Sunday, May 22, 2011

On the Coffee Table: Michael Lewis

Image via Mike Jacobs

I was prepared for Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game to blow my mind. Michael Lewis's book has enjoyed both high praise and great notoriety since its publication in 2003. It is the only book, I believe, to merit mention in Ken Burns's Tenth Inning. There is, of course, a danger in approaching any work - be it literary, musical, cinematic, whatever - with high expectations. But Moneyball exceeded mine, nonetheless. My outlook on the game of baseball is permanently altered. I now have entirely new perspectives on...

The Oakland A's: I've never been much of an A's fan. My main association with them is the Canseco/McGwire/Eckersley teams of the late '80s which I did not like. The book, however, is about the very different franchise of the late '90s and early aughts, one which managed to win plenty, despite a significantly lower payroll than the other power teams of the era. I am now completely sold on Billy Beane's philosophy. It is interesting to note, however, that the franchise is at a low ebb at the moment. Perhaps the draft philosophy Beane was exploring in the book hasn't worked out so well over the long-term. On the other hand, perhaps the spread of his philosophy to other clubs has cut into his advantage, other clubs like...

The Boston Red Sox: Combine the Beane philosophy of the valuation of baseball talent with the deep pockets of a much richer team and you can, at last, break the Curse of the Bambino as GM Theo Epstein did in 2004.

The Baltimore Orioles: My team is no longer one of the big spenders in the baseball market but in the late 1990s, in particular, they were not shy about using Peter Angelos's considerable wealth on free agents. Then as now, Michael Lewis's book suggests, the franchise treasure could have been invested far more wisely. As for this year's squad, the team's on-base percentage - the stat most highly-valued by Billy Beane - is .317, tied for 16th in the Majors. For what it's worth, the A's OBP is .301. The O's slugging percentage is .376, 20th best in the Majors, though still better than the A's at .344. Perhaps this explains Oakland's recent downturn as well.

Fantasy Baseball: Ever since reading chapter 4, "Field of Ignorance," I have been thinking about ways to adapt fantasy baseball to sabermetrics, the rational examination of baseball statistics which has been highly influential in Billy Beane's player valuation philosophy. In short, many of the traditional measures of player value - batting average, RBI, stolen bases, etc. - are not as meaningful as we've all been lead to believe. On-base percentage and slugging percentage, in particular, have much stronger correlation to a team's run-scoring ability and, by extension, its winning percentage. Not only does conventional baseball thinking value the wrong stats, so too do most fantasy baseball leagues. I'm hoping to address this issue directly next season though I'd like to do a bit more research. My current league-mates may require some convincing as well.

The First-Year Player Draft: I've never paid much attention to the baseball draft but I sure will this year. In particular, I'm going to keep an eye on how the Orioles' picks compare to those of the Athletics. I find it funny that Beane has been drafting more high school players recently, a practice at which he scoffed in the book.

The Vermont Lake Monsters: Our local minor league club has a new Major League affiliation this year. You guessed it: the Oakland A's. The Lake Monsters play in the New York-Penn League, a Short-Season A circuit. As such, we may get to see some of Billy Beane's 2011 draftees in person.

As much as I was impressed by the philosophy Beane promotes, what I enjoyed most about Lewis's book are his stories of the players whose talents were undervalued by the rest of baseball. I'd love to believe that sports are purely meritocratic but in truth, people's preconceptions too often cloud their judgements of a player's abilities. The Oakland philosophy has allowed a different sort of player to succeed and their stories are highly engaging.

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