My father-in-law discovered Michael Lewis this Christmas. One relative gave him The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Lewis’ new book on the mortgage meltdown and my husband and I loaned him Liar’s Poker, Lewis’ first book about his early career as a Wall Street bond trader in the 1980’s. He’s really enjoying The Big Short and we got into a huge discussion about both books and all things Michael Lewis over the weekend. And, of course, you can’t talk about Michael Lewis without talking about Moneyball, or at least I can’t.
My father-in-law is as much of a numbers geek as I am. I hooked him on the idea of reading Moneyball with my descriptions of the newer sabermetric stats and Lewis’ comparison of the analysis of certain key pieces of a baseball player’s skill set to the derivatives trade market. However, while I also appreciated these aspects of Moneyball when I read the book, they are not the reason it is one of my favorite baseball books. No, what grabbed my attention were the strong but unintentional arguments Michael Lewis made on the way to arguing his main points: namely that personalities, clubhouse/teammate chemistry and other intangibles that stats cannot measure are every bit as important as those skills the stats can measure and that being a passionate baseball fan sometimes causes you to defy logic and reason. If this doesn’t sound like the Moneyball you read or have heard about, check my logic here:
In talking about on base percentage, slugging percentage and other at the time undervalued stats Lewis dedicates a entire chapter each to A’s acquisitions Jeremy Brown, Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford. Each player exhibited one or more sabermetrically valuable skills while lacking many of the qualities that Major League Baseball placed a high value on. In the course of outlining the different ways this situation made each player a brilliant bargain for Billy Beane’s larger vision for the A’s an entirely different argument emerges. In telling their stories, Lewis’ also describes a crucial unexpected personal element that helps each player achieve success. Brown, for example, is a talented hitter who suffers from the fragile psychology of the chronically picked on kid. In Lewis’ telling, once Brown makes the first jump away from the A’s rookie team, he is on the verge of crumpling from a lack of confidence when his friend, the much more socially adept Nick Swisher, gives him the encouragement he needs, a sympathetic ear and a one-man cheerleading squad in the dugout.
Scott Hatteberg’s story is my favorite. A former catcher with a damaged elbow that destroyed his throwing arm, Hatteberg’s high on base percentage brings him to the attention of the A’s who want to retrain him as a first baseman. What the A’s have no way of knowing is how much Hatteberg’s love for baseball is built around the chats and personal interactions he had with the opposing teams’ batters when he used to catch. What I took from Lewis’s argument is that, more than the desire to excel at baseball again, it was the realization that he could have that same level of personal interaction and possibly even longer conversations with opposing players as a first baseman that gave Hatteberg the drive he needed to learn the challenging new position.
Hatteberg’s personality becomes a real asset when Chad Bradford begins pitching for the A’s. Lewis describes Bradford almost crumpling under the pressure of past manager’s reactions to his quirky submarine pitching style until Hatteberg gives him a timely confidence boost by sharing the hitters shocked and impressed reactions to the pitches when they reach first base. I assume that Lewis’ point in sharing these stories is that they are great stories which bring a compelling personal element to the book. But after reading them, I for one can’t imagine any of the players functioning in the way Beane felt their stats indicated they would perform if the intangible qualities in the player and/or their teammates weren’t there right along with the tangible ones. I know this is not what Lewis intended to argue at all, but the argument is there nevertheless and largely, I think, becuase you can’t escape the importance the human element plays in baseball no matter how you crunch the numbers.
As to the unintentional argument about the passion of baseball fans, one of Moneyball‘s biggest controversies is the perception that Lewis argues in favor of new sabermetric stats hands down over traditional stats. This isn’t Lewis’ original argument at all. He starts out by saying that sabermetrics allows managers to pick and choose undervalued skills, the skills that can give a less wealthy team the most talent for their limited dollars. His central premise is not that a team with relatively unlimited resources should prize these undervalued skills over traditionally valued skills…but it sure doesn’t sound that way by the time you get to the draft scenes in the middle of the book. Lewis begins to praise the skill sets the A’s have chosen to focus on to a greater and greater degree as the book progresses. He brings things back around to his central point by the end but seems unaware of the degree to which he strayed from it in the middle…and, understandably, it is the points where Lewis strays that the book’s detractors fixate on. Why the discrepancy? I think Lewis’ own obviously growing enthusiasm and occasional downright giddiness in describing his subject tells the whole story. By the end of his research, Michael Lewis has evolved from an interested but unbiased researcher into passionate baseball fan. And who among us really sounds logical and reasonable once we start talking about our team and their chances in any given season?
As much I appreciated Lewis’ sabermetrics history and analysis of the new stats, to me the combination of his intentional and unintentional arguments cuts right to the heart of baseball. The stats are important. The stats give you an amazing amount of crucial information. The newer stats give you even more. But the stats can never and will never tell you the whole story. I hope my father-in-law asks to borrow Moneyball soon. I want to discuss this with him and see if he thinks it compares to gut instinct vs. in depth market analysis on the stock market.