As a major league baseball player, Billy Beane was a gorgeous failure. He had the speed, a rocket arm from the outfield and the instincts. To top it off, he had matinee idol looks and charm to spare.
“Billy’s weakness,” according to author Michael Lewis, “was simple: he couldn’t hit. Or rather he hit sometimes but not others; and when he didn’t hit, he unraveled … He busted so many bats against so many walls that his teammates lost count. One time he destroyed the dugout toilet; another time, in a Triple-A game in Tacoma, he went after a fan in the stands, and proved to everyone’s satisfaction that fans, no matter what challenges they hollered from the safety of their seats, were better off not getting into fistfights with ballplayers.”
But Lewis’s latest book – he is also the author of Liar’s Poker and The New New Thing – isn’t really about Beane’s relatively short sojourn on the field of dreams. Rather, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, tells the fascinating story of how Beane has come tantalizingly close, as a general manager, to turning the Oakland Athletics – in recent years one of the poorest teams in baseball – into an Ugly Duckling success and a perennial playoff contender in one of the sport’s most competitive divisions.
In part by making sure that they don’t draft or trade for players that look anything like the way Billy Beane looked when he came into the major leagues: handsome athletes with a lot of potential who don’t pan out.
This has meant turning scouting theology on its ear, rejecting anecdote for statistics, mining for better statistics – more meaningful metrics, in business parlance – and looking for a different kind of baseball man for the front office and the scouting division, sometimes on Wall Street instead of Main Street, sometimes in the Ivy League rather than the Little League.
A high school phenomenon who chose pro ball over Stanford, Beane was drafted by the New York Mets in the same draft that brought Darryl Strawberry to the big leagues. Coming up in the Mets farm system, he roomed with Lenny Dykstra, who was destined for a permanent spot in the Mets outfield.
As Lewis tells us, they were two very different kinds of ball players and the contrast is instructive: “Lenny thought of himself and Billy as two buddies racing together down the same track, but Billy sensed differences between himself and Lenny. Physically, Lenny didn’t belong in the same league with him. He was half Billy’s size and had a fraction of Billy’s promise – which is why the Mets hadn’t drafted him until the 13th round. Mentally, Lenny was superior, which was odd, considering Lenny wasn’t what you’d call a student of the game. Billy remembers sitting with Lenny in a Mets dugout watching the opposing pitcher warm up. ‘Lenny says, “So who’s that big dumb ass out there on the hill?” And I say, “Lenny, you’re kidding me, right? That’s Steve Carlton. He’s maybe the greatest left-hander in the history of the game.” Lenny says, “Oh, yeah! I knew that!” He sits there for a minute and says, “So, what’s he got?” And I say, “Lenny, come on. Steve Carlton. He’s got heat and also maybe the nastiest slider ever.” And Lenny sits there for a while longer as if he’s taking that in. Finally he just says, “Shit, I’ll stick him.” I’m sitting there thinking, that’s a magazine cover out there on the hill and all Lenny can think is that he’ll stick him.’”
Once he had made it to the show, Beane didn’t last long with the Mets; they traded him to the Minnesota Twins and the Twins subsequently traded him to the Detroit Tigers and the Tigers finally to the Oakland A’s. He spent three and a half seasons bouncing back and forth between Triple-A ball and the big leagues before walking into the A’s front office in the spring of 1990 and telling them that he didn’t want to play anymore – more accurately it might be said that he had never really wanted to play pro ball. He wanted a front office job; he wanted to be an advance scout.
“Billy was entering what was meant to be his prime as a baseball player, and he’d decided that he’d rather watch than play,” Lewis writes. “‘I always say that I loved playing the game but I’m not sure that I really did,’ he said. ‘I never felt comfortable.’”
But if Beane had finally actually thought himself off the field, rather than simply out of the batter’s box, what was to happen next, both as he worked himself into the general manager’s position and in his moves since, was more interesting than the string of outs – and ruined bats – that had preceded it. Charitably put, what Lewis quickly leads us to see is that thinking was not necessarily any more welcome in the administrative end of the sporting world than it was on the field. Every sport is a complex mix: a game, a business, and then its own kind of theology as well. You mess with the latter at your own peril, professional and personal.
But that’s changing, slowly. And with Beane as the linch pin, Lewis tells us the story of how.
If a bleacher theologian would say that Beane, the people he’s drawn ideas from and the people who work for him are changing the spirit of the game, a rhetorician might say that the change in approach evidenced by the way the Oakland A’s choose and use players has to do with the battle between Anecdote and Statistics.
Old School baseball scouts, Lewis tells us, highly value The Example: what they have seen once, what they believe will happen again, or perhaps more accurately, what they hope will happen in the future based on their experience and judgment of talent. Under the Beane regime, the rules have changed:
“ … A young player is not what he looks like, or what he might become, but what he has done. As elementary as that might sound to someone who knew nothing about professional baseball, it counts as heresy here. The scouts even have a catch phrase for what Billy and others are up to – ‘performance scouting.’ Performance scouting in scouting circles is an insult. It directly contradicts the baseball man’s view that a young player is what you can see him doing in your mind’s eye. It argues that most of what’s important about a baseball player, maybe even including his character, can be found in his statistics.”
These numbers changes, this deep use of statistics, percolate down to how the A’s play the game as well: They bunt and steal, for example, far less than almost any other team in baseball. This can be traced to the influence of baseball analyst Bill James, one of the book’s other dominant characters and a strong influence on Beane and how the A’s have reshaped themselves. One of James’s seminal insights – still fiercely resisted by most coaching staffs and routinely ridiculed by most broadcasters – is that the most important thing a baseball team can do is not make outs. Thus, from a statistically sound base, James extrapolates that sacrifices and steals cost rather than win games. The math is clear and the A’s are winning on it; the tradition of competition and the mythology, however, are irresistible and much of the rest of baseball continues to squander their outs.
As to post-season play, in recent years the A’s have reliably made it to the play-offs but not yet grabbed World Series rings. In that regard, statistics may not be their allies.
As Lewis notes, “The play-offs frustrate rational management because, unlike the long regular season they suffer from the sample size problem … In a series of three out of five, or even four out of seven, anything can happen. In a five-game series, the worst team in baseball will beat the best about 15% of the time; the Devil Rays have a prayer against the Yankees.”
Lewis quotes Beane after the A’s elimination during the 2002 play-offs at the hands of the Minnesota Twins. He is rather more salty and succinct: “My shit doesn’t work in the play-offs,” Beane says. “My job is getting us to the play-offs. What happens after that is fucking luck.”
Well, there’s always next year. Grease up your gloves; fire up your laptops.