Wednesday, November 4, 2009

michael lewis, "moneyball: the art of winning an unfair game" book review

"moneyball: the art of winning an unfair game" is a fantastic book. i just finished the 2003 michael lewis book about the impact of statistical anaysis on the unsuspecting old baseball guard this weekend. the book, which examines the 2002 oakland a's is simultaneously dated and fresh! it's dated because revisiting the 2002 season, now 7 years removed, is a trip down memory lane - we know how things turned out for oakland.

but, since i stumbled across this title from reading joe torre's book, "the yankee years," last winter it's all new to me. in fact, i came across "moneyball" at the library book fair - and for just one dollar, snatched it up. as a detached fan of the the art of statistics (caveat: i came away from college statistics with the jaded view that numbers can be made to say whatever you want them to say) i was curious to see the baseball application. now it suddenly became the perfect read for the post-season.

i had heard of "liar's poker," lewis' more famous earlier work - but hadn't read it. i found lewis' writing style instantly approachable - in the "easy read" category. i was draw into his narrative immediately, and suddenly i found myself interested in the young billy beane, his agonizing career decision making process, entry into professional baseball (via the mets), and unusual exit strategy (from player to front office scout)! most of beane's contemporaries were incredulous that he would voluntarily step off the field and chose not to play baseball - but scout others who did want to play!!

on a parallel track, lewis introduce the godfather of baseball stat geeks -bill james. james complied ream of data and self-published his "baseball abstract" to what seemed like an infinitesimal audience. but he kept garnering "readers" - if that term can be seriously applied to someone whose main focus is to pour over the columns (and columns) of numbers contained in the "abstract!" words were secondary to james (and his followers) - who preferred to let the numbers talk for themselves. it seemed that james' fans and followers were everywhere - except in the offices of major league baseball!

the book works because it shows how beane - practically a heretic to his profession - bypassed the collective wisdom of his own scouts to find "undervalued" players in the draft (and later in trades with other teams), via stats. and by stats he doesn't mean the typical baseball numbers relied upon by the other teams - but yardsticks developed by thinking outside the box (or in this case, the diamond). his approach was ingenious - but only after it produced some interesting results. it's a testament to how far on the cutting edge beane was in 2002 as witnessed by how many team have adopted the methodology to some degree or another, in today's game.

"moneyball" isn't just about data - there's plenty of colorful personalities to flesh out the numbers. but it's certainly a book well worth reading for any baseball fan who wants to dig deeper than the traditional box score data. after reading this book, an at bat will never seem the same. a deep pitch count and a walk will take on new dimensions! but don't get lulled into believing that raw statistical analysis, however sophisticated the model, will someday replace common sense - and skill - on the ball field.

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