Moneyball: In Praise of Sabermetrics

I must admit that I like reading about baseball much more than watching it. I can lap up article after article about Ichiro Suzuki by Time Magazine, but sitting through a baseball game is something I can only afford to do when I’m already under the influence of Advil. Still, sportswriting remains an affecting genre for me. Despite being prone to romanticism, there is a lot of naked emotion inherent in it, chronicling the triumphs and follies of grown men risking life and limb to chase after a ball.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is a crusade under the banner of sabermetrics. Michael Lewis’s infamous book about an underfunded baseball team that manages to outsmart several richer teams hinges on a single point–that the old boy’s club of Major League Baseball inaccurately measures the merits and skills of their own players and that this shortsightedness can be exploited by a smarter, if poorer, team. The secret weapon? Statistical analysis.

Meant to ruffle feathers from the start, the book pits traditional wisdom against stats geekery, a battle waged by the main character in the narrative. The book focuses on the larger-than-life General Manager for the Oakland A’s, former Major Leaguer Billy Beane. He was a man, according to Lewis, who was ultimately let down as a youth by old baseball knowledge. In fact, Lewis characterizes him as both tragic and heroic, making a stand in preventing his story of failure from happening to another player again.

The book manages to be hilarious and poignant at the same time, weaving together different time periods to create a layered narrative that echoes its themes as you read on. The scene on the second chapter describing the agony traditional baseball scouts feel in the face of Beane’s unorthodox style had me laughing out loud several times. Meanwhile, the depiction of down-and-out MLB players given a second chance effectively conveys the inevitable heartbreak that awaits most pro-baseball players.

Lewis gets a little heavy-handed when describing baseball plays, using the literary equivalent of the slow-motion shot numerous times. Actually, the most gripping section for me was the extended discussion of Bill James, the founding figure of sabermetrics. What should’ve been a pretty anemic subject matter (newsletters, mimeographs and statistics, oh my!) showcased Lewis’s ability to transfix the reader and transcend the abstraction of numbers. I still know diddly squat about baseball but at least now I know that on base percentages are important for offense. Just don’t ask me why.

Moneyball is the most compelling book I’ve read so far this year, and it validates my decision to read more non-fiction books. Much of the discussion on the merits of the book is on the effectiveness of sabermetrics as a tool for measuring baseball talent. I’ll leave that conclusion to the wonks. For me, it is a successful account about an underdog tenaciously holding to the belief that the rich Goliaths of the sport can be defeated and a book that manages to humanize the pursuit of sports statistics.

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