Guest Post! In Which Moneyball Gets Its Comeuppance…
It would be quite easy to forget, but way back on December 23 I launched the “Ben’s Biz Blog-ojevich” contest. The premise was simple — the first person to contact me with complimentary words about my blogging skill would “win” a free post.
That person turned out to be “BeesGal”, writer of “The Sporkball Journals“. Who is BeesGal? I’ll let her answer that in her own words:
Well, my day job is running a one-woman business that
provides writing and editing services for a diverse assortment of
audiences–commercial, journalistic and scholarly. My labors of love are split
into two seasons: fall/winter is spent pursuing a degree in Japanese language,
while spring/summer is spent immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of minor
league baseball. I’ve been a season-ticket holder with the Salt
Lake franchise since 1998 and
devoted fan of minor league baseball since 1994–except for a one-night stand
on October 2, 1995 when I
watched Randy Johnson pitch 6 innings of perfection in the ALDS tiebreaker
between the Mariners and Angels. I can be contacted via email: email@example.com.
For her guest post, BeesGal has provided a thorough dissection of Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball”. In essence, it is a contrarian view of a contrarian book, and one of the most cutting critiques of the “Stats vs. Scouts” debate that I have ever read. So, without further ado, here it is:
(noun) The use of skillful
tricks and deceptions to produce entertainingly baffling effects: conjuration, magic, prestidigitation,
sleight of hand.
[source: Roget’s II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition, 1995, www.bartleby.com/62/44/L0904400.html.]
As incredible as it may sound, I didn’t get around to reading Moneyball
until this fall of 2008. Not surprising to me, since I am a lousy stathead.
It’s not that I’m bad with numbers; I’m actually quite the nimble
digit-cruncher. It’s simply I don’t find statistics to be the most interesting
perspective from which to view baseball. I don’t own stock in a baseball team,
real or rotisserie. I don’t bet on sports. I don’t follow the draft.
But I digress. I finally read Moneyball on the recommendations of so many
people whose baseball experience and expertise far exceeds mine. And the
published reviews seemed to promise an enjoyable, entertaining read, regardless
of whether I care about the stats vs. scouts debate. (I don’t.) Hence my
disappointment to discover I didn’t care for it all that much. I didn’t dislike
it. I was, um, …underwhelmed.
So when the opportunity came to guest-write for Ben’s Biz Blog, this seemed
like the perfect opportunity give Moneyball another shot. Was my indifference
justified, or not? More importantly, where the h*ll did it come from?
Unfortunately, I must announce liking the book even less the second time, albeit
for an entirely different reason than I expected.
As everyone in the English-speaking world knows, this book investigates how
Oakland A’s were able to win so
many games with so few financial resources. I would say it uses primarily two
techniques to make its case: deductions based on statistical analyses and
detailed character profiles. One method appeals to reason and the other to
humanity. Obviously, you can’t use charisma as the basis for scientific proof.
On the other hand, you can use it to influence the way the information is
perceived. Here’s how Michael Lewis does it.
Chapter 2 is a mesmerizing recreation of the Oakland
A’s draft room on June 4, 2002.
It sets up the premise for the book and introduces the main characters. In the
second reading, I noticed something that annoyed me to no end. The scouts were
very difficult to identify except as a vague collective of nameless,
barely-humans–the “Greek chorus.”
At first, it was unclear why some scouts were named and described, while
others remained literally faceless. For example, eight scouts were mentioned by
name in chapter 2: John Poloni , Ron Hopkins , Kelly Heath , Billy
Owens , Matt Keough , Chris Pittaro , Dick Bogard , Grady Fuson
 and Erik Kubota . The numbers in brackets indicate how many times they
were referred to by their names. My favorite character reference was Hopkins,
who got introduced in four words, “Ron Hopkins is ‘Hoppy,'” after which we
never read of him again. Grady Fuson was the penultimate “bad guy” in this
chapter; singled out as the personification of all that is wrong with
traditional baseball thinking.
Aside from this handful of names, virtually every other scout was referred
to by job title, “scout” or “scouts.” What is particularly odd is these
nameless entities spoke or acted about 149 times without us knowing who is
doing what. When the scouts were somewhat more identifiable, it was by physical
attribute. Old/older  tops the list, followed by fat , vocal , folded
arms , lean , pleading . Notice how many of these generic attributes
were also rather unappealing. Also notable was how the physical descriptions
seem to have been selected for their power to metaphorically reinforce the
philosophical differences between the two sides of the room–the forces of
ignorance resisting enlightenment.
There were a few scout descriptions offering greater detail, none were
flattering. For example, here is one that seems particularly negative and
conjectural: “This old scout is pushing fifty-five but still has a lean
quickness about him, as if he hadn’t completely abandoned the hope that he
might one day play the game.” Out of all the possible explanations for this
nameless man’s low percentage of body fat, I’m supposed to presume it’s an
unwillingness to accept old age? Weird.
As chapter 2 came to a close, I felt as though I’d been handed a media guide
with the information for L.O.O.S.R.S.(Luddites On Other Side of Room, Spitting)
consisting of a handful of names, four bios, couple of anecdotes and little
else. They’re wearing road grays, no numbers or names.
The media guide for Team Beane, on the other hand, is filled photos
whites, of course), names, positions, biography, career stats and
uniform numbers. Among the scouts, Chris Pittaro is someone “Billy had long ago
identified as a person willing to rethink everything he learned, or thought he
had learned, playing baseball.” Dick Bogard was characterized as “the oldest
scout of all,” Erik’s “baseball father;” a supporter of statistics; the one
scout to admit “Billy made us take Zito;” having “vast experience to which he
had no visceral attachment;” and having scouted Billy Beane the ballplayer.
Erik Kubota  is Beane’s hand-picked scouting director , hired to replace
Grady Fuson. And of course there was Billy Beane , general manager , and
Paul DePodesta , assistant general manager .
Seems as though purpose of chapter 2 is to create an sense of emotional
detachment from a certain group of people, namely the scouts. If you can render
the opposition less than human, good; if you can demonize it, even better. For
centuries, this effective psychological technique has been used in sci-fi
(such as the “Borg” of Star Trek: Next Generation), advertising, politics and
I’m not sure if this was kept nagging at me the first time. Once my “covert
ops” alerts were triggered during the second read, however, it was impossible
for me to shake the feeling I was being played. In the end, I cannot help but wonder
why Lewis did it? Since I’m not Lewis, I haven’t a clue. All I can offer is my
opinion; namely, I would have preferred the chance to decide whether Beane is a
great GM or just lucky, or sabermetrics is superior to scouting without the
B-movie caricatures. Certainly I would have enjoyed the book considerably more
without the syntactical sleight of hand.
Well, that’s it. I suspect my 15 minutes of glory was used up about 400
words ago. In closing, I’d like to thank Ben for letting me crash his blogspace,
not to mention handling the crush of email he’ll undoubtedly be getting in
Bye for now!
. . . BeesGal