MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis was a look into the workings of the Oakland A’s baseball team. Published in 2003 with the unlikely subtitle, “The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game,” Lewis wanted to know how a team in a ‘small’ market—Oakland being deemed such by MLB—with a budget that consistently ranked in the lower half of baseball in terms of team payroll could so consistently play competitive ball with the “rich” teams. So here I briefly speak on baseball and moneyball and Bill James.
The story starts in 1996 when the new owners of the team ordered payroll slashed. Since the team could no longer solve any position issues by bidding on free agents, then General Manager Sandy Alderson became the first GM to use Bill James-based sabermetrics to evaluate players and build a team.
Bill James is arguably the most important figure in modern baseball who is outside of baseball.
He was followed as GM by Billy Beane, who learned sabermetrics from Alderson. Beane not only continued its use, he built his whole philosophy on it. It is Billy who is the focus of Moneyball.
It took a few years, but since 1999, the dramatically underpaid (by major league standards) Oakland Athletics have won their division five times and finished second another five times! Usually, without any marquee players!
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract is arguably the best introduction to James’s writing. If you dig baseball, you probably will be reading this book in spurts for the rest of your life.
On Moneyball and Bill James
Moneyball was very successful—although NOT with hardline, old-fashioned coaches, managers, scouts, and front office personnel, who felt that their faith in “the book” was being challenged (which it was)—and a movie based on the book followed in 2011.
The movie starred three of today’s best actors: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and personal faverave Philip Seymour Hoffman. It, too, was a success, both at the box office and with the critics.
Alderson and Beane based their understanding of sabermetrics primarily on the books and observations of Bill James. Arguably the most important figure in modern baseball who is outside of baseball, James revolutionized the interpretation and understanding of the game. While most people associate him with arcane mathematical formulas outside of their ken.
Moneyball may be the most popular baseball book in decades, perhaps even the most influential! It could not exist without the universe-changing work of Bill James.
Common questions, uncommon answers
Not so: James’ approach is to ask common-sense questions and then allow the data to do the talking. Starting back in the 1970s, Bill assembled the world’s largest database of MLB box scores and developed a computer program to gather the massive amounts of raw statistics for him and his fellow baseball fanaddicts and spit it back out to them for interpretation.
A typical James question might be, What is the value of a stolen base in actual runs scored?
That might lead to an even more important question: If a runner on first with nobody out attempts to steal second and is thrown out, how many potential runs did that cost his team?
Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball on the cover of the September 25, 2011, issue of Sports Illustrated.
A game could go on forever
James pointed out that only baseball of the major team sports does not have a clock; that a baseball game is measured in outs and until one team makes twenty-seven outs, the game is not over. Theoretically, a baseball game could go on forever!
This caused him to develop a system whereby an individual batter’s value was based on what he produced (hits, home runs, walks, stolen bases, etc.) against how many outs that he created achieving them.
A word of caution about the James books: Do not take his books into the bathroom, or you may never leave.
Aside from his many contributions to an intelligent fan’s appreciation of the game, Bill James is an eminently readable writer! I have admired his clean, informative, casual writing style (and thank Grommett he stops comfortably shy of the ‘aw-shucks!’ approach) since I stumbled over one of his books on a $2 remainder table in Scottsdale in 1983!
I could go on, but will not: should you want to know more about these two topics, please read Moneyball and then buy a copy of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.
A word of caution about the Abstract: do not take it into the bathroom—you may never leave …
HEADER IMAGE: The photo at the top of the page is of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe in the movie Moneyball (2011). Hoffman may have been the finest actor of the past thirty years. Fortunately, I don’t keep track of stuff like that.