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May 2009

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I Have Seen The Light!

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Mine eyes have seen the glory by reading the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis (2003). This book presents, in a simple, clear and interesting way, a new and different way (to me) of looking at and understanding the game of professional baseball.

I have to admit that before reading this book, I knew absolutely nothing about this thing called sabermetrics. Now, I know a little bit. And Baby, I can guess the rest.

The story occurs in the context of GM Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics of a few years ago. It is well written and easy to follow. Here are some “gems” which I gathered from my reading of this book:

  • What he did last is not necessarily what he will do next.
  • Baseball people express their fondess for a thing by thinking up lots of different ways to say it.
  • Bunting, stealing, the hit and run, etc., are, in most situations, pointless or self defeating.
  • Hitting is the big thing.
  • Fielding is only about 5% of the game (ie. almost negligible).
  • Don’t make outs. Don’t walk batters.
  • “On base percentage” is the probability the batter will not make an out.
  • Every batter must act like a leadoff man and get on base.
  • Every batter must possess the power to hit home runs, draw walks, and maintain a high on base percentage.
  • The mental aspects of hitting are teachable.
  • The system is the star.
  • Bill James was looking into this in the ‘70s and 80s.
  • Every form of strength is also a form of weakness.
  • You have to do something RIGHT to get an error.
  • They believed they could judge a player’s performance simply by watching it.
  • The name “Sabermetrics” derives from SABR, the acronym of the Society for American Baseball Research. In 2002, the society had about seven thousand members.
  • “I think, really, that this in one reason that so many intelligent people drift away from baseball (when they come of age), that if you care about it at all you have to realize, as soon as you acquire a taste for independent thought, that a great portion of the sport’s traditional knowledge is ridiculous hokum.” Bill James
  • “….nitwits who glom onto something superficial in the book and misunderstand its underlying message.” Bill James
  • “…the invasion of statistical gremlins crawling at random all over the telecast of **** near every baseball game…” Bill James
  • Intelligence about baseball had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What James’ wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point.
  • Abandon all hope of winning, and at the same time show up every day for work to collect a paycheck. The word for this is “rebuilding”.
  • The on base percentage for the majority of big league players is between .300 -.400
  • The slugging percentage for the majority of big league players is between .350 – .550
  • So the OPS (On base Plus Slugging) percentage for the majority of big league players is between .650 – .950
  • In Bill James’ model, an extra point of on-base percentage was worth three times an extra point of slugging percentage.
  • …broadly speaking, an attempted steal had to succeed about 70 percent of the time before it contributed positively to run totals.
  • “Derivatives” are those things that happen in the context of a baseball play that just never get recorded.
  • Morality is for fans.
  • Process versus outcomes
  • The five rules for shopping/trading players (roughly restated):
    1. Change is always good. Always be upgrading.
    2. You can always recover from the player you didn’t sign.
    3. Know exactly what every player in baseball is worth to you, in dollars.
    4. Know exactly who you want and go after him.
    5. To do this well, you have to ignore the newspapers.
  • “Trawling” for a trade.
  • “To get worked up over plays, or even games, is as unproductive as a casino manager worrying over the outcomes of individual pulls of the slot machines.”
  • The more money teams spent on players, the less able those players were to win baseball games (at least in the AL West).
  • “My **** doesn’t work in the playoffs – my job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is ****ing luck.” Billy Beane
  • “There are no secret recipies for the postseason, except maybe having three great starting pitchers.” Billy Beane

**Please accept my censorship in deleting some potentially offensive words. I do not mean to insult anyone’s intelligence, but I don’t want to offend any readers, either.

I enjoyed reading this book, and I recommend it very highly to anyone with an interest in professional baseball.

  • Welcome to the dark side. Now that you get it, be prepared to be constantly attacked by those who don’t. 🙂

  • lizzie

    Really enjoying your book reviews. I’ve added many books to my “to read” list (including this one, I can’t wait to read it!) that I’d have otherwise not known about or not known were worth giving a try. Not much gonna beat the Cubs coloring book though. 🙂

    Question for you. If you read a book you didn’t care for, would you review it and say so or just not write about it at all. The reason I’m asking is because I’m reading one right now (not one that you’ve reviewed) that I’m not really enjoying. It’s Cub related, by the way. Being as anal as I am, I will finish it (and hope it improves!) But if it remains bad, do I say I read it and hated it, or keep that to myself? Maybe the question is for everyone. Do you want to know what we read and dislike, or is that a waste of blog-space?

  • lizzie… I sy write up the review and post it. Part of the point of reviewing books is to help others figure out of they should read it.

    If someone else thinks it is really bad… I want to know that.

  • cubbiedude

    dave and lizzie, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting.

    dave, I don’t mind having my thoughts and opinions attacked, that’s just a healthy discourse. As far as being attacked personally, I’ve been mugged before.

    lizzie, I generally limit myself to reviewing books I have positive feelings about, because there are plenty of those to keep me busy. After all, it’s not a job, it’s just something I do for my own enjoyment.

    I recently tried to read a current NY Times bestseller which proved to be unreadable (for me). I put it out of my mind and moved on to the next book on my shelf. Since it’s a bestseller, I’m sure there are plenty of folks who liked it: I’ll let them tell us why. I figure I just wasn’t the target audience.

    Of course, if someone were to ask me about a specific book (or movie, or performance) which I didn’t care for, I’d be more than happy to discuss it.

  • cap’n obvious

    I actually read this book long ago, and I spent a fair amount of time working in the central valley of California in my sales job in the early 2000’s and saw first hand some of the practical (on field) application of some of these “gems.” Some of the stuff is absolute genius, especially for a franchise that is less inclined or less able to spend on big time talent. The Royals, Pirates, Padres, etc. should really have jumped more on this bandwagon. I saw approxomately 30 Visalia Oaks games in 2002, and threw BP at about 1/2 dozen home games. They were the A’s class A affiliate then. The coaches preached constantly to these kids to be disciplined within the strike zone. Even in BP they were chastized for swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. I remember Nick Swisher launching high fastball after high fastball out of the yard during BP, only to be shouted down by the hitting coach, who would scream that he didn’t care about BP home runs, especially on bad pitches. The other player that was big in this book was a pudgy catcher from Alabama that I don’t believe ever made it for more than a Starbucks in the bigs. He was a smart and patient hitter, but honestly lacked all the other 4 tools to be successful, especially as a big league catcher. That’s the flaw of the philosophy. If you have a player like Swisher, who has the tools, patience at the plate and an ability to work the count and see more pitches to drive, you have an all-star. With the kid from Alabama…I think his name was Brown, you had a good hitter, but you can win without a catcher who can’t hit…its tough to win with a poor defensive catcher. Thats where I disagree with defense being only 5% of the game. Here you have 2 examples of the philosophy in practical application, and 2 bonus-baby first rounders. In the end, the guy who is less a defensive liability playing a much less important defensive position ,makes a much bigger big league impact.

    On the other side, the pitchers (one of whom was Rich Harden) were being taught to pound the strike zone, especially early in the count. Harden got more 2-3 pitch outs and more 10 pitch innings than any A ball pitcher I had ever seen. He wasn’t necessarily an overpowering strikeout guy then. He struck out guys because he got ahead early, and put them away with pitches out of the zone and he got guys to get themselves out with 0-1, 0-2, 1-2 pitches out of the strike zone.

    I think the philosophy, especially the on field stuff, can work. Getting high OBP guys to play center field, SS, 2B and maybe the corner outfield spots is, I think, smart. They still need to be able to play defense, though. I believe you still want a corner infielder and outfielders that can drive in runs and hit the ball into the bleachers. They can be more effective at this if they have the patience this philosophy preaches. Can you imagine what kind of numbers a guy like Soriano would put up if he stayed in the strike zone, ALWAYS waited for pitches to hammer, and didn’t get himself out on pitcher’s pitches so often? He’s already an MVP-type guy, but with 2-3 years in a minor league system where he was forced to have these good habits, he would be one of the scariest offensive players of my lifetime.

  • cubbiedude

    cap’n obvious, thanks for the comment.

    Nick Swisher’s story is featured prominently in the book. And I believe the chubby catcher’s name is Jeremy Brown. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences relative to the points Michael Lewis makes.

    If Alfonso Soriano hadn’t swung at (and hit) a way low and way outside pitch today, the Cubs might not have scored the winning run. My point is simply that the situation dictates the tactic. Still, it’s good to be well versed in all the options at your disposal.

  • mastrick (at work)

    I’m not a huge fan of the sabermetrics approach although I do like to look at statistics in general. I particularly look at OBP, SLG, HR, RBI, SB, ERA, WHIP, opponent’s BA, and scoring by inherited runners.

    I don’t agree with:

    *Fielding is only about 5% of the game (ie. almost negligible)- remember when we had the Keystone Cops (Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou) in the outfield? All those balls that dropped, all those throws to the wrong base?

  • cap’n obvious

    I have to agree Mastrick. The theory of fielding only being 5% doesn’t make sense, as fielding errors lead to added OBP for the opponent as well as increased scoring chances. So the theory defeats itself.

    The sabermetrics approach certainly tells something, but I have always been more fascinated with the disciplined approach to hitting as it takes place on the field. The patience and intelligence of hitters like Will Clark, Wally Joyner, Nick Swisher, Bonds, etc. These guys always saw a lot of pitches, and always seemed to get themselves a good pitch to drive. Adam Dunn is another guy. Players that embrace this have the higher OBP’s. I can see, to some extent, not wanting to get too deep into counts and leave the at-bat in the plate umpire’s hands, but by-and-large, the big league umpires are pretty good, and you can’t argue with the success these guys had/have. The on-filed approach and the sabermetric stats are definitely intertwined.

    • Actually, and I know what you meant, just to clarify:

      OBP is lessened by an error.

  • lizzie

    I’m trying to make a concerted effort to understand more about the various statistics and what they mean. So, to make sure I’m following the discussion (once I lose track I sometimes can’t recover)… the actual statistical number OBP would be lessened by the error since the batter doesn’t get credit for that, but the fact that an actual runner is on base would be increased by the error. Cap’n and Joe, is this what you (both) meant?

  • I believe you have it perfectly, Lizzie

  • MJ

    The theory of fielding only being 5% doesn’t make sense, as fielding errors lead to added OBP for the opponent as well as increased scoring chances. So the theory defeats itself.

    I’ve always argued that OBP should go up one an error. The player still got himself (or herself) on base.

    Great points all around cap’n.

  • cap’n obvious

    I agree…a high percentage of times reached base by error are on hard hit balls. Errors are counted like outs as far as batting avg. is concerned, which is fine, but they should be counted as a reached base for OBP. Just my opinion. Players should also get credit for RBI on errors, which I don’t think they are now.

  • MJ

    but they should be counted as a reached base for OBP

    Exactly. My OBP would be much higher with this scoring rule. 😆