Michael Lewis’s bestselling book Moneyball occupies a unique convergence of academic, sports, and popular fascination. Moneyball profiles Billy Beane and his management of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, with particular attention to Beane’s use of cutting-edge quantitative analysis in an industry portrayed as bound by tradition and decisionmaking by anecdote. Moneyball garnered recent attention again after the movie version of Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, suddenly halted production just five days before shooting was to begin in July. The event, or nonevent, brought forth several commentaries on Moneyball’s legacy, six years after its publication. Today’s post begins to explain my ambivalence about Moneyball’s place in the academic imagination; my next post continues by arguing that, perhaps to the surprise of its academic enthusiasts, Moneyball actually gets a good chunk of its baseball wrong and in the end, may tell a slightly different story than usually thought.
Baseball fans from outside academia would be shocked how influential and popular the book Moneyball has been within academic circles. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler wrote a book review of Moneyball for the Michigan Law Review, and professors have cited Moneyball as inspiration for new approaches to everything from faculty hiring to election administration to health care reform. There’s even a Moneyball-inspired blawg called Moneylaw. The great contribution of Moneyball was to puncture a certain overconfidence in untested conventional wisdom based on unsystematic anecdotal information. Moneyball offered a colorful example from baseball, now widely cited in academia, of how inefficiencies in markets can be exploited by canny operators who identify objective metrics of value underappreciated by traditional practices. As Sunstein and Thaler note, “If Lewis is right about the blunders and the confusions of those who run baseball teams, then his tale has a lot to tell us about blunders and confusions in many other domains.”
The problem with Moneyball is the hyperbole deployed to construct Lewis’s lesson of absolute quantitative triumph. A key element of Moneyball’s influence is the vividness and persuasiveness of Lewis’s account of the Oakland Athletics’ success, but it is so vivid and persuasive at least in part because it exaggerates the brilliance of Billy Beane and his quantitative approach to baseball.
A naive or otherwise uncritical reader might walk away from Moneyball in awe of the overwhelming genius of Beane and his methods. However, a shocking number of the predictive judgments described by the book as genius turned out not to be so smart at all, and the distorted descriptions of the then-present would stun a baseball-savvy reader today (e.g., consider Lewis’s repeated derision of Miguel Tejada, during a season when he won the league MVP and finished fourth in win shares). This sounds like petty criticism of the book, but it’s not. Lewis’s hyperbole is central to his persuasive case that baseball traditionalists didn’t just view baseball differently than Beane and his team, but that they view baseball backwardly, made misjudgments to which Beane would never fall prey, and clung to hoary myths despite their demonstrable wrongness.
Of course, my point is not that statistical approaches have no place in baseball and elsewhere. In fact, as someone sympathetic to statistical analysis and enthusiastic about the new metrics now available to baseball fans after the book’s publication, I always found annoying Moneyball’s overstated portrayal of Beane as nearly infallible. It would be wrong to replace an overconfidence in qualitative data with an overconfidence in quantitative data to the disdainful exclusion of other useful information, particularly after watching major financial institutions melt down because of similar overconfidence. I won’t rehash what is a familiar methodological debate for social scientists, but the modest and important point is that statistical approaches, while incredibly powerful, have at times their own weaknesses and certainly no exclusive claim to truth, as the book Moneyball often overclaims. As Ian Ayres explains in Super Crunchers, a less colorful but more carefully written book than Moneyball, “In the end, Super Crunching [i.e., quantitative data-based analysis] is not a substitute for intuition but a complement . . . . The future belongs to those who can comfortably inhabit both worlds.”
Where does Moneyball exaggerate Beane’s brilliance? In a future post, I’ll describe in detail Oakland’s 2002 draft, which is a central event in the book. However, most general assessments of Moneyball’s value as baseball philosophy have understood it as either validated by past successes, or undercut by Oakland’s current failures. And as Howard Bryant reports, “Around certain quadrants of baseball, there is no shortage of enjoyment in the belief that the team’s sub-.500 record over the past 2½ years — Oakland [at the time, owned] the third-worst record in the majors — is proof that the game is witnessing the denouement of the Moneyball legacy.” Nonetheless, the bottom line of wins and losses doesn’t necessarily attend to the strength of the causal relationship between Moneyball as baseball philosophy and those wins and losses. In other words, the better questions might be how much of Oakland’s past successes were attributable to Moneyball’s wisdom, and how much of Oakland’s current misfortune is attributable to Moneyball’s failings? As to the former, I am more skeptical than Lewis.
I agree with the consensus within professional baseball that the A’s success under Billy Beane is attributable more to their fortune in having excellent starting pitching than the Moneyball offensive strategies discussed so heavily in the book. Set aside the fact that Oakland has won only one playoff series, and no championships, during Beane’s entire tenure. From 2000 to 2004, the Athletics won at least 91 games during each regular season and made the playoffs four times in five seasons. However, each year during that stretch, the Athletics were led by the trio of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito—three all-star starting pitchers who were improbably healthy every year and affordable. Oakland’s pitching shined during the period, never finishing lower than third in earned runs allowed and finishing first overall in 2002 and 2003. But since Hudson and Mulder were traded, Oakland has qualified for the playoffs only once in six seasons. Of course, the Athletics’ offense played a role in the team’s success, but its ranking among the 14 American League teams in runs scored was third in 2000, fourth in 2001, eighth in 2002, ninth in 2003, and ninth in 2004. Solid to mediocre. Oakland’s offensive performance seems quite unremarkable when you look closely, despite all the attention Moneyball brought it.
I suspect that specific details about Moneyball matter little to most of its academic enthusiasts. Moneyball simply provides a coathook from which to hang the argument that markets contain exploitable inefficiencies, or that quantitative analysis provides clear-eyed empirical truth ignored by the superstitious. These can be fair and useful points regardless whether Moneyball effectively cements its case about the Oakland A’s. Pointing out Moneyball’s hyperbole does not undermine the ultimate value of quantitative analysis in baseball or elsewhere. What is more, Beane is surely a good general manager who has had his run of successes. But a better, more accurate understanding of the underlying narrative in Moneyball presents a better, fairer assessment of what lessons Moneyball actually offers us.
There’s much more to say about Moneyball. Next time, more detail and what I think is the real lesson of Moneyball.