Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

89. Moneyball

Note: This post is the eighty-ninth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Just a short, light-hearted post this week, as vacation calls (next post will be on May 17).

I've been reading the book 'Moneyball' by Michael Lewis. When I started reading it, I didn't do it with the intention of relating it to this series of posts, but I couldn't help myself (yes, it's possible that I should seek help of some sort).

Moneyball tells the story of how the Oakland A's were able to succeed at Major League Baseball, despite having less money to spend on players than their competition, by innovating in their approach to winning games.

Baseball, like most sports, is in essence a guardian activity, fulfilling the guardian precept to 'make rich use of the leisure', by the same token as the 'shun trading' precept led to the establishment of the Olympics only for amateurs, not for professional athletes. Of course the Olympics is a long way from only allowing amateurs to compete, and professional baseball is even further away from shunning trading in any form.

But still, there is certainly respect for tradition in baseball, and deceit for the sake of the task (hiding signals, stealing bases, etc.), loyal fans, fortitude, fatalism, hierarchy and so on.

But out of the pro sports, baseball least resembles a traditional battle for territory where strength and perseverance in the face of the opposition is required. To a large extent, baseball consists of specific tasks that don't involve direct contact with the opposition players and which are amenable to detailed statistical analysis.

In Moneyball, we see how the management of the Oakland A's takes advantage of the statistical nature of baseball to introduce rational commercial syndrome analysis in order to be efficient at the business of translating dollars into wins.

An early chapter, "How to Find a Ballplayer" outlines the clash between the traditional way of scouting and the new, disruptive, innovative approaches taken by the A's.

"Reason, even science, was what Billy Beane was intent on bringing to baseball."

"Billy had taken to saying, "We take fifty guys [in the draft] and we celebrate if two of them make it. In what other business is two for fifty a success? If you did that in the stock market you'd go broke."

"It was only baseball tradition that allowed scouting directors and scouts to go off and find the ballplayers on their own without worrying too much about the GM looking over their shoulders. And if there was one thing [scouting director] Grady knew about Billy, it was that he could give a fuck about baseball tradition."

It's not just tradition vs. innovation, there was also the related battle between guardian virtues of loyalty and presenting a united front vs.the commercial precept of dissent for the sake of the task

"The old scouts aren't built to argue; they are built to agree. They are part of a tightly woven class of former baseball players."

One of the key points the A's focussed on was to look at the actual factual record of each player's accomplishments rather than focussing on how much they 'looked' like an athlete, like someone you'd wanting fighting with you in a war, as opposed to someone who can stand in the batter's box and tell balls from strikes.

"Over and over the old scouts will say, "The guy has a great body," or "This guy may be the best body in the draft," And every time they do, Billy will say, "We're not selling jeans here"

A final element of the commercial syndrome was 'Collaborate Easily With Strangers and Aliens.' The first person to send the A's down the road of change was Sandy Alderson. In describing t
he difficulty in changing the way things were done, Alderson explained that, "I had credibility problems. I didn't have a baseball background."

So I found it interesting to see the same inroads made by innovation into the traditional way of doing things that Weber described in 'The Spirit of Capitalism' echoed so closely in a book about baseball.

But for all that, the most compelling part of Moneyball as entertainment is a chapter entitled, "The Human Element" which follows A's general manager Billy Beane as the A's, looking to set a record for consecutive wins, first take the lead in a game 11-0, then end up tied at 11 and finally win 12-11. Even in a story about the rational, commercially minded approach of investing in players who are productive, and being innovative and throwing tradition away and being efficient and thrifty, it's still the dramatic elements, the moments when rationality fails that draws us in and moves us. Moneyball works, but it's just business.

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