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Michael Lewis
March 01, 2004
The author wrote a book, Moneyball, that drove baseball's clubby traditionalists crazy. They fought back. Now he does too
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March 01, 2004

Out Of Their Tree

The author wrote a book, Moneyball, that drove baseball's clubby traditionalists crazy. They fought back. Now he does too

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"Two things are apparent in the recently released book Moneyball.... Billy Beane's ego has exploded...." (Tracy Ringolsby, Rocky Mountain News)

I'll return to the second thing apparent to Mr. Ringolsby because he speaks for a big faction of the Club: the scouts. But first, what seemed apparent to me, terrifyingly so, was that baseball insiders were going to compel my subjects to recant—to say that this book about their organization was laughably off-target and safely ignored. If the A's had a dollar for every journalist who asked Beane or DePodesta if he'd been misquoted, they could have gone out and bought a proper centerfielder. The pressure from Club members and the media on Beane, especially, was intense: No baseball man was ever accused of saying more things he never said or doing more things he never did. A few insiders took the novel approach of accusing Beane of lying about being misquoted, even though he'd never said he'd been misquoted in the first place. "He was not misquoted for 200 and some pages," Mariners G.M. Pat Gillick told the Seattle Times, just before swearing that he "wouldn't buy the book."

But the A's didn't recant, and a phony debate soon heated up. It wasn't as interesting as a real debate, in which there's an actual exchange of ideas. It was more like a religious war—or like the endless, fruitless dispute between creationists and evolutionists. On one side, parrying insults and half-baked questions, were the baseball fans who think hard about the use and abuse of statistics. On the other side, hurling the insults and the half-baked questions, were the Club members, who felt a deep, inchoate desire to preserve their own status.

Q: If Billy Beane's such a genius, how come he didn't draft (fill in the high school phenom)? How come he's paying Jermaine Dye, who hit .172 last season, $11 million a year?

A: The point is not that 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.

Q: If Beane's so smart and he says that on-base percentage is so important, how come the A's don't score more runs?

A: They 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. Still, the A's on-base percentage retains one important quality: It is good for the money. 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.

Q: What kind of egomaniac claims that he discovered all these statistics? On-base percentage! My old buddy (fill in the name of the old buddy) has known about on-base percentage since 1873.

A: The people in the A's front office never claimed to have discovered sophisticated statistical analysis. They were merely ramming it down the throat of an actual big league organization—their own.

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. The fuss, as far as I was concerned, was that the rubber had finally met the road, and, for putting it mere, Beane deserved a lot of credit. (Or blame, depending on your point of view.) He'd had the nerve to seize upon ideas rejected, or at least not taken too seriously, by his fellow Club members, and put them into practice. But I'd never thought of Beane as a genius. He was more like a gifted Wall Street trader with no talent for research.

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