The *real* meaning of Moneyball

“The first thing they did was run you.”

That’s how Michael Lewis opens his seminal book Moneyball, which charts the story of the Oakland A’s 2002 season and the wider movement of data in baseball. It’s a good first line; it grabs you.

But it has nothing to do with what ‘Moneyball’ really is…

Everyone’s at least heard of the phrase, the M-word, by now. Applied to football, it conjures images of transfer committees, spreadsheets, and clubs you’ve heard of signing players you haven’t. Maybe even Alex Stewart’s ‘Football Manager meets Moneyball’ series which, in actual fact, used tips from Soccernomics (Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski) and The Numbers Game (Chris Anderson and David Sally) rather than Moneyball itself, although there was conceptual overlap.

Still, Moneyball is one of those books that everyone will say they’ve read even if they haven’t. It — the title — is a wonderful word. But what are the actual messages of the book?

“The first thing they did was run you.”

I said that the opening line has nothing to do with Moneyball but I was perhaps exaggerating. It’s related, but the way that Michael Lewis uses the line sets the book up on a narrative path that diverts away from the real meaning of what the A’s were doing.

Michael Lewis spends the opening pages of the book crafting the character of Billy Beane, painting a vignette to the reader to try and explain why he is how he is. Billy Beane was a future star, this section tells us. Not only was Billy Beane a future star, Billy Beane looked like a future star. Tall, muscular, handsome; to use a phrase from later in the book, he could sell jeans. But he never made it as a successful pro-baseball player.

The way the book tells it, Beane struggled to find a dispassionate enough sporting mentality that would allow him to fail and improve, and ultimately succeed. He had a fiery anger that he turned inward on himself whenever he couldn’t hit the ball at the plate. And when his career ultimately flamed out, Beane turned that fire on the old-school system that had sold him a dream — the scouts’ dreams — and set him up to fail.

‘Billy Beane versus baseball’ is the story the book is telling when it opens with “The first thing they did was run you”. ‘Billy Beane versus baseball’ is not a message of whatever philosophy the word ‘Moneyball’ is meant to represent.

The chapter of the book on Bill James and the history of sabermetrics has a similar tone: a man, engaging in person but angry at the world, rages against the establishment. Reading the Afterword, this isn’t a surprise: “As far as they [the people at the Oakland A’s] knew I [Michael Lewis] wasn’t even writing a book about the Oakland A’s. I was writing a book about the collision of reason and baseball.” It was only after talking to people within the sport that he realised that Oakland was (one of the) only places that collision was happening.

The reason why I say that this ‘Billy Beane versus baseball’ message isn’t one that should be internalised is encapsulated in this passage from chapter 5:

Billy Beane was a human arsenal built, inadvertently, by professional baseball to attack its customs and rituals. He thought himself to be fighting a war aginst subjective judgements, but he was doing something else, too.

At one point [A’s scout] Chris Pittaro said that the thing that struck him about Billy — what set him apart from most baseball insiders — was his desire to find players unlike himself. Billy Beane had gone looking for, and found, his antitheses.

Billy Beane searching for ‘his antitheses’ is a bit of dramatising, but it’s an idea Lewis returns to again and again. That not only was Beane inoculated against some of baseball’s biases by being an example of their failures himself, but that he was actively choosing to go against them.

In reality, Beane was overlooking the superficial aspects of a player (good looks, mainly, it seems) to look for the skills that matter. But the way the book portrays it, this project is about finding weirdos specifically because they’re weird; and that seems as potentially a damaging bias as the one Beane was supposedly fighting against.

Interestingly, there’s one aspect of the old-school scout that the book (very quietly) shows to be useful: character assessments. Going purely by the storytelling of Michael Lewis — because that’s all the knowledge of Beane’s playing career I have — it should have been abundantly clear that this prospect was struggling.

The moment Billy failed, he went looking for something to break. One time after Billy struck out, he whacked his aluminum bat against a wall with such violence that he bent it at a right angle.

The next time he came to the plate he was still so furious with himself that he insisted on hitting with the crooked bat.

That sounds like something that the old guard would’ve, could’ve, and should’ve caught on to. The way it’s written, anyone turning up to watch Beane play more than a couple of times was likely to see this side of him, which would have sparked a concern that they wouldn’t have needed to consult the stats to double-check.

But baseball scouts, Lewis tells us, looked for the five ‘tools’ in young players. Could they run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power.

There were two problems with this.

The first is encapsulated by kid-Beane, and by one of the prospects that the A’s scouts suggest to adult-Beane before the 2002 amateur draft. Kid-Beane could run, throw, field, hit with power, and he could hit, but erratically. In the drafting scene, a name gets thrown about who “[is] an athlete”… but can’t hit. In both cases, scouts were blinded by how the player looked, and what they imagined these strapping young men could become, and couldn’t properly see their actual skills.

But the second problem is that the skills weren’t actually the ones needed. Little point in kid-Beane being able to hit with power if he’s turning up at the plate with an anger management problem-induced crooked bat. Moneyball makes the point several times that pitchers shouldn’t be solely judged on their velocity, that variety and deception are key to getting hitters out. For the hitters themselves, knowing when to leave balls outside the plate, or that they can’t do anything with, is a key skill too.

The concept of a ‘Five Tool Guy’ — a phrase used in the book — could probably still be applicable, it’s just that the tools have got to be useful. That’s one of the keys of Moneyball: what are the useful skills?

You can find out what the useful skills are with statistics, which is what most people take away from Moneyball, but that needn’t be the only way. (To an outsider like me), it should have been obvious that a pitcher’s variations, in addition to their pure speed, is what makes them dangerous. It was obvious enough to the players:

“You know how many times [Jamie] Moyer jams guys with an eighty-mile-an-hour fastball?” says [Scott] Hatteberg. “All the time. It’s because he sets it up with a sixty-nine-mile-an-hour change-up.” He fast-forwards to a slow curve, and an even slower change-up. “See,” he says, “All this other shit is what makes his fastball look like ninety-four.” [Chapter 8]

But the value of knowing which skills are important would have been far less useful to the A’s were it not for one of the underrated skills the book shows. Billy Beane’s soft skills.

It helps that Michael Lewis had a history in finance and was drawn to the trading aspect of Beane’s job. Who knows how much writerly polish there might be on these scenes, but when Beane is wheeling and dealing it’s compelling and, by all accounts, it’s effective too.

He also comes across as a great manager of people, partly thanks to many of the things — the charm, the intelligence, the knowledge — that made him such a good player trader. But also:

Most GMs hadn’t played the game and tended to be physically intimated in the presence of big league players. Billy had not only played, he might as well wear a sign around his neck that said: I’ve been here, so don’t go trying any of that big league bullshit on me.

Hell of a soft skill.

My favourite example of Beane’s people management, though, is sort of an aside in chapter 11. Lewis tells us that the GM had stopped by a player called Ramon Hernandez’s locker and made a bet with him where one would pay the other each time Hernandez dealt with a certain type of pitch in a certain type of way.

The point of the exercise, Billy now says, is “it gives me an excuse to henpick Ramon. It’s a subversive way for me to keep nagging the shit out of him without him knowing it.”

Honestly, signing up for a communications class is as much of a takeaway from Moneyball as signing up for a computer class.

And now, finally, the stats. It is amusing, laughably so, how simply baseball seems to be solved. On the hitting side, it seems like it all comes down to on-base and slugging percentages. And Paul DePodesta, Billy Beane’s quant guy, works out the heresy that one extra point of on-base percentage is worth three times an extra point of slugging percentage. The dude ran one formula and came to a(n apparently) correct conclusion that even the other stats nerds hadn’t found out.

From my limited understanding of baseball, it’s a sport where the scoring system builds in a more linear way than football. Four players in a row getting singles can be a run batted in. There’s a lot of tangible value in getting on-base.

Football analytics has shown just how little tangible value there is in the vast majority of things done on the football pitch. It’s a sport of ~150-200 possessions per match and the two teams will combine to score three goals. It’s a sport that’s designed to make you wonder about the point of your own existence. It’s hard to find what’s undervalued when the value of almost everything seems to be next-to-zero.

That happy thought brings me to Beane’s five rules for player trading, number 3 particularly [for the record, I’m paraphrasing the book]:

  1. Change is good; not having money means only short-term solutions exist; always be upgrading
  2. Number two is actually two: i) when you have to do something, you’re screwed, because you’ll make a bad deal ii) you can recover from a player you don’t sign but you might never recover from a player you sign for the wrong price
  3. Know the value of every player. You can put a dollar value on it
  4. Know what you want and get it
  5. Ignore the media

There’s another rule I want to add in, that comes from Lewis’ Afterword to the version of the book I have (written, presumably, after the original publication of the first edition in 2003). It’s part of an answer to a question posed by a hypothetical objector to the book, about why the A’s don’t score more runs.

Still, the A’s on-base percentage retains one important trait: it’s good for the money. And the point is not to have the highest on-base percentage, but to win games as cheaply as possible. And the way to win games cheaply is to buy the qualities in a baseball player that the market undervalues, and sell the ones that the market overvalues.

That’s Moneyball.

But I’ll bring this part-review, part-blog about Moneyball to a close with the person both the book and the movie finish on: Jeremy Brown. I’ll put the scene from the movie here to watch if you want, because it gets me every time.

If you don’t want to watch it, I’ll summarise: Jeremy Brown was one of the prospects signed by the A’s in the 2002 draft. He was drafted by the A’s because of two things:

  1. He had great on-base percentage
  2. He was fat

People weren’t interested in Brown because of his size, and people made fun of him because of it. But the kid could bat, as he proved in the minor leagues. He wasn’t an athlete, and so he shied away from running past first base when he got the ball in play. But this one time, this one time, he connected with such quality, he thought he’d do it. He’d round first and go to second. But he tripped. He fell, and he scrambled back to the safety of first.

The reason why this part gets me is because, in the book, Lewis fills the pages with characters who don’t believe in themselves because of some funky quirk that makes the baseball establishment overlook them. Brown’s is that he was fat and that he couldn’t run. And when he finally gets the idea into his head that he’ll run to second, he’s quickly reminded by the universe that running is not the thing he was put on this earth to do. You can hear the inner monologue from here.

But Brown had to keep on running anyway. Because, unbeknownst to him as he scrambled back to first in the dirt, he’d hit a home run.

Moneyball the movie uses the scene to remind Beane of the romanticism of baseball at a time when he’s not feeling all that positive about it.

But the thing with Brown is that, regardless of whether he’d hit a homer or not, he was already doing what he’d been drafted to do. His stats — the ones that the A’s cared about — were great in the minor leagues. Lewis uses Brown hitting a home run as an inspirational story, that the fat kid did good. But, according to ‘the Moneyball philosophy’ he was already doing good anyway.

And then he stopped doing good.

Brown’s first and last MLB appearances were less than a month apart, debuting in early September and making his last major league bow on the 1 October. He retired in 2008.

Michael Lewis’ use of Brown as an epilogue encapsulates some of the ‘problem’ with the book Moneyball. The thing that Lewis — a fantastic writer and storyteller, don’t get me wrong — was most interested in wasn’t the thing that the A’s were most interested in. And Jeremy Brown didn’t turn out a major league success.

There may be reasons for that, and there may be reasons for other failures of that 2002 A’s draft. The course that baseball, and other sports, have gone on since then shows that Beane’s general approach was the right one, even if it may have been overblown by the book.

But Michael Lewis opened the book with “the first thing they did was run you”, not “a book that sold 75 copies [Bill James’ first Baseball Abstract] changed baseball”. He could have feasibly done the latter, and, because he’s Michael Lewis, written a pretty compelling story. But Moneyball, as a Michael Lewis book, isn’t about sabermetrics and rationality; it’s about Billy Beane taking on the establishment.

Even so, there are things to take from it.

  • Question. Question the received wisdoms. Do this with thought experiments, do this with data, but do it. It might even turn out that the received wisdom is correct, but at least you’ll know that it is.
  • To use a capitalistic, finance-y phrase, exploit the market. “The point is not to have the highest on-base percentage, but to win games as cheaply as possible”
  • Be organised. Beane’s third rule for player trading wasn’t “know the value of players”, it was “know the value of every player”. Being organised also guards against Billy Beane Rule Of Trading number 2.i, that when you have to do something that’s when bad things happen. Being organised helps you know the value of things, and it helps avoid digging yourself into holes.
  • Soft skills matter. Whether it’s Beane’s trading and player-management, or Ron Washington’s coaching of Scott Hatteburg, Moneyball shows the value of beating hearts as much as it shows the value of cold computers.
  • The data has to be good data. There’s an admission, hidden in the later chapters of Moneyball, that part of the reason why old-school baseball may have been suspicious of data was that they’d been dealing with a lot of stuff that didn’t matter. Bill James railed against the uselessness of fielding data. Despite a chapter devoted to the 2002 amateur draft, the book never touches on how reliably college data translates to the professional game.
  • Numbers need to take on the power of language.

On this last one, I’ll end this post with a quote from Bill James in the book, the length of which and number of sub-clauses giving a sense of just how much of a frustrated-writer he was. His point is about how some statistics are just numbers; they exist but they don’t tell us anything.


[w]hen the numbers acquire the significance of language, they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do: to become fiction and drama and poetry…And it is not just baseball that these numbers, through a fractured mirror, describe. It is character. It is psychology, it is history, it is power, it is grace, glory, consistency, sacrifice, courage, it is success and failure, it is frustration and bad luck, it is ambition, it is overreaching, it is discipline. And it is victory and defeat, which is all that the indiot sub-conscious really understands.