Author: Michael Lewis
Original Release: 2003
Moneyball is the story of the Oakland Athletics and their general manager Billy Beane, back in the early 2000’s when they were winning games left and right despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league. While there have been a number of small market teams in recent years to have found success (the Twins and Rays, to name a couple), the story of the A’s is novel because of Beane’s approach to building a team. Beane and his trusting group of assistants threw traditional viewpoints out the window and focused on cold, hard statistics to lead the way. In lieu of paying much attention to standard stats such as RBIs, steals and batting average, the A’s front office focused on OBP (on base percentage) and slugging percentage. Beane, his top assistant Paul DePodesta and others were avid fans of Bill James and his followers of Sabermetrics. These guys wanted players who would take pitches and get on base, not guys who would swing for the fences all of the time or took “unnecessary risks” by attempting to steal a base. This strategy produced outstanding results. In 2001 and 2002, the A’s won 102 and 103 games respectively, and they made the playoffs every year from 2000-03. With their $41 million payroll, they were putting up comparable results to the Yankees, who were spending in excess of $125 million.
The fact that Oakland was able to compete at all with that budget is just outstanding, and reading about the methodology and the management’s thought processes behind their moves is fascinating. Michael Lewis really excels with Moneyball, as he makes baseball statistics seem as exciting as an action thriller. There are so many great stories intertwined in the book that provide even more insight into the team. We learn about Billy Beane’s failures as a baseball player and what ultimately made him pursue a job in the front office. We read about Scott Hatteberg, a former Red Sox catcher who was unable to play behind the plate anymore due to injuries and therefore lost any appeal to 95% of baseball’s teams. Beane coveted Hatteberg since he was a guy who got on base a lot, signed him to a paltry deal and then stuck him at first base where he had no experience playing (every ground ball hit his way gave him a “mini panic attack”). Hatteberg proceeded to put up some impressively consistent numbers and grew confidence on the field. There’s also a chapter about Chad Bradford, an unorthodox relief pitcher stuck in AAA hell with the White Sox, who Beane savvily acquires for practically a bag of peanuts, and then goes on to become one of the key components in the team’s bullpen. Perhaps most intriguing are the moments where we get to listen in on Beane trying to pull a fast one on other general managers, essentially working his ass off to find trades that benefit him yet make the other GMs feel like they got a “fucking A” trade. Never mind the fact that certain teams refuse to even talk to Beane since they got swindled one too many times before. The man has a gift, and he sure knows it.
There’s also a large portion of the book dedicated to the now-infamous 2002 MLB draft in which the A’s selected a bunch of guys in the first round who weren’t even on other teams’ draft boards. Although they did get some players who have had lasting success in the big leagues (albeit to varying degrees) such as Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen and Joe Blanton, they also had their fair share of busts like the “fat-bodied catcher” Jeremy Brown, Ben Fritz and Stephen Obenchain. Still, it was very interesting to look into Beane’s mind and experience his wide range of emotions when he realized he was going to be able to get all of the players he wanted.
Since Moneyball was published in 2003, other teams have adapted to Oakland’s strategy, and many have incorporated the theories into their own systems. There are still critics of Beane’s ideas, especially since the A’s never found much success in the postseason despite winning so many games in the regular season. The aforementioned playoff run from 2000-03 had the same result every year — a heartbreaking game five loss in the first round. Still, you can’t deny that the team really had something special going on during that time. It’s always fun to see David stand up to Goliath, isn’t it? Moneyball is an excellent read from beginning to end, providing insight into a creative front office while delivering entertaining side stories along the way. This is one of the best baseball books available, and I highly recommend it if you are into the sport at all.
– Also, it should be noted that Moneyball is currently being made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and it is coming out in September of this year. Could it turn out as well as The Social Network? One can only hope…