Book Review: Moneyball By Michael Lewis

Several years after purchasing the book, I finally decided to read Moneyball. Although familiar with the popular meaning of the term and in possession of vague memories of an early 2010s film starring Brad Pitt, something had always kept me from it. On reflection, I suppose I had a pre-conceived idea of what the book would be like based on its central idea: that a cash-strapped Major League Baseball team, through the adoption of a data-informed approach to player recruitment, could outperform its wealthier rivals. I imagined myself choking on statistics and reading equations spanning several lines. In other words, I thought Moneyball would be no fun at all. Its greatest triumph is that it knocks this particular assumption, as baseball fans would say: ‘out of the park’.

The book reads like a novel and every baseball term and statistic is skilfully woven into the story of the characters that were pivotal to the instigation of arguably the most transformative experiment undertaken in modern sporting times. Top of the list of those involved is Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s, a compulsive, obsessive and anger-prone former baseball player, who happens to be the perfect captain of a ship that according to the tobacco-chewing, cliché-loving baseball commentariat is on a one-way voyage to oblivion. Once the most sought-after baseball prodigy in America, Beane, having been earmarked for greatness by scouts, endured an underwhelming professional career despite all of the game’s supposed experts endorsements. With the help of Havard Economics graduate Paul DePodesta, Beane is subsequently able to cut through the scouting tropes that incorrectly singled him (and many other young baseball players after him) out as future stars and build a revolutionary data-led method of constructing a team in which player selections are informed not by whether a player will look good fronting an ad campaign, but the statistical merits of their sporting performance.

Living in today’s world, this may be appear as little more than common sense, but given that Beane’s experiment was undertaken during the turn of the last millennium and ran into the early noughties, a time when technology was much more primitive, there is little doubt that he and his team’s work was at the time, ground breaking. As the approach unsurprisingly begins to bear fruit, details of the baseball scouting fraternity’s attempts to dispel it are relayed. Here the desperation and denial of a previously unchallenged ‘old boys club’ accustomed to justifying their endorsement of a player simply by spouting a few aphorisms as sagely as possible is laid bare and provides unrelenting tension throughout the book. Billy Beane and his team know that the earth is round, but no matter how loud they shout it and how many photos they show, the baseball establishment just will not listen.

The lines are drawn. Beane et al are the innovators and the rest of baseball world are burying their heads in the sand. Moneyball good. Baseball bad. But is it as simple as that? Personally, I didn’t think that it was. Clearly Beane and his team are pioneers in one sense, but are they pioneers for the better? There are several mentions of Wall Street in the book and at certain points Beane is described as buying and selling players as though they are little more than shares in a company. For me this left a sour taste, not with Beane or the sport of baseball in particular, but for the way in which capitalism has managed to slyly interweave itself with all of the world’s most popular sports. Players are not sentient breathing beings, they are commodities to be bought and sold at will in the pursuit of sporting success and to hell with the real-life consequences. Beane is simply a stockbroker who managed to ‘short’ conventional market wisdom.

Rating: 4/5 While I’m not sure Moneyball is altogether a good thing for the world of sport, this was by far the most engaging sports book I’ve ever read.  

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