Review: Lewis’s Moneyball

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Michael Lewis

Moneyball is among the top couple of books Michael Lewi. Its on one level a story of the Oakland As and how they do well with almost no money by capitalizing on a new way of looking at baseball that was developed by Bill James, one of the great baseball statisticians of all time.* Its also about larger trends in sports (and the world) toward analytics. If baseball, or stats, is you kind of thing, you’ve read it. If it isn’t, this review isn’t going to convince you to do so.

Like all of Lewis’s books its fun and well written, and really that is reason enough to read this, but I just want to flag that I also think there is a mini-trend happening of books that make a fetish out of numbers and statistical models and I kind of wonder what it says (if it says anything) that some of these books (Freakanomics, Moneyball, Signal to Noise) have been huge best sellers. Are people becoming more interested in the analysis that numbers offer, is it just a fad in mathlite, or does it not mean anything at all?

I’m not sure, but this one is recommended.

On Barry Bonds

If we are going to accept the Babe Ruth is one of the greatest hitters of all time (even though he didn’t have to face some of the greatest pitchers of his generation) or that Hank Aaron was better than anyone playing the game now (even though pitchers have improved dramatically) then shouldn’t we accept the fact that Barry Bonds played in an era where steroid use was common and he was the best in that time period at hitting the ball real far?

Old friend Tom says that this is basically a no win situation for the Bonds defenders. If you say that past records are circumspect, you negate the reason it is important for Bonds to break those records.

I see his point, but I think the reason to allow both a sort of (dare I say it?) postmodern view of baseball statistic is that these numbers not only attempt to show who is empirically the best homerun hitter of all time (which is of course impossible to determine) but also to give us a way to talk about the changes of the game over the span of its history.

I am more interested in the way hitters have preformed over time because of changes in the racial dynamics of the game, or the velocity of pitchers tracked over time and in relation to the height of the pitchers mound than I am in trying to pretend that the conditions under which Ty Cobb played are the same as the conditions under which Jason Giambi plays.

So, I don’t think there should be an asterisk next to Bond’s name when he tops the all time list. Breaking the conditions under which a player performed into a single number is a silly and frankly boring way of understanding the game. Lets instead talk about Bonds in the context of steroids, incredible advances in sports medicine, ridiculously fast pitchers, and the designated hitter rule, lets not pretend that his record is somehow less valid than other players because that is giving the historically constructed numbers too much credit.

What do the rest of you think?