplained had me scrambling for Google, and Lewis tends to gloss over the experiments that don't work out so well in favor of focusing on the successful ones. A more balanced analysis of Beane's successes and failures would make for a more interesting discussion, albeit a worse story. And it is perhaps unfortunate that the book was published in 2003, and thus can't offer any explanations of the Athletics' weaker performances in recent seasons. It's not hard to come up with such explanations (small sample sizes, other teams becoming more aware of the team's tactics, the continuing financial disparity and so forth), but it would be nice if an updated edition addressed such issues. The 2004 edition (which I read) does include an afterword discussing some of the book's fallout, which is welcome.

However, minor complaints don't change the fact that this is an entertaining and lively discussion of subject matter that is as relevant to hockey fans as baseball enthusiasts. Even if you don't have the slightest clue what the difference between a ground rule double and a sacrifice bunt is, any Oilers fan should be eager to see what embracing nontraditional stats and rethinking traditional assumptions can lead to for a professional sports team. Highly recommended.

*The views expressed in this FanPost do not necessarily reflect the views of The Copper & Blue Staff.