Moneyball takes a look at the world of baseball and how the underdog team the Oakland Athletics, who operated on one of the lowest budgets in the league took on the powerhouses of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
I don’t follow baseball and I’m not much of a fan of the sport. But after watching the film, which is based on the book, I thought I’d give the book a read.
It’s a much more interesting book than I thought it would be, even if you’re not a follower of baseball like me. Granted, there are some points in the book which are hard to follow. I don’t know the technical terminology of the sport, so it was hard to understand what everything meant, but it was still a good read.
Even if the book is focused on baseball, Moneyball is much more than that. It’s a look at how views can become entrenched over time and how any opposition to them, no matter how valid, can be ridiculed by those who deem themselves to be protectors of ‘traditions’ of the field in question.
Michael Lewis is one of my favourite authors. I enjoyed reading Flash Boys and The Fifth Risk, so I had no doubts I’d enjoy Moneyball despite the subject matter. Lewis has an innate ability to make a topic accessible to the reader even if they are unfamiliar with it.
I learnt a lot from this book and most of it wasn’t about baseball but how the human psyche works and our aversion to change and disruption.
Takeaway 1 – Humans are resistant to change
One of the many lessons I learnt from reading Moneyball was just how resistant people in baseball were to the changes that the Oakland Athletics were making.
For a long time, prospects in baseball had been judged by a variety of subjective beliefs such as their weight, their gait when they ran and the way they swung a bat or pitched a ball.
Anyone who is not familiar with baseball will understand that these are not useful metrics by which to measure a player’s ability. Our biases can lead us to underestimate other aspects that that eye cannot see.
Even though there was a wealth of statistics on baseball they were not utilised as efficiently as they could have been.
This is where the Oakland A’s came in. Ther General Manager, Billy Beane, decided he couldn’t compete with the likes of the Yankees, so he turned to statistics to try and find players who had been undervalued by the market.
By searching out inefficiencies in the market, he was able to compete with the big boys even when they poached his best players.
Despite this, there was resistance from a lot of figures in baseball who felt threatened by this new innovation and way of doing things. They reasoned that their way had worked for years, so why wouldn’t it work now?
Only it hadn’t been working and teams had been underestimating players they shouldn’t have and overvaluing others.
These baseball men had been doing things the same way for so long that they neglected to think that there might be a better and more efficient way to scout players.
Instead, they remained steadfast in their beliefs and closed themselves off to the possibility of change.
The lesson from this is that we have to adapt or die. Change is constantly happening, whether we choose to embrace it or resist it is up to us.
Takeaway 2 – Baseball is an unfair sport
My favourite sport is football and although money is a big factor, it’s not the deciding factor. Teams can be competitive without spending vast sums of money.
The success of Leicester City in 2016, winning the Premier League at odds of 5000-1 at the start of the season, is testament to this.
However, before the principles expressed in Moneyball became mainstream, baseball was an unfair sport. Teams such as the New York Yankees who had rich owners were at a much greater advantage than the smaller teams.
They were able to pick off the best players from the smaller teams and maintain their position. This leads to a two-tier championship, where the small teams become feeder clubs for the big teams.
Billy Beane realised this and resolved to do something about it. He knew that the Oakland A’s couldn’t compete for the same players as the Yankees, so they had to take a different approach.
By looking at inefficiencies in the market and finding players that were undervalued by the bigger teams he was able to make Oakland competitive.
The irony of this situation is that as the book progresses it becomes clear that other teams are looking at what Beane is doing and wondering why we can’t do that as well.
Beane may have made Oakland competitive for a few years, but once other teams with bigger wage bills start using the methods, Oakland is again at a disadvantage.
Sport is an unfair business, but baseball may be one of the cruellest of the lot.
Takeaway 3 – The first adopter is always derided
An interesting part of Moneyball is the afterword written by Lewis. In it, he describes how baseball writers and commentators were reluctant to praise Beane for his success.
Instead of lauding him for his unique approach to baseball recruitment, they took every opportunity they could to attack him.
When Oakland lost their playoff series against the Minnesota Twins in 2002, this was used as evidence that his approach was flawed. This neglected the fact that Oakland had broken the American League record for consecutive wins, with 20, a record which had stood since 1947.
This shows a selective reading of the situation and choosing to only see the flaws you want to see and ignoring the positives.
This was down to Beane being the first adopter. As he was the first person to make use of sabermetrics, the study of baseball statistics, he was bound to face a backlash from parts of the baseball establishment resistant to change.
Unfortunately, this is common in most walks of life. People are resistant to change when they feel it attacks part of their identity or their job.
The baseball pundits, writers and scouts who were in favour of the status quo felt threatened by change. They felt they would lose their positions of power and influence if the principles of Moneyball caught on.
This explains the venom directed at Beane. He represented an existential threat to their profession. Instead of turning to them for the answers to the mysteries of baseball, they could turn to statistics instead, as Beane had done.
Change is inevitable, you cannot avoid it. But for those who wish to, whoever tries to smash through the door first is the one who will receive the brunt of the criticism.
- “ The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality.”
- “What begins as a failure of the imagination ends as a market efficiency: when you rule out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job.”
- “Managers tend to pick a strategy that is the least likely to fail, rather than to pick a strategy that is most efficient. The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move.”
- “No matter how successful you are, change is always good. There can never be a status quo. When you have no money you can’t afford long-term solutions, only short-term ones. You have to always be upgrading. Otherwise, you’re f*cked.”
- “If you challenge conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.” –Bill James
This Moneyball summary has detailed some of the talking points of Michael Lewis’ excellent book. As someone who doesn’t like baseball, I found it to be an enjoyable read.
If you’ve seen the film version, you’ll be familiar with the narrative, bu the book goes into deeper detail.
We learn more about Beane, his motives and his desire to compete and how this leads him to embrace sabermetrics.
One of the most illuminating bits of the book is the section on that discipline itself. I’m partial to statistics in sports, but the love of it baseball supersedes anything I’ve seen in other sports.
A primary lesson I learnt from this book is that if you’re the first mover with a new theory, or way of doing something, you’re going to get called out.
Beane got ridiculed for his approach, yet it was he who had the last laugh when his method took Oakland to the playoffs and when they broke the record for the most game won in a row.
If you want to read about conventional wisdom can be overturned, then Moneyball is the book for you!
Who should read Moneyball?
If you’re a fan of Michael Lewis, then you’ll find this book interesting too. He is one of a select group of writers who can turn any subject, no matter how bland it may seem, into a rip-roaring ride.
I’m not sure whether non-sports fans will enjoy the book, but given it reads in a narrative format, you may enjoy it.