Moneyball ( 2003 ) by Michael Lewis is a really fine book about how carefully using numbers can improve things, in this case the performance of a baseball team. Lewis was a bond trader who wrote the also excellent Liar’s Poker .The book is well written, has an interesting subject and has had a real impact on the way baseball is managed and played. There is also going to be a film based on the book coming out in 2011.

The book looks primarily at the Oakland Athletics (A’s) and their general manager Billy Beane. Baseball has no salary cap so teams have payrolls that differ by 3-4 times. This season the New York Yankees paid their team 209 million while the Oakland A’s paid their players only 47. There is a full list on wikipedia . Given such huge differences the A’s had to find a way to be more efficient with who they select and how they play.

Baseball is a game with a plethora of statistics so it an ideal game for objectively working out which players and teams are really good. However, the way that it has traditionally worked is largely hit and miss. In particular the purchasing of new players tended to focus on how athletic players were rather than their effectiveness. Ironically, the sort of player that has traditionally been picked is someone like Billy Beane himself, who was a prodigious athlete and was expected to perform brilliantly in the major league baseball but instead went on to have a mediocre career.

Sabermetrics, which is the analysis of baseball through careful statistics grew rapidly in the 1970s. Bill James started publishing a book called The Bill James Baseball Abstract. This book was bought by many people who would go on to better analyze how baseball worked. Baseball had statistics since the 1800s but these didn’t measure things that led to being able to predict who would do well. Sabermatricians with computers and modern statistical techniques were able to make better predictions. Rather than attempt to use these techniques major league baseball ignored and ridiculed them.

Billy Beane was the general manager of the A’s. The general manager is the person who hires and fire the team. Beane adopted sabermetric techniques. They worked well, allowing the A’s to perform far better than their payroll would suggest they could.

The book itself is interesting, Lewis wanted to write a book about baseball in general but decided that Beane and the A’s were much more interesting. The irony is that the methods the A’s adopted have since been adopted around the league so the A’s advantage is lessening. But it does make for a fine story.

The book is highly recommended for anyone with any interest in how stats can be used or in sports and ideally in both. Lewis is a fun, engaging writer. It’s a good story, well told about an interesting subject.

4.5 / 5


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