The Book Club

Billy Beane’s Genius: Letting the Data Do the Talking

Dear Rob,

It always feels a little strange to add one’s voice to a chorus of hosannas, but I’m going to start by doing just that. Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Lewis’ prose is as effortless and winning as ever, his reporting is exceptional, and his account of sabermetrics (loosely speaking, the statistical analysis of baseball) is rigorous and sophisticated. At the same time, I think Moneyball is an easy book to misread. On the surface, it seems to be a paean to the singular genius of Billy Beane—the general manager of the Oakland A’s and the best baseball executive since Branch Rickey. In just a few years, Beane has turned Oakland into a repeat title contender despite working with one of the smallest budgets in the game. Unable to shell out millions for high-priced free agents, Beane has had to make do with young players (whom he can underpay because they have to stay with the A’s until they’ve been in the majors for six years) and veterans whom he can get for a song because their skills are undervalued by other general managers. He’s succeeded with these kinds of players—Lewis calls them “misfit toys”—because, discarding traditional ways of measuring performance and using a host of sabermetric tools, he has done an exceptional job of evaluating talent and of evaluating how much that talent is worth.

For all that, though, I didn’t come away from Moneyball thinking Beane was some kind of visionary with a unique talent for sizing up players and predicting their future. Instead, I came away from it thinking that what he has—and what most baseball executives don’t have—is a much simpler talent: the ability to ignore conventional pieties and listen instead to what concrete evidence tells him.

That may not sound so difficult. But moving against the conventional wisdom is a hard thing to do in any business, and it’s an especially hard thing in an industry as hidebound as baseball is. The way most baseball executives have traditionally done business is a perfect illustration of the power of ideology. Successful ideologies work by making themselves invisible, making their assertions about their world seem natural and common-sensical. As the French critic Roland Barthes put it, ideologies create everything that we think “goes without saying.” That’s how it was in baseball for a very long time (and how, in some respects, it still is today)—there have always been a host of unquestioned assumptions about what made teams successful, about what made players great, about what kinds of strategies worked. These assumptions weren’t really thought of as testable assertions. They were simply taken to be true.

What Beane did was question those unquestioned assumptions. He dismantled the conventional wisdom by asking over and over, in a systematic and rigorous fashion, “Does this make sense?” In other words, does it make sense to value great athletes who can run and hit for average more highly than we value tubby guys who draw lots of walks and hit for power? Does it make sense to draft flame-throwing high-school pitchers because their potential upside is unlimited? Does it make sense to bunt or hit and run?

The curious thing is that the answers to these questions weren’t exactly hard to come by. Beginning in the late 1970s, the writer Bill James—whom you actually used to work with, Rob—had revolutionized the statistical analysis of baseball, demonstrating that much of what we thought we knew about the game was false and, conversely, that certain things about the game were true. (Here’s a list from 1988 of 15 truths that James thought were important to know.) In most industries, the value of information like this would be quickly recognized by the market and acted upon. Competition ensures that good data doesn’t go unnoticed for long. But most of the sabermetric data did go relatively unnoticed for years, until Beane (who, remarkably, hadn’t even heard of Bill James until 1993, five years after James had stopped publishing his seminal Baseball Abstracts)decided to build a team around it.

That, ultimately, is what I like best about Moneyball: It shows that ideas matter. Beane’s a tremendously entertaining character, and he seems like a tough negotiator, too. But he keeps winning not because he’s got great instincts, but because he’s been willing to subordinate his instincts to the scientific method. By Lewis’ account, Beane is hyperemotional as a person. But as a judge of talent, he’s hyperrational. It’s almost as if he lets the data make his decisions for him.

I need to wrap this up, so let me just toss a few questions at you. You’re a sabermetrician and, as a writer for ESPN, you’re someone who deals with baseball people all the time. How do you make sense of the inertia that executives have shown when it comes to incorporating new ideas in baseball? Will all the positive attention that Moneyball is getting from the mainstream press change any of this? And can the A’s keep winning if it does?