Book Review: Moneyball by Michael Lewis(Kindle Edition)

Posted: January 26, 2013 in Books



In 2002, Billy Beane, once a highly touted rookie prospect for the New York Mets, is now the General Manager of the Oakland A’s  The conventional wisdom around baseball is that the A’s won’t be very good in 2002, because they are going to lose three of their best players, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhousen to free agency.  But Billy Beane has been studying the work of baseball statistical guru Bill James, comes up with a new way of analyzing baseball talent, looking at a player’s on base percentage instead of looking at statistics other scouts prize, like home runs and RBI’s.  With the help of Paul DePodesta, a Yale graduate, who Beane makes head of player development for the A’s, Beane remakes the A’s on a limited budget.  The results?  The A’s won an American League record 20 straight ballgames in 2002, they had over 100 wins and made the playoffs.  Would the rest of the baseball world take notice?

I did not like this book.  It routinely bashes my beloved New York Yankees for their big money spending, but that’s not why I didn’t like Moneyball.  This book takes a very one sided view of Beane’s moves as General Manager, it emphasizes Beane’s great moves and ignores his lousy moves.  For example, Beane passed up Prince Fielder in the first round to draft Nick Swisher.  I like Nick Swisher, he had a lot of good years for the Yankees , but there is no comparison between Swisher and Prince Fielder, there just isn’t.  And the reason Beane passed on Fielder was his weight, at the same time he drafted Jeremy Brown, a 5’8 215 pound catcher that no one’s ever heard of before or since, so clearly he had no problem with weight.  The book tells a heartwarming story of Brown hitting his first home run in the minors in the Epilogue of the book, but the real story is that Brown only had 10 major league at bats, and retired unglamorously in 2008.   Similarly, Beane fills the early chapters of the book with stories of how good Jeremy Giambi is going to be, by midseason Giambi is gone. Similarly, he trades 3/8th’s of his starting lineup from opening day, which begs the question, how good are Billy Beane’s scouting techniques anyway?

If the reader reads between the lines, the personal portrayal of Billy Beane is hardly as flattering as his professional portrayal is.  As a player, Beane is talented, but temperamental.  When pitchers adjust to find Beane’s weakness as a hitter, he doesn’t make the adjustment to make himself a better hitter, he sulked, got shipped around to different teams and retired as a player in complete obscurity.  As a player he didn’t use the thing he’s lauded for as a GM. His brain. That temperament follows him into the front office, where he gets angry when players don’t perform up to the standards he has set for them.  When he cuts Mike Magnante, a relief pitcher, after a particularly bad game, he doesn’t have the guts to face Magnante personally, and tell him he’s been cut, which is not a sign of a true leader.  Manante was 10 days from his major league pension when he got cut. In fact, his pursuit of relief pitcher Riccardo Rincon, and Boston Red Sox future star, Kevin Youkilis, makes Beane look more like a snakeoil salesman than a General Manager, he tries and succeeds in trading lousy minor leaguers to the Tigers for Rincon, and fails to trade lousy minor leaguers for Youkilis.  The kind of moves that show Beane’s character flaws are glossed over, in Lewis’ book.

The book is better when it focuses on some of the players that Beane picks up and note solely on Beane himself.  When Moneyball tells the story of Scott Hatteburg, a catcher, who couldn’t throw anymore, who was given a second chance when Beane brought him to Oakland and transformed him into a first baseman with the help of then A’s coach and current Texas Ranger manager, Ron Washington.  Hatteburg worked hard to make himself into a good first baseman, and he was already a good hitter, although Lewis makes Hatteburgh sound like a cross between Lou Gehrig and Roy Hobbes when Hatteburg hits the game winning home run to help the A’s win their 20th game in a row in2002.

More heartwarming is the story of Chad Bradford, a reliever that Beane took a chance on.  Bradford’s father suffered a stroke, but recovered enough to play catch with his son.  From then on, Bradford dreamed of being a pro baseball player.  Unfortunately, his fastball had neither speed or movement, until Bradford’s high school coach taught him a submarine motion that gave his fastnball movement.  Years later, Beane and DePodesta noticed Bradford languishing in the White Sox Triple A team and picked him up. Bradford was a big reason the A’s had success in 2002.  Beane deserves credit for taking risks on Hatteburg and Bradford, but his lack of a budget compelled these moves as much as the players’ talent.

The book unfortunately ends on a sour note in a postscript with Lewis once again lavishing praise needlessly on Beane and calling anyone who criticized Beane a member of the “Club.” Aka protectors of the status quo in baseball. The postscript was unnecessary and made Lewis sound like he had Stockholm Syndrome, because he spent a year with Beane was once again defending every move Beane made.  Here are the facts, for those who take the long view, Beane had four very good years, from 2002 to 2006, he then had four very mediocre years with the A’s  from 2007-2011, but Lewis will never write an addendum to his book to state that.  And revenue sharing has pretty much ended the small market big market debate.

Moneyball: Fans of big market teams get Beaned by Lewis.


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