Book Review: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Moneyball isn’t just a book about baseball statistics. It’s much more than that. It is a book about using reason and science to improve the quality of sports, from the management of teams, the evaluation of players, the use of strategy, to the development of athletes. For much of the history of sports, these questions have been answered by the conventional wisdom of athletes and coaches. Moneyball shows that when you take a deeper look at these questions, and try to answer them more scientifically, you can find better answers.

So how does Moneyball use reason and science to find these better answers? Here are some examples.
First of all, Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s think deeply and ask “what is the ultimate objective of baseball?” Their conclusion is that simply scoring runs and keeping your opponent from scoring runs is the ultimate objective of baseball and the way to win. From this, they try to study the game scientifically to determine what best leads to scoring runs. After discovering this knowledge, they were better able to evaluate players, develop players, and use strategy.

When the Oakland A’s learned that on-base percentage was the most important stat that predicted baseball success, they changed the way they scouted and evaluated players. At the time, most scouts looked for “talent.” They judged prospects mainly by their physical tools (strength, speed, height, etc.), what they looked like, and what they imagined that they could be. Oakland decided it was better to evaluate players objectively, by what they’ve accomplished. If a player had a high on-base percentage, they valued them regardless of how they looked.

Once they knew how to accurately evaluate players, they found better ways to coach and develop players. Since they discovered that “plate discipline” was the most important trait for baseball, they began teaching their players the skills needed to have better plate discipline and become better hitters. In other words, they taught them the process of peak performance for baseball.

Furthermore, Oakland learned more effective baseball strategy. While other teams tried to “manufacture runs,” Oakland trusted the process and relied fully on avoiding outs and good hitting. As Billy Beane said, they let the game come to them rather than try to manipulate the game. They cared more about playing as efficiently as possible instead of playing it safe and avoiding embarrassment. For example, instead of manufacturing a few runs by bunting and stealing bases, Oakland preferred to trust the math and try to score more runs by playing normally and avoiding making outs as much as possible.

Moneyball is known for making sports analytics famous. Most people are either very pro analytics or very anti analytics. Some people, including Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s, think analytics are extremely important. Other people think they are overrated. Some people even think they cause more harm than good. I’ve written about sports analytics in the past. You can read it here. I am pro analytics, but I understand it’s limitations. To me, analytics is just data, which is neutral. It is how you interpret and apply this data that determines its value. As I’ve wrote about before, analytics can give you great data to make better decisions regarding player evaluation, goal setting, and strategies. However, using statistical data poorly can lead to very bad results, such as inaccurate evaluations, bad strategy, and also a loss of enjoyment for the game. Analytics is best used when you value it appropriately. Know that it is just as important as the other components of sports (fitness, technique, and the mental game).

I highly recommend Moneyball to any athlete and coach of all sports. It gives you a new way to look at sports, which can help you make better decisions and improve as a player or coach.