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Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

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a weakness in the system." The unacceptable vice in a minor



60 MONEYBflLL

league player was a taste for bad pitches. The most praiseworthy
virtue was the willingness to take a base on balls. No player was
eligible tor minor league awards, or was allowed to move up in the
system, unless he had at least one walk m every ten bats.

The effect of Sandy Alderson's new rules was interesting to any-
one who believed the pitcher, not the hitter, was chiefly responsi-
ble for the base on balls. More or less overnight, all of the A's
minor league teams began to lead their respective leagues in
walks. To ensure they never lost that lead, Alderson routinely
reviewed the batting statistics ot the teams, and leaned on man-
agers whose teams were not walking. He noticed, tor instance,
that the Oakland Double-A affiliate was the exception in the
organization: its players weren't drawing walks at the same fran-
tic rate as the A's other minor league teams. "I got my reports," he
said. "1 can see they aren't taking any walks. I called the manager
and said, 'They go up or you're fired.' And thev went up. (Quickly."

Even after the Marine Corp> had come to the Oakland As there
remained a weakness in the system: the major league team. The
mere presence of a frec-swinging light hitter like Billy Heane on
the big club in 1990 proved that Alderson's views were not the
controlling ones. Around the big league clubhouse the CM trod
more gingerly than around the minor league clubhouses. Alderson
didn't march into Tony La Russa's office and tell him, "The walks
go up or you're fired." No one did. There was no very good reason
for this; it's )ust the way it was, because the guys who ran the front
office typically had never played in the big leagues.

The need to treat the big league team as the sacrosanct province
of people who had played in the big leagues struck Alderson, who
liked the idea of order and discipline cascading unimpeded from
the top, as a kind of madness. "In what other business," he asked,
"do you leave the fate of the organization to a middle manager?"
But that is what the Oakland A's, along with the rest of major
league baseball, had always done. Tony La Russa was a middle
manager and Tony La Russa had his own ideas about how to score



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 61

runs, and those ideas guided the bats of his hitters. A player would
come up through the A's farm system being told that he needed to
be patient, that he needed to take his walks; and then the moment
he got to the big club, he was told to unleash his natural aggres-
sion. Even players brainwashed by Alderson's minor league sys-
tem in the new approach were susceptible to these arguments.
Given the slightest opening, many of them regressed, and began
hacking away. ''It may have something to do with how dominant
these players are as they come up," said Alderson. "Patience and
discipline at the plate has never been reinforced. They say.
They're not paying me to walk.' And so if you don't lean on them,
they don't."

Before it had a chance to become a proper argument, the con-
flict between the old and the new baseball men was resolved by
the budget crisis. Tony La Russa left when the new owners
renounced the old habit of bankrolling millions of dollars in
losses. Alderson set out to find a manager who would understand
that he wasn't the boss, and landed upon the recently fired man-
ager of the Houston Astros, Art Howe. "Art Howe was hired to
implement the ideas of the front office, not his own," said Aider-
son. "And that was new."



13 ILLY WOULD SAY later that his wife left him because she was
unnerved by his intensity — that she could even see it in his hands
when he drove an automobile. At any rate, he soon found himself
out of not only a baseball uniform but a wife as well. Baseball mar-
riages were like that: their most vulnerable moment was immedi-
ately after a player retired, and it dawned on husband and wife
that they'd actually be spending time together. "They end when
the career ends," said Billy. "Until then you can put up with any-
thing because you're always leaving the next day." His wife
moved back to San Diego and took their infant daughter, chris-
tened Casey, with her. Billy spent his weeks scouting and his



62 MONEYBflLL

weekends speeding down, and then back up, the highway between
Oakland and San Diego. He couldn't afford the plane tickets.

His motor was still fueled less by desire than anxieties — and he
now had two of them. One was that he wouldn't know his own
daughter. The other was that he wouldn't cut it in the front office.
"If baseball's all you can do and you know that's all you can do,"
he said, "it breeds in you a certain creative desperation." When he
wasn't speeding down some California highway he was letting
around the country watching games and listening to the other
scouts talk about plavers. Whatever shred of doubt he'd had that
most of them had no idea what thev were talking about, he lost.

What he hadn't lost was his ferocious need to win. Fk- liad just
transferred it to a different place, frcMii plaving to making deci-
sions about players. But this time he had guidance — from a gradu-
ate of not one but two Ivv League colleges — and he was willing to
follow it. "What Billv figured out at some point," said Sandy
Alderson, "is that he wanted to be me more than he wanted to be
lose Canseco." In 199.^ Alderson, impressed bv the creative enthu-
siasm with which Billv seemed to attack every task he was given,
brought him into the front office, made him his assistant, and told
him his job was to go out and tind undervalued minor league play-
ers. And then he handed Billy the pamphlet he'd commissioned
from Eric Walker.

When Billv read Walker's pamphlet, he experienced — well, he
couldn't quite describe the excitement ot it. "It was the first thing
I had ever read that tried to take an objective view of baseball," he
said. "Something that was different than just a lot of people's sub-
jective opinions. I was still verv' subjective in my own thinking
but it made sense to me." It more than made sense to him: it
explained him. The new, outsider's view of baseball was all about
exposing the illusions created by the insiders on the field. Billy
Beane had himself been one of those illusions.

Billy wasn't one to waste a lot of time worrying about whether
he was motivated by a desire to succeed or the pursuit of truth. To



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 63

his way of thinking the question was academic, since the pursuit
of truth was, suddenly, the key to success. He was bright. He had
a natural coruscating skepticism about baseball's traditional wis-
dom. He could see that Eric Walker's pamphlet was just the
beginning of a radical, and rational, approach to the game — one
that would concentrate unprecedented powers in the hands of the
general manager. Where had Eric Walker come from, he wondered,
and was there any more behind what he'd written? "Billy shed
every one of his player- type prejudices and adapted," Alderson
said. "Whereas most of the people like him would have said,
'That's not the way we did it when I played.'" In answer to Billy's
question, Alderson pointed to a row of well-thumbed paperbacks
by a writer named Bill James, who had opened Alderson's eyes to
a new way of thinking about baseball. Alderson had collected
pretty much everything Bill James had written, including four
books self -published by James between 1977 and 1980 that still
existed only as cheap mimeographs. Sandy Alderson had never
met, or even spoken to. Bill James. He wasn't a typical baseball
insider but he still recognized a distinction between people like
himself, who actually made baseball decisions, and people like
James, who just wrote about them. But he had found James's
approach to the game completely persuasive, and had reshaped a
professional baseball organization in James's spirit. That's why he
had hired Eric Walker, in the hope of "getting some Bill James-like
stuff that was proprietary to us."

For his part, Billy Beane had never heard of Bill James. "But that
was the big moment," he said, "when I figured out that all the
stuff Sandy was talking about was just derivative of Bill James."
His mind had finally found an escape hatch. It led to a green field
as far away from professional baseball as you could get and still be
inside the park.



Chapter Four



I didn't care about the statistics in anything else. I didn't, and dcm't

pay attention to statistics on the stock market, the weather, the

crime rate, the gross national product, the circulation ot magarines,

the chh and flow of literacy among football fans and how many

people are going to starve to death before the year 20S0 if I don't

start adopting them for S.^.69 a month; lUst baseball. Now why is

that' It is because baseball statistics, unlike the statistics in

any other area, have acquired the powers of language.

-Bill lames, 19HS BdschdU Ahsimct

THERE IS A CERTAIN KIND of uTitcr whosc motivcs arc ulti-
mately mysterious. The writer horn mto a family of writ-
ers; the writer whose work is an attempt to make sense of
some private trauma; the writer who from the age of four is able
and willing to stay in his room and make up stories: each of these
creatures is a stereotype. What he writes may he good, hut why he
writes isn't something you particularly want to hear more about.
The interesting case is a writer like Bill James. He grew up in a not
unhappy family in Mayetta, Kansas (population: 2091, and the
closest he came to an uprooting experience was the move from
there down the Interstate Highway to Lawrence. There, at the
University of Kansas, James studied economics and literature. He
didn't know any literary types, had no apparent role models, and
was not encouraged in any way to commit his thoughts to paper.
After a shaggy dog story in the U.S. Army — he was the last man
from Kansas drafted to serve in Vietnam but never was sent — and



64



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 65

a fruitless layover in graduate school, he found a job as the night-
watchman in a Stokely Van Camp pork and beans factory.

It was while guarding Stokely Van Camp's pork and beans that
James stumbled seriously into putting his thoughts down on
paper, in response to having things he absolutely needed to say
that he was unable to convey any other way. "Every form of
strength is also a form of weakness/' he once wrote. "Pretty girls
tend to become insufferable because, being pretty, their faults are
too much tolerated. Possessions entrap men, and wealth paralyzes
them. I learned to write because I am one of those people who
somehow cannot manage the common communications of smiles
and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other
people would never need to say."

Even more oddly, everything James needed to say was either
about baseball, or could be said only in the context of a discussion
of baseball. "I'd probably be a writer if there was no such thing as
baseball," he said, "but because there is such a thing as baseball 1
can't imagine writing about anything else." He was, from time to
time, aware of the absurdity of devoting an entire adult life to the
search for meaning in box scores. He never seems to have resisted
his instinct to do it. "Now, look," he wrote to his readers, once
he'd become an established, successful author, "both of my par-
ents died of cancer, and I fully expect that it's going to get me, too,
in time. It would be very easy for me to say that cancer research
is more important to me than baseball — but I must admit that I
don't do anything which would be consistent with such a belief. I
think about cancer research a few times a month; I think about
baseball virtually every waking hour of my life."

James's first book was self-published — photocopied and stapled
together by himself — and ran just sixty-eight pages (production
budget: $1 12.73). Its formal title was: 1977 Baseball Abstract: Fea-
turing 18 Categories of Statistical Information That You Just
Can't Find Anywhere Else. To sell it, James took out a single one-



66 MONEYBflLL

inch advertisement in The Sporting News. Seventy-five people
found It alluring enough to buy a copy. Opening its pale blue
cover, they found a short opening explanatory paragraph that
failed to explain anything much, followed by sixteen pages of
baseball statistics. Astonishingly short and abrupt paragraphs fol-
lowed by pages and pages of numbers: that was lames's quixotic
early approach to getting across what he had to say. Were it not for
the author's frequent assertion that it was one, there was no rea-
son to think of the first Baseball Abstract as a book. i"In this next
section of this book . . ."1 And there was certainly no reason to
think that the writer had the capacity to lead the reader to a radi-
cal, entirely original understanding of his subject. What httle
lames actually wrote in his first bonk felt stage-trightened. The
questions he posed — Do some pitchers draw bigger crowds than
others- How much effect docs an umpire crew have on the length
of a gamei' — could not possibly have interested anyone but the
nuttiest baseball nut and, in any case, couldn't be answered confi-
dently with the data lames had, from a single baseball season.

It wasn't until the end ot the iV^^ Baseball Abstract that lames
offered his cocktail party-sized readership a glimpse of his poten-
tial. The topic that finally gets him sufficiently worked up that he
devotes several entire pages to it of nothing but words is: fielding
statistics. The manner in which baseball people evaluate players'
fielding performance — adding up their errors, and applauding the
guy with the fewest — struck him as an outrage. "What is an
errorT' he asked. "It is, without exception, the only major statis-
tic in sports which is a record of what an observer thinks should
have been accomplished. It's a moral judgment, really, in the
peculiar quasi-morality of the locker room. . . . Basketball scorers
count mechanical errors, but those are a record of objective facts:
team A has the ball, then team B has the ball. . . . But the fact of a
baseball error is that no play has been made but that the scorer
thinks it should have. It is, uniquely, a record of opinions."



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 67

James went on to explain that the concept of an error, Hke many
baseball concepts, was tailored to an earlier, very different game.
Errors had been invented in the late 1850s, when fielders didn't
wear gloves, the outfield went unmowed and the infield
ungroomed, and the ball was bashed around until it was lopsided.
In 1860, a simple pop fly was an adventure. Any ball hit more than
a few feet from a fielder on leave from the Civil War was unplayable.
Under those circumstances, James conceded, it might have made
some kind of sense to judge a fielder by his ability to cope with
balls hit right at him. But a century later the statistic was still
being used, unaided by any other, when anyone with eyes could
see that balls hit at big league players were a trivial detail in a big-
ger picture. A talent for avoiding obvious failure was no great trait
in a big league baseball player,- the easiest way not to make an
error was to be too slow to reach the ball in the first place. After
all, wrote James, "you have to do something right to get an error;
even if the ball is hit right at you, then you were standing in the
right place to begin with."

The statistics were not merely inadequate; they lied. And the
lies they told led the people who ran major league baseball teams
to misjudge their players, and mismanage their games. James later
reduced his complaint to a sentence: fielding statistics made sense
only as numbers, not as language. Language, not numbers, is what
interested him. Words, and the meaning they were designed to
convey. "When the numbers acquire the significance of language,"
he later wrote, "they acquire the power to do all of the things
which language can do: to become fiction and drama and poetry.
. . . And it is not just baseball that these numbers, through a frac-
tured mirror, describe. It is character. It is psychology, it is history,
it is power, it is grace, glory, consistency, sacrifice, courage, it is
success and failure, it is frustration and bad luck, it is ambition, it
is overreaching, it is discipline. And it is victory and defeat, which
is all that the idiot sub-conscious really understands." What to



66 MONEYBflLL

most people was a dull record of ephemeral events without deep
meaning or lasting value was for James a safe deposit box con-
taining life's secrets.

Baseball was theatre. But it could not be artful unless its per-
formances could be properly understood. The meanmg of these
performances depended on the claritv of the statistics that meas-
ured them; bad fieldmg statistics were like a fog hanging over the
stage. That raised an obvious question: why would the people in
charge allow professional baseball to be distorted so obviously'
The answer was equally obvious: thcv believed thev could judge a
player's performance simply by watching it. in this, lames argued,
they were deeply mistaken.

That was James's most general point, buried beneath his out-
rage about fielding statistics: the naked eye was an inadequate tool
for learning what you needed to know to evaluate baseball players
and baseball games:

Think about it. One absolutely cannot tell, bv watching, the dif-
ference between a ..^00 hitter and a .2"^^ hitter. The difference is
one hit everv two weeks. It might he that a reporter, seeing
evcr>' game that tiie team plavs, could sense that difference over
the course of the vear if no records were kept, hut I doubt it. Cer-
tainly the average fan, seeing perhaps a tenth of the team's
games, could never gauge two performances that accurately^in
fact if you see both IS games a year, there is a 40% chance that
the .275 hitter will have more hits than the ..^00 hitter in the
games that you see. The difference between a good hitter and an
average hitter is simply not visible — it is a matter of record.

But the hitter is the center of attention. We notice what he
does, bend over the scorecard with his name in mind. If he hits
a smash down the third base line and the third baseman makes
a diving stop and throws the runner out, then we notice and
applaud the third baseman. But until the smash is hit, who is
watching the third baseman' If he anticipates, if he adjusts for



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 69

the hitter and moves over just two steps, then the same smash
is a routine backhand stop — and nobody applauds. . . .

It was James's first sustained attack on baseball's conventional
wisdom. He concluded it with a question:

So if we can't tell who the good fielders are accurately from the
record books, and we can't tell accurately from watching, how
can we tell?

"By counting things," he replied. Then he went on to propose a
new statistic — the "range factor," he called it. A player's range fac-
tor was simply the number of successful plays he made in the field
per game. There were obvious problems with range factors, too —
an outfielder on a team staffed by fly ball pitchers, for instance,
had more opportunities to make successful plays than an out-
fielder on a team staffed by sinker ball pitchers — but the details of
the thing didn't matter. What mattered was James's ability to light
a torch in a dark chamber and throw a new light on a dusty prob-
lem. He made you think. There was something bracing about the
way he did it — his passion, his humor, his intolerance of stupidity,
his preference for leaving an honest mess for others to clean up
rather than a tidy lie for them to admire — that inspired others to
join his cause. The cause was bigger than fielding statistics. The
cause was the systematic search for new baseball knowledge.

The cause wasn't original. James was hardly the first person to
notice that there was still stuff to be figured out about baseball,
and that the game's underlying rationalities might be discerned
through statistical analysis. Going right back to the invention of
the box score in 1845, and its subsequent improvement in 1859 by
a British-born journalist named Henry Chadwick, there had been
numerate analysts who saw that baseball, more than other sports,
gave you meaningful things to count, and that by counting them
you could determine the value of the people who played the game.



70 MONEYBflLL

But what got counted was often simply what was easiest to count,
or what Henry Chadwick, whose reference point was cricket, had
decided was important to count.

Chadwick was the critical figure m this history. To anyone who
asked, "How could hasehall statistics he so screwed up'," Henry
Chadwick was usually the hegmning, and occasionally the end, of
the answer. Chadwick's stated goal in counting the events that
occurred on a hall field was reform: he wanted players to he judged
hy their precise contrihutions to victory and defeat. He was as
upset ahout the immorality he witnessed on the hasehall diamond
as he was ahout the drinking and gamhling he tound on the citv
streets — ahout which he also never tired ot complaining. He
longed to affix hlame and credit tor hasehall plays, and to do it, he
grossly oversimplified matters. Fielding errors were just one
example of Chadwick's moralistic mind at work. Another was his
interpretation of the hase (m halls. In cricket there was no such
thing as a walk: C^hadwick had to get iiis mind around a new idea.
The too! was ill-designed for the task: Chadwick was hetter at
popularizing hasehall statistics than he was at thinking through
their meaning. He decided that walks were caused entirely hy the
pitcher — that the hitter had nothing to do with them. In his initial
hox score Chadwick recorded a walk as an error; even in the later
hox scores, after he had listened to, or at least heard, the ohvious
ohjections from others, Chadwick never credited the hitter. He
simply removed the walk altogether from the record hooks.
"There is hut one true criterion of skill at the hat," he wrote, "and
that is the numher of times hases are made on clean hits." Enter
the hatting average, ever since the chief measure of a player's
offensive value.*

The more you examined these old measurement devices, the
less apt they seemed. Chadwick, with help from others, had cre-

* For a fuller, more respectable account of the history of the box score, see lules
Tygiel's Past Time: Baseball As History (2000).



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 71

ated a system of perverse incentives for anyone v^ho trotted out
onto a baseball field. The fetish made of "runs batted in" was
another good example of the general madness. RBI had come to be
treated by baseball people as an individual achievement — free
agents were paid for their reputation as RBI machines when
clearly they were not. Big league players routinely swung at
pitches they shouldn't to lard their RBI count. Why did they get so
much credit for this? To knock runners in, runners needed to be
on base when you came to bat. There was a huge element of luck
in even having the opportunity, and what wasn't luck was, partly,
the achievement of others. "The problem," wrote James, "is that
baseball statistics are not pure accomplishments of men against
other men, which is what we are in the habit of seeing them as.
They are accomplishments of men in combination with their cir-
cumstances."

The failure of baseball people to acknowledge that fact in their
statistics led to exactly the sort of moral corruption Henry Chad-
wick, in creating them, had sought to eliminate. The many little
injustices and misunderstandings embedded in the game's records
spawned exotic inefficiencies. Baseball strategies were often
wrongheaded and baseball players were systematically misunder-
stood. Chadwick succeeded in creating a central role for statistics
in baseball, but in doing it he created the greatest accounting
scandal in professional sports.

Between Chadwick and James there had been fitful efforts to
rethink old prejudices. The legendary GM Branch Rickey
employed a professional statistician named Allan Roth who
helped to compose an article under Rickey's byline in Life maga-
zine in 1954 that argued for the importance of on-base and slug-
ging percentages over batting average. A professor of mechanical
engineering at Johns Hopkins, Earnshaw Cook, wrote two
pompous books, in prose crafted to alienate converts, that argued
for the relevance of statistical analysis in baseball. In the early



Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 6 of 24)