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'Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

GM rewrites the rules for what makes a winning team

Sunday, May 25, 2003

By Brian O'Neill, Post-Gazette Columnist

When Billy Beane was in high school, every baseball scout in America yearned for him. Fast, strong and handsome, he seemed to have been custom-made for the diamond.

 
 
"Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game"

By Michael Lewis

Norton ($24.95)

   
 

Beane scooped up his bonus money, started playing the game for pay and, boyo, did he stink.

This is the unlikely hero of Michael Lewis' account of why the Oakland A's win consistently on thin budgets. Beane, Oakland's general manager, looked at the way he was scouted and saw that the wise old men of the game had little more foresight than a fungo bat.

The verities of baseball mean nothing to Beane. He won't sign the high school Adonis with seemingly limitless potential; the A's want that fat catcher from the University of Alabama who led his league in walks. Thus do they win.

"We're not selling jeans here," is Beane's mantra in a vivid scene where he shuns the old scouts' advice and goes with the information his stats geek feeds him from a personal computer.

Lewis, whose bestsellers "Liar's Poker" and "The New New Thing" focused on Wall Street and the Silicon Valley, might seem an odd candidate to write the baseball book of the year. But this story is nothing if not a look at markets.

As Lewis told Rob Neyer of ESPN.com in a recent interview, "If professional baseball players, whose achievements are endlessly watched, discussed and analyzed by tens of millions of people, can be radically mis-valued, who can't be?"

The A's have been successful by digging deeper into the minutiae of baseball statistics than anyone before them. They hired a Harvard graduate, Paul DePodesta, who had "plugged the statistics of every baseball team from the 20th century into an equation and tested with them most closely related to winning percentage. He'd found only two, both offensive statistics, inextricably linked to baseball success: on-base percentage and slugging percentage."

It is this belief in measurable achievement rather than hyped eyewitness accounts that allows Beane to treat his team the way the producers of "Law & Order" do their TV show.

When the A's lose a star such as Jason Giambi to the Yankees' bottomless bankroll, Beane finds another player or three to replace the lost attributes. He has his front-office elves add up the walks and homers and strikeouts of the players he brings in. The formula, not the star, is paramount.

What's encouraging to a baseball fan is that at least one organization has listened to advice from people who have never played the game professionally -- and has benefited. What's discouraging is that some of those things you probably love about the game are being tossed aside by these perennial winners.

The stolen base, the hit-and-run, the sacrifice bunt -- Beane has no use for any of them, and pretty much forbids his puppet managers from running these plays. He doesn't want the A's giving away outs. They wait for walks and home runs, and Beane has studiously acquired players who accumulate them.

I went to a game at PNC Park while in the middle of "Moneyball" and saw Beaneball at work. Kenny Lofton led off the first inning for the Pirates with a beautiful bunt single. The next batter, Jack Wilson, moved Lofton to second with an equally fine sacrifice bunt -- but Lofton died at second.

In the third inning, Lofton again led off with a single. He's one of the best base stealers in the game. With no score, it seemed a good time to try to swipe one. Or maybe have Wilson, a good contact hitter, swing while Lofton ran.

But Manager Lloyd McClendon did what Beane would suggest here: zilch. And doing nothing worked perfectly. Wilson walked, which gave Lofton second base at no charge. Brian Giles grounded out to first, advancing both runners. Randall Simon grounded out to second base, scoring Lofton and sending Wilson to third. He scored on a single to right by Matt Stairs.

The walk was the key to both runs. It put Wilson on, advanced Lofton a base, and continued the inning to allow Stairs to get up with two out. If Wilson had sacrificed, nobody would have scored.

One inning does not a theory make, but here's a broader look: The Pirates advanced 17 runners with bunts in their first 41 games, but only five scored. The Pirates also were leading the league in stolen base percentage (29 of 35) as the team rounded the quarter pole of the 2003 season. But because the Pirates don't walk much or get many extra-base hits, the team was last in the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and last in runs.

This book is as much for people who take joy in new ideas as in games. If you're one of them, do not run but walk -- remember, always take the walk -- to the bookstore and get "Moneyball."


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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