kottke.org posts about Moneyball
Tabitha Soren, who you may remember as a reporter for MTV News, has for the past number of years been working as a photographer. One of her projects began more than 13 years ago as she accompanied her husband Michael Lewis on his visits to the Oakland A’s while working on Moneyball. After the book was published, Soren kept returning to photograph the up-and-coming players Lewis had profiled, following their careers as they either made it in the big leagues or didn’t.
Since then, she has followed the players through their baseball lives, an alternate reality of long bus rides, on-field injuries, friendships and marriages entered and exited, constant motion, and very hard work, often for very little return. Some of the subjects, like Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, have gone on to become well-known, respected players at the highest level of the game. Some left baseball to pursue other lines of work, such as selling insurance and coal mining. Others have struggled with poverty and even homelessness.
The culmination of the project was a gallery show called Fantasy Life, which is now being released as a book.
Why does the US have only two main political parties? Is it because that’s what people want? Nope! It’s just an artifact of our system of voting. From C.G.P. Grey, a video explaining the problems with first-past-the-post voting systems (like the one used in US elections). Great simple explanation…well worth watching. Check out the rest of Grey’s videos in this series, particularly the one on gerrymandering.
Nothing in politics gets my blood boiling faster than gerrymandering…it is so grossly and obviously unfair. I bet you don’t even need to guess which of the two US political parties has pushed unfair redistricting in recent years.
More than anything for me, this is the story of politics in America right now: a shrinking and increasingly extremist underdog party has punched above its weight over the past few election cycles by methodically exploiting the weaknesses in our current political system. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, the passing of voter ID laws, and spreading propaganda via conservative and social media channels has led to disproportionate Republican representation in many areas of the country which they then use to gerrymander and pass more restrictive voter ID laws. They’ve limited potential conservative third party candidates (like Trump!) by incorporating them and their views into the main party. I would not be surprised if Republican donors strategically support left-of-center third-party candidates as spoilers — it’s a good tactic, underhanded but effective. They increasingly ignore political norms and practices to stymie Democratic efforts, like the general inaction of the Republican-led Congress over the past few years and the Senate’s refusal to consider Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
None of this is an accident. They are a small but (and this is important) unified team that works for the benefit of the group above all else. In football terms, the Democrats are the stronger team: they gain more yards (look at Clinton’s ever-growing lead in the popular vote), they earn more first downs, and they might even score more points over the course of the season. But the Republicans won the Super Bowl by sticking together and deftly pressing their advantages to change the rules of the game in their favor. It’s a Moneyball strategy, but for politics.1 By almost any measure, the US is more liberal than it was 20 years ago and yet we have an incoming administration which is potentially authoritarian, influenced and advised by extremist white nationalists, and unapologetically corruptible. Somehow, we need to make the game more fair again. Fairness and justice should not be partisan. Americans — all Americans, liberal, centrist, and conservative — deserve a fair political process that reflects as closely as possible the collective needs and desires of the citizenry. Anything less should be unacceptable.
Update: Ross Lincoln makes some similar points about the election and liberal majority in America in a series of tweets about the importance of talking about Clinton’s popular vote totals.
14) Meanwhile, the great lie told by GOPs is that they’re ‘real’ America and that they’re a true majority, not liberals.
15) So when they win, regardless of circumstances, press & even many ostensible liberals fall in line w/demands liberals stop being liberal.
16) That’s happening now bigly. Even the LA Weekly published a horrid little illiterate screed about how liberals suck. LA Weekly!
17) but here’s the thing: Hill’s campaign seriously erred in ignoring key swing states. But she still is getting a historic pop vote margin
18) pushing 3 million more votes than Trump got. Possibly going to have gotten more votes than Obama got in 2012.
19) by any reasonable standard of judgment, clear majority of voters did not want Trump in office and most of those voters wanted Hillary.
20) Trump literally won only thanks to a technicality. And yet everyone is trying to push this idea that liberal votes don’t really count.
21) we’re told *we* live in a bubble. But as other ppl have noted, Los Angeles looks a hell of a lot more like America than Sapulpa, OK.
22) before anyone accuses me of being a snooty coastal elite, I am from Sapulpa, OK.
23) if Dems reacted to winning E.C. but not pop vote by saying OK isn’t a real place and doesn’t count, there’d be riots and impeachment.
24) That’s literally what is happening to liberals. But we didn’t just win the pop vote b/c of a quirk. We won it BIG. There are more of us.
25) if anything, we’re the ignored majority. Not conservatives, who literally cannot win fair and square.
See also Steven Johnson’s piece about how the wealthiest, most liberal, and most urban states pay the most taxes and have the least representation.
If you love reading about unusual Moneyball-esque strategies in sports, check out how a player on the Nigerian team won the Scrabble World Championship last year.
So while Scrabblers still fancy bingos, they increasingly hold off on other high-scoring moves, such as six-letter words, or seven-letter terms that only use six tiles from the rack. Instead, by spelling four- or five-letter words, a player can keep their most useful tiles — like E-D or I-N-G — for the next round, a strategy called rack management. The Nigerians rehearse it during dayslong scrimmage sessions.
Also, thanks to a design quirk, the board is oddly generous to short words. Most of the bonus squares are just four or five letters apart.
“The geometry of the Scrabble board rewards five-letter words,” said Mr. Mackay, who lost to Mr. Jighere in the world championship final, during which the Nigerian nabbed a triple word score with the antiquated adjective KATTI, meaning “spiteful.” “It’s a smart tactic.”
After Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball in 2003 about the Oakland A’s, their general manager Billy Beane, and his then-unorthodox and supposedly superior managerial strategy, a curious thing happened: the A’s didn’t do that well. They went to the playoffs only twice between 2003 and 2011 and finished under .500 four times. Teams like the Red Sox, who adopted Beane’s strategies with the punch of a much larger payroll, did much better during those years.
But Beane hung in there and has figured out how to beat the big boys again, with two first place in 2012 & 2013 and the best record in the majors this year so far. Will Leitch explains how.
First, don’t spend a lot on a little; spend a little on a lot.
The emotional through-line of Moneyball is Beane learning from his experience as a failed prospect and applying it to today’s game. The idea: Scouts were wrong about him, and therefore they’ll be wrong about tons of guys. Only trust the numbers.
That was an oversimplification, but distrusting the ability of human beings to predict the future has been the centerpiece of the A’s current run. This time, though, the A’s aren’t just doubting the scouts; they’re also skeptical that statistical analysis can reliably predict the future (or that their analysis could reliably predict it better than their competitors). Instead, Beane and his front office have bought in bulk: They’ve brought in as many guys as possible and seen who performed. They weren’t looking for something that no one else saw: They amassed bodies, pitted them against one another, were open to anything, and just looked to see who emerged. Roger Ebert once wrote that the muse visits during the act of creation, rather than before. The A’s have made it a philosophy to just try out as many people as possible — cheap, interchangeable ones — and pluck out the best.
Ever since the World Cup in 2010, I’ve been watching a fair amount of soccer. Mostly La Liga, Premier League, and Champions League but a smattering of other games here and there. As my affection for the game has grown, I’ve mostly made my peace with diving. Diving in soccer is the practice of immediately falling to the ground when a foul has been committed against you (or even if one hasn’t) in order to get the referee’s attention. To Americans who have grown up watching American football and basketball, it is also one of the most ridiculous sights in sports…these manly professional athletes rolling around on the ground with fake injuries and then limping around the pitch for a few seconds before resuming their runs at 100% capacity. I still dislike the players who go down too often, lay it on too thick, or dive from phantom fouls, but much of the time there’s only one referee and two assistants for that huge field and you’re gonna get held and tackled badly so how else are you going to get that call? You dive.
Except for Lionel Messi. It’s not that he never dives (he does) but he stays on his feet more often than not while facing perhaps the most intense pressure in the game. Here’s a compilation video of Messi not going down:
In recent years, efforts have been made on various fronts to apply the lessons of Moneyball to soccer. I don’t think diving is one of the statistics measured because if it were, it might happen a lot less. Poor tackles and holding usually occur when the player/team with the ball has the advantage. By diving instead of staying on your feet, you usually give away that advantage (unless you’re in the box, have Ronaldo on your team taking free kicks, or can somehow hoodwink the ref into giving the other guy a yellow) and that doesn’t make any sense to me. If you look at Messi in that video, his desire to stay upright allows him to keep the pressure on the defense in many of those situations, creating scoring opportunities and even points that would otherwise end up as free kicks. It seems to me that Messi’s reluctance to dive is not some lofty character trait of his; it’s one of the things that makes him such a great player: he never gives up the advantage when he has it.
Unsurprisingly, the MLB teams currently drawing the most benefit from the lessons of Moneyball are those with lots of money operating in big markets.
Well, of course, the big-market teams figured it out. They hired their own Ivy League consultants. They bought even better computers. Walks is only one tiny aspect in it … but who leads the American League in walks this year? The New York Yankees. Last year? The Boston Red Sox. The year before that? The Boston Red Sox. And so it goes. Now, six years later, it seems to me that the small-market teams are really grasping and trying to find some loophole, some opening that will allow them to win in this tough financial environment.
Let’s take a look at who’s still alive here. Brad Pitt: yes. Aaron Sorkin: yes. Steven Soderbergh: no. Expected soon: Michael Bay, Alan Ball, Sam Mendes, McG, and M Night Shamalamadingdong. (thx, david)
The combination of Pitt and Soderbergh and Lewis wasn’t enough to keep the Moneyball movie afloat…Sony canceled it “days before shooting was to begin”.
Accounts from more than a dozen people involved with the film, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid damaging professional relationships, described a process in which the heady rush toward production was halted by a studio suddenly confronted by plans for something artier and more complex than bargained for.
Sony was probably looking for something more BIG RED TEXTish.
Wait, Steven Soderbergh is directing the film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball? When did this wonderfulness happen?!! Last I heard, the director was the guy who did Marley & Me. Perhaps Pitt put the kibosh on that and lobbied for Soderbergh? (via fimoculous)
Michael Lewis cast his Moneyball lens on basketball in this week’s NY Times Magazine. The Billy Beane of the roundball story, more or less, is Shane Battier, a guard for the Houston Rockets. Battier doesn’t seem like a great basketball player, but he does a lot of little things that helps his team win.
Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly Âreduces their shooting percentages.
Battier sounds like an intriguing fellow but the most interesting part of the article is about how the players’ incentives differ in basketball from other major American sports.
There is a tension, peculiar to basketball, between the interests of the team and the interests of the individual. The game continually tempts the people who play it to do things that are not in the interest of the group. On the baseball field, it would be hard for a player to sacrifice his team’s interest for his own. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one: by doing what’s best for himself, the player nearly always also does what is best for his team. “There is no way to selfishly get across home plate,” as Morey puts it. “If instead of there being a lineup, I could muscle my way to the plate and hit every single time and damage the efficiency of the team — that would be the analogy. Manny Ramirez can’t take at-bats away from David Ortiz. We had a point guard in Boston who refused to pass the ball to a certain guy.”
No wonder it’s so hard to build a basketball team with the right balance of skills and personalities. Take five guys, put them on a court, let them do whatever they think they need to do to get a larger contract next year, and maybe you get some pretty good results. Now, consider a situation where the plus/minus statistic is the basis for player salaries and all of sudden, players need to figure out how they can make the other four guys on the floor better. And while everyone is making adjustments to each others’ games, each player is adjusting to everyone else’s game, and the process becomes this fragile and intricate nonlinear dance that results in either beautiful chaos or the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers.
PS. The brief author bio at the end of the article continues the recent game of “next book” Whack-A-Mole from Lewis. Since the publication of The Blind Side in 2006, Lewis’ next book has been listed in various outlets as being about New Orleans/Katrina, financial panics (which turned out to be an anthology edited by Lewis), his sequel to Liar’s Poker about the current financial crisis, and now is listed as “Home Game, a memoir about fatherhood”. I give up.
Every year or so, the same question is asked: how is the Moneyball strategy working out for the Oakland A’s. This year’s answer is: pretty damn good.
Additions like [Frank] Thomas, motivated by this incremental approach, help explain why the A’s have won so many games in recent years even though they’ve consistently traded away or declined to re-sign their top players (Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, etc.), who demand top dollar—and largely on the basis of past performance. In short, Beane has bought low and sold high repeatedly and systematically, and as a result the A’s have won more games this decade than every team in the league except the Yankees (whose team payroll is routinely two-to-four times larger than Oakland’s).
Check out the current positions of the A’s and Yankees on the salary vs. performance graph.
For the four or five of you that haven’t yet read Moneyball, the entire thing is available online, courtesy of a Russian site presumably out of the reach of the American legal system.
Long audio interview with Michael Lewis by economist Russ Roberts on “the hidden economics of baseball and football”. “Michael Lewis talks about the economics of sports — the financial and decision-making side of baseball and football — using the insights from his bestselling books on baseball and football: Moneyball and The Blind Side. Along the way he discusses the implications of Moneyball for the movie business and other industries, the peculiar ways that Moneyball influenced the strategies of baseball teams, the corruption of college football, and the challenge and tragedy of kids who live on the streets with little education or prospects for success.”
The Ballad of Big Mike, the most intriguing story of a future NFL left tackle you’re likely to read. The piece is adapted from Michael Lewis’ upcoming book on football, The Blind Side. Lewis previously wrote Moneyball.
Update: Gladwell has read The Blind Side and loved it. “The Blind Side is as insightful and moving a meditation on class inequality in America as I have ever read.”
Rethinking Moneyball. Jeff Passan looks at how the Oakland A’s 2002 draft class, immortalized in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, has done since then. “It is not so much scouts vs. stats anymore as it is finding the right balance between information gleaned by scouts and statistical analyses. That the Moneyball draft has produced three successful big-league players, a pair of busts and two on the fence only adds to its polarizing nature.” Richard Van Zandt did a more extensive analysis back in April.
The Wages of Wins sounds like Moneyball, but for all sports, not just baseball. Gladwell has a review in this week’s New Yorker (“We become dance critics, blind to Iverson’s dismal shooting percentage and his excessive turnovers, blind to the reality that the Philadelphia 76ers would be better off without him.”), Tyler Cowen has a quick summary, and here’s the blog for the book (“Most stars play worse in the playoffs.”). Also, the formula for the Win Score statistic they refer to in the book.
Great profile by Michael Lewis of Mike Leach, Texas Tech’s football coach. Leach “believes that both failure and success slow players down, unless they will themselves not to slow down.” ‘When they fail, they become frustrated. When they have success, they want to become the thinking-man’s football team.’” Must-read article if you’re even a casual football fan. Here’s another article on Leach from the SJ Merc.
Update: Steven Levitt and the Freakonomist commenters weigh in on Lewis’ article. (thx, michael)
Jeff Ma, who was a key member of the infamous MIT blackjack team, notes the turn around of the Oakland A’s and the reversal of criticism directed toward GM Billy Beane. Even Steven Levitt, who thinks not too highly of Moneyball, has conceded that maybe Beane and the A’s are onto something.
Since Lewis writes primarily on business, business folks will undoubtably read Moneyball with an eye toward picking up some pointers on how to run their companies. Some will completely misunderstand what Lewis discovered about major league baseball and beefheadedly apply their new “knowledge”. The lesson of Moneyball is not that there are potential employees out there that are cheaper than your current employees. That’s the holy grail of large American corporations and exactly what they would want to hear.
As Lewis reports, what Oakland actually did is a) measure player statistics as objectively as they could, b) identify players that perform well in those statistical categories, c) discover that the players they valued were not valued by other teams and were therefore relatively cheap, and d) went out and got the players they wanted at bargain prices. As much as the business person would like to skip directly to step d, it’s impossible to determine if that will actually be effective unless you do the a-c analysis first.