Revisiting ‘Moneyball’ 12 years after its publication

How does one write about "Moneyball?" One might write about the book. One might write about the movie. One might write about the idea, although the idea has been misunderstood and misrepresented to the point where the term, if not the idea itself, has lost nearly all its meaning.

Today marks the 12th birthday of "Moneyball" (the book), though; on June 17, 2003, W.W. Norton officially published Michael Lewis’s "Moneyball" with what must have been just the faintest idea of what might come next. So let’s start there …

I knew about the book before there was a book. I was at the SABR Convention in Boston in the summer of 2002, when this fellow came up and introduced himself. It was Lewis, and he said he was working on a story about sabermetrics, and the Oakland A’s, and Billy Beane said I’d be a good guy to talk to.

Which of course was flattering, even though I’d never heard of this Lewis fellow before.

Well, that wasn’t precisely true. Just a couple of years earlier, I’d read Lewis’s book, "The New New Thing." And enjoyed reading it. But somehow I’d completely forgot the author’s name. So it wasn’t until we’d spent some time together that weekend – the introductory chat, a few hours in the Fenway Park bleachers, and finally a fine meal in the North End – that I realized who I’d been talking to.

I helped as much as I could with the book, might have offered a suggestion or two before the manuscript went off to the publisher the next winter.

All of which I mention mostly in the course of admitting that I was predisposed toward "Moneyball" well before it actually showed up in the bookstores. And of course I haven’t even mentioned yet that by the summer of 2002, I’d been a devotee of Bill James and sabermetrics for nearly 20 years.

Yeah, I was probably gonna like "Moneyball."

What I couldn’t imagine was how many other people would really like it. Or how many people would hate it. There were quite literally whole books devoted to hating "Moneyball." No joke. There was this one, and then this one, and the book Tony La Russa did with Buzz Bissinger was largely devoted to tearing down "Moneyball." Oh, and then there are all the books written by scouts in the last decade or so, nearly all of which included explicit pokes at Lewis, Beane, and anyone who might have appreciated their talents. Longtime scout Gib Bodet wrote a memoir a few years ago, which I enjoyed. But without "Moneyball," does this passage exist?

Another beef concerns something we find all too often in the game at this point. We have a lot of people who start scouting but have next to no background in the game as players, coaches, or managers. We have a lot of people entering the game from what I call “the side door.” They are fans; they’re very interested in baseball; they’re well read about the subject; they’re statistically oriented, and often come in as statistician type people. Here’s how that happens. They may have worked as interns for a couple of years. And the next thing you know they may start getting paid. Then they convince somebody that they would like to be a scout. They do that for a year or two and after four or five years they feel qualified to be a general manager. This may seem like a reach but it certainly is not. It’s a fact. Throughout all this one question lingers. Does the guy know anything about evaluating players? In my judgment many times the answer to that is a resounding, “NO!” In my view, it’s a slap at the integrity of the entire scouting process, and that is a weakness to the game.

Of course, sentiments like Bodets, along with those expressed so passionately in those other books, are on the losing side of history. Just looking at the books, there are three new books just this spring and summer about the data-driven front offices of the Mets, the Pirates, and the Dodgers. A few years ago, we had a great look at Tampa Bay’s front office. And I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence that if the season ended today, all four of those teams – plus the data-driven Cubs, the data-driven Astros, and the data-driven Cardinals – would all be in the playoffs.

Well, I don’t mean to overstate the point. Or draw distinctions, really. Brian Sabean relies on his scouts, and so does Beane. The notion that Beane didn’t appreciate scouts was overblown then, and it’s overblown now. If you think the idea in "Moneyball" was that scouts don’t matter, starting pitchers are irrelevant, and all you need to draft a bunch of young stars is their college statistics, then you’re led to the obvious conclusion that the idea was terribly flawed. Because we know that scouts do matter, and that Tim Hudson and Barry Zito and Mark Mulder were important, and that the “Moneyball draft” didn’t work out particularly well.

But what if the idea was simply … and you may accuse me of retconning if you like … but what if the idea was that there must be a better way of doing things, and the better way included more and better information, both statistical and otherwise, and better analysis of that information? Is that something you’d be interested in?

And while I will argue that it’s that idea that serves as the foundation for the success of "Moneyball," both commercially and artistically, it’s the characters that make "Moneyball" a place we actually enjoy visiting. Even today, I can remember specific details about Beane, our hero. But also about Chad Bradford and Jeremy Brown and Scott Hatteberg, and even Kevin Youkilis, who’s not even a proper character in the book. Because in the end, what makes "Moneyball" such a smashing success is that Lewis is a brilliant reporter and a tremendous storyteller. He’s out there almost every day, poking around, and every three or four years he finds a story that’s worthy of his talents.

Some of those stories get turned into movies, and it’s actually sort of incredible Lewis’s two books that have been turned into movies have combined for eight Academy Award nominations, including both for Best Picture. "Moneyball" (the movie) was a huge critical success and a modest financial success; "The Blind Side" was a huge financial success and a modest critical success (honestly, the Best Picture nomination was difficult to justify, even objectively speaking). As William Goldman cannily observed about the movies, “Nobody knows anything.” But this fall, Paramount’s releasing a star-studded adaptation of Lewis’s book, "The Big Short." And I wouldn’t bet against another hit.

I’ll just say "The Blind Side" was a highly effective movie, while I actually enjoyed "Moneyball" a great deal, warts and all (as I’ve written here, and also here). From a practical standpoint, "Moneyball: The Movie" served to upset certain groups of people all over again, although I suspect that most of the upsettables didn’t actually see it. And to be honest, I can’t really blame real, dyed-in-the-wool baseball people for being offended by the portrayal of Art Howe. Hell, I was sort of offended and I’m really difficult to offend.

But all those airport bookstores and all those showings on HBO guarantee that "Moneyball" – the book and the movie, anyway – aren’t going away.

And of course there’s no sign of the idea going away anytime soon, either. At least the idea as it’s popularly thought about. It’s been a dozen years now, and yet just yesterday, in the middle of the biggest baseball story of the season so far, there was this:

The Cardinals hired Luhnow in 2003 and empowered him to oversee the organization and expansion of the team’s analytics department. At the time, Moneyball, named for the book about the Oakland Athletics’ use of statistics to identify market inefficiencies when acquiring talent, was the rage, sweeping through baseball. Luhnow’s background in economics and technology provided him a nontraditional approach to baseball, but he gradually increased his sphere of influence. Starting in 2005, Luhnow oversaw the Cardinals’ scouting and amateur draft, and the team experienced an influx of prospects that would nourish this run of postseason appearances and titles.

Does any of this happen without "Moneyball?"

Well, yeah. Some of it does. Thanks to Bill James and Beane and so many others, the paradigm was going to change. What "Moneyball" did was make it change a lot faster. I believe that Jeff Luhnow and others like him were hired specifically because baseball’s billionaire owners and their friends read "Moneyball" – or at least read executive summaries – and said, “Hey, I need some of that stuff in my organization. Stat.”

There weren’t many Billy Beanes available, but there were a bunch of Paul DePodestas. And now half of Major League Baseball is run by guys who didn’t play professional baseball but did graduate from Ivy League schools.

Is this a good thing? Well, that obviously depends largely upon whom you ask. But it undeniably is a thing. And it’s a thing that wouldn’t have happened nearly as soon without that book.