Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Billy Beane's work with the Oakland A's is more of a science than an art

By Michael Lewis
W.W. Norton (2003), $24.95

Under General Manager Billy Beane, the cash-strapped Oakland A's have defied baseball orthodoxy, winning with a cut-rate lineup of castoffs and no-names and with a front office full of Harvard grads staring at spreadsheets. "An aberration," baseball's commissioner once said of the A's. In Moneyball, a rare sober-minded book about baseball that doesn't lack for style, Berkeley author Michael Lewis has a different take: Beane's ballclub is a revolution, "at the center of a story about the possibilities -- and the limits -- of reason in human affairs."

Beane, leaning on a cold faith in statistics, has ushered a new paradigm into a sport full of old myths, especially about what makes for a good ballplayer. Emphasizing oft-overlooked stats like base-on balls and on-base percentage, he's uncovered a market for players who'd otherwise be picking grass in Double-A. The metaphors abound: Beane is a mad scientist, a shrewd commodities trader, a blackjack dealer. (That Lewis must rely on so many comparisons is an indication of how divorced Beane is from the conventional world, and the vocabulary, of baseball.) The subtitle, then, is a little odd: Why not "The Science of Winning an Unfair Game"?

Lewis gained unprecedented access to the A's during the 2002 season. He describes in heavy detail the team's draft-day deliberations and watches Beane scheme, wheedle, and deal for a new reliever. But the soul of Moneyball lies elsewhere: a profile of an old Kansan named Bill James, the iconoclastic dean of the sport's statheads. "[B]aseball statistics, unlike the statistics in any other area, have acquired the powers of language," James wrote in 1985, explaining his obsession and sounding an early drumbeat of revolution.

 
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