Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
By Michael Lewis
For over a decade, baseball fans have suffered through Commissioner Bud Selig’s ridiculous arguments about how small-market teams cannot compete in Major League Baseball. Cooler heads have poked holes in Selig’s arguments, but, to many fans, the only convincing evidence that small-market teams can succeed comes from Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s. While Selig repeatedly has called the team an “aberration”, last year’s playoffs made clear the fact that spending a small amount of money efficiently is more effective than spending bundles of cash recklessly if you want to win in baseball. The real aberration is the New York Yankees, who are so wealthy that they can afford to throw money away like Bill Bennett in Atlantic City
without having to worry about losing. A new book, Moneyball by Michael Lewis, chronicles how the A’s manage to win without spending big bucks. Lewis explains their success as the result of effective use of computer geeks in the front office who ignore traditional scouts. Lewis shines when explaining how players like Chad Bradford and Jeremy Brown are overlooked by other organizations and how the A’s have built a successful team with rejects like Bradford, Brown, and Scott Hatteberg. However, because the story is about the A’s (and not MLB), Lewis does not destroy the straw man who runs baseball (i.e., Bud Selig).
Much of Lewis’s book focuses on how the A’s, through statistical analysis of performance, have seen that misfits like Chad Bradford can be great baseball players. Most scouts did not see that Bradford, a side-arm pitcher whose fastball topped out at 85-mph, could be a successful major league pitcher. By ignoring the Bradford’s idiosyncrasies and focusing on his statistics, the A’s found a great young pitcher whom other teams did not want. Thus, the A’s could trade a player another team might over-value (Miguel Olivo, in this case) for a player that that team under valued. So, how do you know who’s overvalued and who’s a bargain? In evaluating mountains of data, the A’s came to the revolutionary conclusion that past performance is the best predictor of future performance. To most of us, the logic behind this argument seems obvious. Of course, the most reliable indicator of whether a young player will become a great hitter is how he’s hitting right now. While this approach may cause the A’s to miss some great players, they conclude that, in the long run, evaluating players based on performance instead of perceived potential will work to their advantage. By ignoring talented high school players in the draft, the A’s miss out on exceptional talent like Alex Rodriguez, but also avoid drafting over-hyped mediocrities like Todd van Poppel (and Billy Beane). When apportioning scarce resources, you cannot squander them on investments that are unlikely to yield fruit. Thus, drafting high school pitchers, who rarely make the major leagues, is a poor allocation of these resources. The A’s front office views the business of baseball like the rational consumers of classical economic theory, while the rest of MLB’s general managers act like the morons who participate in “behavioral economics” experiments
. Why doesn’t each team hire an economist and a statistician who can work together, evaluating how the team allocates its resources and whether this allocation is effective (if not at winning games, at least at making money)?
While the title asserts that Beane and company have perfected the art of “winning an unfair game,” the book provides little evidence that the game is unfair. In fact, the title is the only truly bad thing about the book. Contrary to the title’s intimations, Lewis offers very little analysis of MLB’s economic travails and the perceived unfairness of the game’s economic structure. In most cases, this critique of the game compares MLB to the NFL and finds that there is much more inequality between the baseball team’s payrolls. However, as any Lions or Bears fan knows, the NFL is not “fair” in the sense that every team has an equal shot at winning the Super Bowl at the beginning of each season. Does anyone think that the Bengals will make the playoffs this year? Only when athletic futility is accompanied by financial failure do the forces of equality unite to demand what they call “fairness.” Never mind that Seattle is a much smaller market than Detroit; because the Mariners have created a market for themselves in Seattle, they should have to subsidize the unsuccessful Tigers. Lewis is at his best when taking conservative commentator George Will to task for embracing the market politically, while preferring that MLB adopt Communism.
But hypocrisy is not the greatest fault of Bud Selig and his cronies; stupidity is. While MLB’s revenue has quadrupled in the last decade, Selig and his goons have complained about poverty and inequality. Baseball poses a unique economic problem in that it is a zero-sum game; there are 162x15 games every season and each game can have only one winner. If Major League Baseball teams were operated as businesses, this peculiar characteristic of all sports would not lead inevitably either to bankruptcy or a salary cap. Rather than focus on efficient ways to allocate their scarce resources, baseball executives have gone on a spending binge signing not-quite-mediocrities like Bobbie Higginson to contracts that pay them astronomical sums of cash (Higgy is making $11.85 million this season). With mounds of cash like that at stake, one might presume that owners demand efficiency in their spending. While some have come around to this point of view, most seem to take their GM at his word when he claims that, say, Craig Pacquette is worth $4 million a year. If more general managers would adopt Billy Beane’s rigorous and methodical approach to evaluating talent, MLB would be greatly improved. The questions that Lewis’s book begs are “How is it that no one thought of this approach before the last decade?” and “Why hasn’t everyone picked it up yet?” Ultimate responsibility must fall on the owners who have managed their product irresponsibly, to the game’s detriment. Read the book, not for its description of “an unfair game,” but for its analysis of how to win. The short answer is taking advantage of others’ stupidity.