Michael (Michael M.) Lewis.

Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

. (page 8 of 24)
Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 8 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of critical data simply went unrecorded: how batters fared in dif-
ferent counts and different game situations, who was pitching
when a base was stolen, how different outfielders affected the audac-
ity of runners on the base paths, where hits landed and how hard



84 MONEYBflLL

they were hit, how manv pitches a pitcher threw in a game. The
lack of critical data meant that "we as analysts ot the game are
blocked oft from the basic source of information which we need to
undertake an incalculable variety of investigative studies."

The movement to take the understanding of professional base-
ball away from baseball professionals, dubbed by lames "Proiect
Scoresheet," soon combined with a small, failing business created
by Dick Cramer, called STATS Inc., that was designed to do much
the same thing. The goal of STATS Inc. had been, in Cramer's
words, "to set down the primary events that occurred in a baseball
game as completely as possible." Back in 1980, STATS Inc. had set
out to sell this sort of intormation to baseball teams, but the
teams wanted ncnhing to do with it. Cramer pressed on: to big
league baseball games, beginning in the spring of 1 98 1 with an
exhibition game between the Chicago Cubs and the Oakland A's
(future A's scout Matt Keough got the winl, the company sent its
own scorekeepers. Along with all the usual data, these poorly paid
people recorded play-by-play information about the games that
had never before been svstematically collected: the pitch count at
the end of at bats, pitch types and locations, the direction and dis-
tance of batted balls. They broke the field down into twenty-six
wedges radiating out from home plate. A fly ball's distance was
judged to be where it landed; a ground ball's, where it was picked
up. If a player singled and advanced to second on an error by the
right fielder, the play was recorded as two separate events. All of
this was new and, to the movement analysts, essential if you
wanted to get to the guts of the game.

The people who were paid to manage professional teams failed
to see the point. They hadn't even bothered to compile the infor-
mation they needed to analyze their actions intelligently. Pre-
sented with new information by STATS Inc., they showed little
interest in it, even when it was offered to them gratis. The CEO of
STATS Inc., lohn Dewan, said that "You had general managers and
managers who had played the game. How could someone who all



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 85

they knew is computers tell them anything that would make
them more successful? I remember calling the White Sox, almost
as a matter of courtesy, and telling them 'Hey, when Frank
Thomas plays first base, he hits seventy points better than when
he DH's.' Nobody cared to know it." Every eighteen months
STATS Inc. would hire another bright, well-educated young man
who simply could not believe that major league baseball teams did
not want to know things that might help them win games. He
would then proceed to hurl himself into the business of selling
STATS Inc. to baseball teams. He always quit, disillusioned. "The
people who run baseball are surrounded by people trying to give
them advice," said James. "So they've built very effective walls to
keep out anything."

It wasn't as simple as the unease of jocks in the presence of
nerds. Professional baseball was happy to have intellectuals hang-
ing around the clubhouse and the commissioner's office and the
GM's suite. Well, perhaps not happy, but not disturbed either, so
long as the intellectuals had no practical consequences for how
baseball was played, and by whom. Baseball offered a comfortable
seat to the polysyllabic wonders who quoted dead authors and
blathered on about the poetry of motion. These people dignified
the game, like a bow tie. They were harmless. What was threat-
ening was cold, hard intelligence.

STATS Inc. founder Dick Cramer told a story with the flavor of
the deeper problem. In the early days, through fluky circum-
stances, Cramer had sold his data collection and analysis service
to the Houston Astros. The Astros' CM, Al Rosen, wanted to
know how the team would be affected if the Astrodome's fences
were moved in. Would the team, as currently composed, do better
or worse in a smaller, more hitter-friendly park? Cramer ran the
numbers — showing the relative propensity of the Astros versus
their opponents to hit long pop flies — and told Rosen, "Sorry, if
you do that, you lose more games." Instead of deciding not to
move the fences in, Rosen decided that the information could



86 MONEYBflLL

never be made public. "All of a sudden it is classified informa-
tion," said Cramer, "It was 'We can't tell anyone! My God, we
can't let this information get out! Imagine the effect on our pitch-
ers!'" They didn't want the information lo inform the decision.
They'd already made the decision. (They believed home runs sold
tickets.) They wanted the information, m some sense, to avoid
having to deal with its implications.

In 1985, STATS Inc. gave up trying to sell their superior data to
teams and began to sell it to fans. Then timing could not have
been better: the baseball fan was changing in a way that made him
a natural customer of STATS Inc. A new kind ot tan, with a quasi-
practical interest in baseball .statistics, had been invented. In 19S0
a group of friends, led bv Sports IlhistriitccI writer Dan C^krent,
met at La Rotisserie Frangaise, a restaurant in Manhattan, and cre-
ated what became known, to the confusion oi a nation, as Rotis-
serie Baseball. Okrent can plausibly be said to have "discovered"
Bill lames. Okrent was one of those seventy-five people who, in
1977, ran across the one-inch ad in The Sporting News lames took
out and sent off his check to Lawrence, Kansas. Back came an
unpromising mimeograph. Then he read it. "I was absolutely
dumbstruck," he said. "I couldn't believe that (a) this guy existed
and (hi he hadn't been discovered."

Okrent flew to Lawrence to make sure lames indeed existed,
then wrote a piece about hini tor Sports lUustnitcd. It was killed:
James's arrival on the national sporting scene was delayed by a
year, after the Sports Illustrated fact-checker spiked the piece.
"She went through it line by line," recalled Okrent, "saying,
'Everyone knows this isn't true. Everyone knows that Nolan Ryan
attracted a bigger crowd when he pitched, that Gene Tenace was a
bad hitter, that . . .'" Conventional opinions about baseball play-
ers and baseball strategies had acquired the authority of fact, and
the Sports Illustrated fact-checking department was not going to
let evidence to the contrary see print. The following year, an edi-
tor who had been unable to shake Okrent's piece from his mind



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 87

asked Okrent to try again. He did, and the piece was published,
and Bill James was introduced to a wider audience. The year after
that, 1982, a New York publisher, Ballantine Books, brought out
the Baseball Abstract, and made it a national best-seller.

Many of James's new readers were Rotisserie Baseball fanatics.
The game, which sought to simulate an actual baseball game, put
the players in the role of general manager of a team of real life
baseball players, which he picked himself from actual teams. Each
morning he'd get up and go to the box scores in the newspaper to
calculate how his "team" had done. Over the next decade some
immeasurable but vast number of Americans — millions, cer-
tainly — took to the game, many of them obsessively. That they
should have developed a special interest in Bill James was strange,
in a way. The fantasy games were premised on the old-fashioned
statistics, the pre-Jamesean understanding of baseball. The general
manager of a Rotisserie team measured his success by toting up
batting averages, RBIs, stolen bases, and so on. To win one's Rotis-
serie League you needed to behave pretty much like bone-headed
general managers. You needed to overpay for RBIs and batting
averages and stolen bases; you had no use for on-base and slugging
percentages. You certainly didn't need access to the growing cor-
pus of new baseball knowledge. Rotisserie Baseball was, if any-
thing, a force for encouraging the conventional view of baseball.

Nevertheless! The fans were more keenly interested in the
information they needed to make intelligent baseball decisions —
even if they themselves did not directly benefit from making
intelligent baseball decisions — than the people who ran the real
teams. They needed it, or thought they needed it, to win their fan-
tasy games. As James later admitted, the desire to win these games
had been a chief motive for his original rethinking of the game.
Before the sophisticated baseball fantasy leagues there had been
sophisticated table-top baseball games. "I used to be in a table-
game league," James confessed to his readers a decade later. "This
was ten, twelve years ago. ... It was during this period, in trying



68 MONEYBflLL

to win that league, that I became obsessed with how an offense
works and why it doesn't work sometimes . . . with finding what
information you would need to have to simulate baseball in a
more accurate way. I had thought about these things before, of
course, but to win that damn [table league] I had to know."

lames knew better than lust about anyone on the planet just
how many people were taking to these fantasy games, and how
widespread was the desire to play at being the general manager of
a big league baseball team, and, thcrctore, how deep the interest in
baseball statistics. He became an investor and creative directt)r of
the newly energized .STATS Inc. The company grew rapidly — ESPN
was a customer from the start and USA Todciy soon became one.
It became the leading source oi information to the baseball fan
until It was sold in 1999 for $4S million to Fox News Corporation.

The company was a success, but of a curious kind: what should
have happened didn't happen. What should have happened is this:
real, as opposed to fantasy, general managers would engage with
this new, growing bodv of knowledge. The lamesean movement
set the table for the geeks to rush in and take over the general
management oi the game. Evervwhere one turned in competitive
markets, technology was offering the people who understood it an
edge. What was happening to capitalism should have happened to
baseball: the technical man with his analvtical magic should have
risen to prominence in baseball management, lust as he was rising
to prominence on, say, Wall Street.

What the baseball professionals did do, on occasion, beginning
in the early 1980s, was to hire some guy who knew how to switch
on the computer. But they did this less with honest curiosity than
in the spirit ot a beleaguered visitor to Morocco hiring a tour
guide: pay off one so that the seventy-five others will stop trying
to trade you their camels for your wife. Which one you pay off is
largely irrelevant. Some stat head would impress himself upon a
general manager as the sort of guy who crunched numbers and the
GM would find him a small office in the back.



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 89

The lack of discrimination of the few baseball GMs who went
shopping for a James manque led to what might be called Elephant
Man moments. The Elephant Man moment came when the beat
reporter for the local team pulled back the curtain on the front
office and revealed the shriveled-up fellow with bizarre facial hair
punching numbers into a Mac. The brains of the operation! The
crowd invariably shrieked and recoiled. The most dramatic Ele-
phant Man moment was probably when an oddity named Mike
Gimbel hired by the Boston Red Sox didn't wait to be exposed but
bodily hurled himself into the Boston sports pages, by claiming
responsibility for the shrewd moves made by the Red Sox GM, Dan
Duquette. The Boston Globe explained to Red Sox fans that this
new intellectual force behind the team was "a Queens Commu-
nity College dropout, a self-taught computer programmer and a
Rotisserie League fanatic whose Brooklyn loft was raided three
years ago by police because of his six pet caimans — South American
alligators — that he kept in an indoor pond in his loft. The cops also
confiscated his five turtles and an iguana." The New England Sports
Service ran the same story with the headline: Stats Freak Has
Duquette's Ear. "By day Gimbel lives in Brooklyn and works for
the Bureau of Water Supply in New York," it began, groping for just
the right combination of words and images to infuriate the Red
Sox season ticket holder. "It's as if a computer savvy Ed Norton had
become the Red Sox secret weapon. Gimbel is unorthodox in virtu-
ally every way. In 80 degree Florida weather yesterday, Gimbel
appeared ready for a trip to Siberia, with long pants, a long sleeve
shirt and a jacket. His approach to evaluating baseball is more out
of the ordinary. He cautions against watching too many games. ..."

Duquette waited until the end of the season, then let Gimbel
know his contract wouldn't be renewed — thus proving to the
world just how critical he was to the Boston Red Sox.

By the early 1990s it was clear that "sabermetrics," the search
for new baseball knowledge, was an activity that would take place
mainly outside of baseball. You could count on one hand the num-



90 MONEYBflLL

ber of "sabermetricians" inside of baseball, and none of them
appears to have had much effect. After a while they seemed more
like fans who second-guessed the general manager than advisers
who influenced decisions. They were forever waving printouts to
show how foolish the GM had been not to have taken their advice.
A man named Craig Wright spent manv frustrating vears as the
sabermetncian with the Texas Rangers, and then many more con-
sulting other big league teams. He eventuallv quit his profession
altogether. "I needed to be a GM if I was going to see my stuff ever
used," he said. "And 1 never even got asked to interview for a sin-
gle GM job." Eddie Epstein— the young government economist
whose interest in baseball analvsis had been inflamed bv lames's
writing — got himself hired bv the Baltimore Orioles and the San
Diego Padres but he, too, wound up quitting in a hutf. The Padres
executive responsible for hiring him, Larrv Lucchino, freely
acknowledged that the small group inside baseball searching for
new baseball knowledge "was a cult. The cult status of it meant
it was something that could be discarded easily. There was a pro-
fusion of new knowledge and it was ignored."

Well into the late 199()s you didn't have to look at big league
baseball very closely to see its fierce unwillingness to rethink any-
thing. It was as if It had been inoculated against outside ideas. For
instance, a new kind ot rich person named lohn Henry bought the
Florida Marlins in lanuary 1999. Most baseball owners were either
heirs, or empire builders oi one sort or another, or both. Henry had
made his money in the intelligent end of the tinancial markets. He
had an instinctive feel for the way statistical analysis could turn
up inefficiencies in human affairs. Inefficiencies in the financial
markets had made Henry a billionaire — and he saw some familiar
idiocies in the market for baseball players. As Henry later wrote in
a letter to ESPN's Rob Ncycr:

People in both fields operate with beliefs and biases. To the
extent you can eliminate both and replace them with data, you



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 91

gain a clear advantage. Many people think they are smarter than
others in the stock market and that the market itself has no
intrinsic intelligence — as if it's inert. Many people think they
are smarter than others in baseball and that the game on the
field is simply what they think it is through their set of
images/beliefs. Actual data from the market means more than
individual perception/belief. The same is true in baseball.

Henry was, unsurprisingly, a longtime Bill James reader. Even
after he became the owner of a real big league baseball team,
Henry continued to play in a sophisticated fantasy league in
which he deployed Jamesean tools and, as he put it, "cleaned up.
I won every year." But the real baseball team he owned continued
to be run as if Bill James had never existed, and it didn't clean up
anything but its shattered pride after ninety-eight losses.

The problem Henry faced was social and political. For a man
who had never played professional baseball to impose upon even a
pathetic major league franchise an entirely new way of doing
things meant alienating the baseball insiders he employed: the
manager, the scouts, the players. In the end, he would have been
ostracized by his own organization. And what was the point of
being in baseball if you weren't in baseball?

Right from the start Bill James assumed he had been writing for,
not a mass audience, but a tiny group of people intensely inter-
ested in baseball. He wound up with a mass audience and went
largely unread by the people most intensely interested in baseball:
the men who ran the teams. Right through the 1980s and 1990s,
James experienced only two responses to his work from baseball
professionals. The first was opportunism from player agents, who
wanted him to help them to demonstrate, in salary arbitration
meetings with the teams, that their clients were underpaid. The
other was hostility from the subcontractors who kept the stats for
Major League Baseball.

When the Jamesean movement first took shape, the attitude



92 MONEYBflLL

toward baseball statistics inside the company whose job it was to
keep the official statistics for Major League Baseball was an odd
mixture of possessiveness and indifference. In the late 1970s, the
baseball writer Dan Okrent, with two colleagues from book pub-
lishing, went to pitch an idea to the CEO of the Elias Sports Bureau,
Seymour Siwoff. The idea, recalled Okrent, "was to trv to per-
suade him to collaborate with us on a painstakingly detailed,
under-the-fingernails things you never knew book about baseball
stats. The image is indelible: We are sitting there with this guy
who looks like a superannuated ferret, his pale skinnv arms pro-
truding from the billowing short sleeves ot his white-on-white
shirt, and he brushes us off with a dismissive wave of his hand.
'Boys,' he said, nobody gives a shit about this stuff.'"

In 198S the Elias Bureau finallv woke up and published a book,
a virtual twin in outward appearance to the 19H5 Baseball Abstract,
called the 19HS Elias Baseball Analvst. (The superannuated ferret
was a co-author.) Akhough the company finally divulged some of
the statistics they had long withheld from lames and other ana-
lysts, they failed to do anything much with them. The writers imi-
tated lames's prose style but, lacking anything interesting to say,
they wound up sounding empty and arch. lames was happy to con-
firm the casual reader's impression that the Elias Bureau had a
whiff of Salieri about it. "When the Baseball Abstract hit the best-
seller lists," lames wrote in his final Abstract,

the (Elias Bureau) launched their own competitor, the main pur-
poses of which were to:

a) make money

b) steal all of my ideas

cl make as many disparaging comments as possible about me
So that was a lot of fun.

The effect on James of being ignored by the people who stood to
benefit the most from his work was to distance himself even fur-



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 93

ther from those people. In his earlier writings James often tried to
explain what he was up to, in such a way that it might invite base-
ball professionals to pay attention. His instinct, at first, was to
assume that the people who actually managed baseball teams had
some good reason for what they were doing, even when what they
were doing struck him as foolish. A few years into his career, he
clearly decided that baseball professionals would benefit from
being smacked on the head by a two-by-four. In his commentary
about the Cleveland Indians that year, for instance, he wrote that
"during the winter I was told something about the Indians' front
office that really shocked me. They're dumb. You know, not
bright, slow." He went on to explain how he at first refused to
accept stupidity as an explanation for the Indians' ineptitude
because "there is so much hope invested in a ball club, there are
so many people who care about the fortunes even of the Indians
and who are honestly hurt, if only in passing (but we are all only
passing) that it just seems inconceivable that these fortunes could
be entrusted to someone who is incapable of taking care of them.
Are children allowed to play catch with the family jewels? ... I
have a correspondent who is an avid Indians fan, a professor of
math at a fine university. He understands what needs to be done.
Why can't he be given the job?"

Seven years into his literary career, in the 1984 Baseball
Abstract, James formally gave up any hope that baseball insiders
would be reasonable. "When I started writing I thought if I proved
X was a stupid thing to do that people would stop doing X," he
said. "I was wrong." He began his opening essay of 1984, omi-
nously, by pointing out the boom in sports journalism that prom-
ised to take you "inside the game." The media had become
hell-bent on giving the superficial impression of allowing the fan
a glimpse of the heart of every matter. Just to glance at the titles
on TV shows and magazine articles you might think that there
was nothing left inside to uncover.

It was all a lie. "What has really happened," James wrote, "is



94 MONEYBflLL

that the walls between the public and the participants of sports
are growing higher and higher and thicker and darker, and the
media is developing a sense of desperation about the whole thing."
What was true about baseball was true about other spheres of
American public lite and, to James, the only sensible approach was
to drop the pretense and embrace one's status as an outsider. "This
IS outside baseball, " he wrote. "This is a book about what baseball
looks like if you step back from it and study it intensely and
minutely, but from a distance." It wasn't that it was better to be
an outsider; it was necessary. "Since we are outsiders," he wrote,
"since the players are going to put up walls to keep us out here, let
us use our position as outsiders to what advantage we can."

From here until lames quit writing his Abstract iour vears later
he might as well have declared open season on insiders. He became
somewhat slower to concede baseball professionals might have a
point. One sentence serves as a fair summarv ot James's attitude
toward the inside: "I think, reallv, that this is one reason that so
many intelligent people drift awav from baseball (when thev come
of age), that it vou care about it at all vou have to realize, as soon
as you acquire a taste for independent thought, that a great portion
of the sport's traditional knowledge is ridiculous hokum."

As baseball's leading analvst, James slid between two stools.
Baseball insiders thought of him as scmie weird kind oi lournalist
who had no real business with them. Raseball outsiders thought of
hini as a statistician who knew technical things about baseball. A
number cruncher. A propeller head. Even after he had become
known for his books — even after he changed the way many read-
ers thought not only about baseball but about other things too —
James never got himself thought of as a "writer."* That was a pity.



* when the Lihrary of America puhhshed its wonderful anthology of America's
great baseball writing m 2001, it mcluded pieces by Robert Frost and lobn Updike
and other fancy literary types, none of whom ever said anything as interesting
about baseball as Bill James, and yet, inexplicably, nothing at all by James.



FIELD OF IGNORANCE 95

A number cruncher is precisely what James was not. His work
tested many hypotheses about baseball directly against hard data —
and sometimes did violence to the laws of statistics. But it also
tested, less intentionally, a hypothesis about literature: if you write
well enough about a single subject, even a subject seemingly as
trivial as baseball statistics, you needn't write about anything else.

The trouble was that baseball readers were not ready for what
he had to say. The people who found him worth reading struck
him, increasingly, as ridiculous. His skeptical detachment from
the world around him helped him to become a writer but it left
him ill-suited to be a best-selling one. "I hate to say it and I hope
you're not one of them," he wrote in his final, 1988 Baseball
Abstract, "but I am encountering more and more of my own read-



Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 8 of 24)