Moneyball

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When Paul DePodesta and Billy Beane apply statistics to the practice of acquiring professional baseball players, they’re greeted with widespread derision from baseball fans and from other general managers. Paul and Billy’s goal is simple: to win as many games for the Oakland A’s as possible by assembling the most valuable players at a cost they can afford. That they face so much criticism for trying to win games in the most rational, logical way suggests that the world of baseball is fundamentally irrational: coaches, players, and fans have many different forms of bias that interfere with winning games. By discussing some of these forms of bias, Michael Lewis paints an insightful picture of 21st century baseball and, more broadly, of the way that inherited “wisdom” can in fact lead to bias against change or progress.

Perhaps the single most important form of bias that Moneyball discusses is the bias toward the particular and away from the general. Put another way, coaches, scouts, and fans tend to prefer a glamorous but inconsistent player—someone who’s alternately great and terrible—to a consistently good player, even if the latter player scores more runs overall. Moneyball dramatizes this form of bias through the career of Billy Beane, a once-promising baseball player who burned out after being drafted to play professionally with the Mets. One reason for baseball’s strong bias toward the particular is the scouting system. Talent scouts for professional baseball teams travel the country and watch thousands of different high school and college games. As a result, they’re forced to make huge generalizations about players’ talents after watching them for a relatively short time, which requires them to ignore some important evidence in the process. In high school, Billy Beane was one of the most promising ballplayers in the country. However, talent scouts from professional teams failed to notice when his batting average dropped dramatically in his senior year. Based on a small handful of his games, they’d already decided that he was major-league material, and therefore they ignored his overall record. The bias in favor of the particular also harms the way that coaches deal with ballplayers. During Billy Beane’s time with the Mets, for instance, his coaches didn’t do a good job of preparing him for the psychological rigors of professional sports. Instead, Billy’s coaches focused excessively on Beane’s performance in specific parts of the game and pressured him to make big, aggressive plays. Unable to cope with the constant stress of playing ball, Billy left the major leagues and, eventually became a general manager – the person who assembles the personnel of the baseball team, overseeing the hiring of an on-field manager and the acquisition of players. As the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy used statistics to get a good overall sense for a player’s abilities, effectively treating ballplayers in the opposite of the way that he was treated. As a result, Billy favored reliable players who wouldn’t crack under pressure over talented but inconsistent and undisciplined players like him.

As Billy’s experiences as a player suggest, the game of baseball also has a strong bias toward charisma and glamor, which often mars the overall quality of the game. In particular, baseball coaches, players, and fans have a strong bias against ballplayers who are overweight, hairy, and generally not conventionally athletic-seeming. One of the primary reasons that Billy elicits so much criticism for his 2002 draft picks is that few of his chosen athletes look like pro athletes—they have the stats for success, but not the physiques. The bias toward charisma and glamor also manifests in the way coaches train athletes to play. Indeed, coaches from some non-Oakland teams tell their athletes to swing at balls in the strike zone, avoid walks, and steal bases—in other words, actions that look cool, but also limit some less-glamorous outcomes – such as earning walks – that can boost the team’s chances of winning the game.

As strange as it sounds, Moneyball shows that baseball professionals and fans aren’t always most interested in seeing athletes win games. Sometimes, due to different sources of bias, they’d rather see ballplayers take risks and make big, aggressive plays that don’t always pay off. One could even argue—and many people have—that, by eliminating traditional sources of bias from baseball, Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta made the sport duller and less interesting. However, as Moneyball shows, Billy and Paul didn’t just change the way baseball was played: by eliminating the strong bias toward charisma, glamor, risk, and the particular, they helped world-class baseball players achieve the success that had previously alluded them. Many of the ballplayers who found success with the Oakland A’s had previously seen their talents ignored or even belittled—under Billy’s leadership, they finally got the success they deserved.

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Bias ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Bias appears in each Chapter of Moneyball. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Bias Quotes in Moneyball

Below you will find the important quotes in Moneyball related to the theme of Bias.
Chapter 1 Quotes

When things did not go well for Billy on the playing field, a wall came down between him and his talent, and he didn’t know any other way to get through the wall than to try to smash a hole in it. It wasn't merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know how to fail.
The scouts never considered this. By the end of Billy’s senior year the only question they had about Billy was: Can I get him?

Related Characters: Billy Beane
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lewis discusses the early baseball career of Billy Beane, a once-talented athlete who, after being drafted by the Mets, floundered in the minor leagues and never lived up to his potential. As a high school player, Billy wowed professional talent scouts: they thought he was a sure-fire major-leaguer. However, beneath his impressive plays and charisma, Billy was insecure and couldn’t cope with failure, no matter how small. When he made a mistake, he’d allow his failure to tarnish the rest of his game, instead of moving past the mistake as the best athletes do.

One of Lewis’s insights here is that Billy’s psychological profile was as important as his physical profile to his success, a fact that the scouts couldn’t see. Naively, they assumed that Billy would be fine as a major league player, even though he wasn’t psychologically mature enough for big-league play. The traditional scouting system, Lewis suggests, is severely flawed: it focuses too much on an athlete’s big, impressive plays, and not enough on the athlete’s endurance, determination, or maturity. Years later, as General Manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy is inspired to institute a new, sabermetric approach to drafting and acquiring players, recognizing that, as evidenced by his own career, the traditional scouting methods don’t always work.

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Chapter 2 Quotes

There was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who actually played the game to generalize wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn't. There was also a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy's most recent performance: what he did last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly—but not lastly—there was the bias toward what people saw with their own eyes, or thought they had seen. The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality. There was a lot you couldn't see when you watched a baseball game.

Related Characters: Paul DePodesta
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, we’re introduced to Paul DePodesta, the man who used a sabermetric player acquisition strategy for the Oakland A’s during their 2002 season, rather than listening to the advice of talent scouts. DePodesta came from a sports background, but he’d also studied economics, and he realized that, by studying an athlete’s overall record of play, general managers could identify players for their holistic talent and get a good idea of how they’d perform in major league games. Before 2002, the Oakland A’s had sometimes used a limited sabermetric approach to player acquisition, but this approach had always been balanced out by the strong influence of old-fashioned talent scouts.

As the passage suggests, the management of the Oakland A’s was severely set back by the scouting system—in particular, three main sources of bias. When trying to identify good athletes, talent scouts ignored statistical record altogether—instead, they trusted what they saw with their own eyes. The athletes they selected had to wow them with big, impressive plays and, ass a result, scouts sometimes neglected steady, reliable players who ultimately performed better as professional athletes. Paul realized that by eliminating bias from the scouting system—trusting the numbers instead of his own senses—he could assemble a formidable baseball team while also saving a fortune.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Jeremy Brown, owner of the University of Alabama offensive record books as a catcher, had been so perfectly conditioned by the conventional scouting wisdom that he refused to believe that any major league baseball team could think highly of him.

Related Characters: Jeremy Brown
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we’re introduced to one of the most unlikely players on the Oakland A’s: Jeremy Brown. Jeremy isn’t a very impressive player, at least not traditionally speaking. He’s overweight, slow, and generally incapable of wowing the talent scouts. However, Paul DePodesta uses sabermetrics to prove that Jerry is actually one of the most impressive players in baseball—he just doesn’t fit with the traditional profile of how a great player looks and acts. Most surprisingly, Jeremy has been surrounded by traditionally-minded scouts for so long that he doesn’t even think of himself as a great player, even though he is. During his time with the Oakland A’s, coaches shape Jeremy into one of the most impressive players in the entire league, proving that sabermetrics can identify great players who would otherwise be ignored by Major League Baseball.

A revaluation in the stock market has consequences for companies and for money managers. The pieces of paper don't particularly care what you think of their intrinsic value. A revaluation in the market for baseball players resonates in the lives of young men. It was as if a signal had radiated out from the Oakland A’s draft room and sought, laserlike, those guys who for their whole career had seen their accomplishments understood with an asterisk. The footnote at the bottom of the page said, "He’ll never go anywhere because he doesn't look like a big league ballplayer."

Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Michael Lewis gives an overall evaluation of the sabermetric revolution in baseball management that occurred in the early 2000s. Thanks to the policies of Paul DePodesta and the success of the Oakland A’s in the 2002 season, other sports franchises gradually realized that they, too, should be using sabermetrics to evaluate players’ abilities, rather than relying on the testimony of experienced but ultimately unreliable talent scouts who based their decisions on superficial factors (such as appearance, or performance in a small handful of games). It’s no coincidence that many of the players drafted by the A’s in 2002, don’t look like professional athletes in the slightest—they’re overweight and uncharismatic, and therefore undervalued in the economy of the draft. It's a mark of the shallowness of the traditional drafting system that scouts overlooked so many gifted ballplayers simply because of their appearances.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Volcker was also the only commissioner with a financial background. To the growing annoyance of the others, he kept asking two provocative questions:
1. If poor teams were in such dire financial condition, why did rich guys keep paying higher prices to buy them?
2. If poor teams had no hope, how did the Oakland As, with the second lowest payroll in all of baseball, win so many games?

Related Characters: Paul Volcker
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

In the 1990s, the Major League Baseball organization set up a commission whose purpose was to study the economic inequalities in the sport. One of the people appointed to the commission was the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker. Volcker recognized that, as most everybody knew, Major League Baseball was wildly unfair. The biggest, richest teams had the budget to afford the best players, and, as a result, they made more money and got bigger in the long run. However, Volcker also recognized that some small, underfunded teams, such as the Oakland A’s, did very well in spite of their poorness—why?

In many ways, Volcker’s question dominates the entire book. As we come to see, the traditional system for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of ballplayers is highly misleading: some excellent players aren’t valued very highly at all, while others are overvalued. The result is that, at times, franchises like the Oakland A’s can identify gifted players that fly under the radar of wealthier teams, such as the New York Yankees, and assemble a great team that doesn’t cost much money. The premise of Volcker’s question is that the economy of baseball is operating efficiently: the A’s use of sabermetrics showed that this premise was false.

Chapter 8 Quotes

By late l996 he was in the big leagues for good. Once he arrived however, he faced another challenge: the idiocy of the Boston Red Sox. His cultivated approach to hitting—his thoughtfulness, his patience, his need for his decisions to be informed rather than reckless—was regarded by the Boston Red Sox as a deficiency. The Red Sox encouraged their players' mystical streaks. They brought into the clubhouse a parade of shrinks and motivational speakers to teach the players to harness their aggression. Be men!

Related Characters: Scott Hatteberg
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Eight, we learn about Scott Hatteberg’s career in the big leagues; at the same time, we learn a lot about the incompetence of traditional baseball coaching. During Scott Hatteberg’s time playing ball for the Red Sox, for instance, he’s told to swing at more pitches, even though doing so drastically weakens his performance and hurts the team overall. Scott’s greatest asset as a hitter is his caution: he doesn’t swing at the first pitch, and, as a result, he almost always hits the ball or gets a walk. However, the Red Sox coaches think that walks are for cowards and weaklings, and they virtually force Hatteberg to play more recklessly.

Professional baseball, Lewis suggests, is heavily biased toward a showy, reckless style of play that doesn’t always result in wins. Part of the reason that the Oakland A’s were so successful in 2002 was that they didn’t play recklessly: instead, they favored mature hitters like Hatteberg who waited before swinging at the ball. In the long run, thanks to Hatteberg and his teammates, the Oakland A’s steadily accumulated a record number of wins.

Chapter 10 Quotes

The White Sox GM … told Chad that his pitches weren’t moving like they used to move. He was sending Chad down to Triple-A. Chad didn’t have the nerve to say what he thought but he thought it all the same: My ball doesn't move? But all I have is movement! When he got to Triple-A, a coach assured him that his ball moved as it always had, and that the GM just needed something to tell him other than the truth, that the White Sox front office viewed him as a "Triple-A guy."

Related Characters: Chad Bradford
Page Number: 233-234
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Ten, we meet Chad Bradford, yet another unlikely player for the Oakland A’s. Bradford has never been a fan-favorite during his games—he simply doesn’t look the part of an athlete. Indeed, during Bradford’s time with the Chicago White Sox, he was transferred out of the big-league team, in spite of his excellent record as a pitcher, and told that he was better suited for the Triple-A team (the best minor league team).

Lewis strongly suggests that Chad is sent back to the minor leagues because he doesn’t look the part of a professional athlete, not because he’s a lackluster pitcher. In traditionally-managed baseball teams, looks, charisma, and glamor are often more important assets than outright talent. The Oakland A’s try to correct for these longstanding biases in pro sports by hiring unglamorous athletes who, sabermetrically speaking, are some of the best in the country.

At length, he penned an article revealing his findings for baseballprospectus.com. Its conclusion: "There is little if any difference among major league pitchers in their ability to prevent hits on balls hit into the field of play.”

Related Characters: Voros McCracken
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

As late as the 1990s, sabermetrics-savvy sports fans are making incredible discoveries about the game. One of these fans, a man named Voros McCracken, publishes an article in which he argues, in the face of a hundred years of baseball consensus, that there’s no such thing as a pitcher who’s especially good at preventing hits when he pitches into the field of play (i.e, out of the strike zone, over the plate). For decades, coaches and fans believed that a good pitcher was one who could pitch over the plate so quickly and accurately that hitters would be unable to return the ball. McCracken argues— correctly, as it turns out—that all major league pitchers can throw the ball over the plate quickly, meaning that a hitter’s ability to return the ball has nothing to do with the pitcher himself.

That McCracken could make such a major discovery about baseball so late in the 20th century proves that baseball is a highly conservative, traditional-minded game, in which overturning the consensus is difficult if not impossible. It also shows the unpredictability of baseball. Though this finding is statistical, it’s a statistic that actually shows that the relationship between a batter hitting or missing a good pitch is essentially random. Therefore, this finding shows that sabermetrics, while it makes the game more mathematical, can never remove the excitement and spontaneity of the sport.

Chapter 11 Quotes

This was the character whose behavior was consistent with the way he said he wanted to run his baseball team: rationally. Scientifically. This was the "objective" Billy Beane, the general manager who was certain that "you don't change guys; they are who they are." Who will describe his job as "a soap box derby. You build the car in the beginning of the year and after that all you do is push it down the hill." To this Billy Beane's way of thinking there was no point in meddling with the science experiment … But there is another, less objective Billy Beane … And he allows me to see that the science experiment is messier than the chief scientist usually is willing to admit.

Related Characters: Billy Beane (speaker)
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Eleven, Billy Beane faces one of the most stressful games of his career as general manager of the Oakland A’s. If the A’s win this game, they’ll set an all-time league record for most consecutive wins. As Lewis sees it, Billy’s attitude on the night of the game exemplifies some of the contradictions in his character. On one hand, he likes to say that he’s very logical and rational about baseball: he makes smart, economic decisions instead of letting his emotions get the better of him. On the other hand, Billy is obviously an emotional guy: he becomes emotionally invested in his team’s success and failure, and it shows.

The final words of the paragraph, about the “science experiment” being messier than most would admit, illustrate an interesting tension in the book. Sabermetrics is a powerful science, which allows people like Paul DePodesta to take a lot of the randomness out of baseball. At the same time, sabermetrics doesn’t take all the randomness out of the game—baseball remains an exciting, edge-of-your-seat competition between world-class athletes. By the same token, Billy Beane takes a scientific approach to the sport, but he remains emotionally invested in the outcomes of individual games.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Coaches, players, reporters: everyone at once starts to worry that the Oakland A’s don't bunt or run. Especially run. Billy Beane's total lack of interest in the stolen base—which has served the team so well for the previous 162 games—is regarded, in the postseason, as sheer folly. Even people who don't run very fast start saying that "you need to make things happen" in the postseason. Take the action to your opponent. "The atavistic need to run," Billy Beane calls it.

Related Characters: Billy Beane (speaker)
Page Number: 269-270
Explanation and Analysis:

After the A’s win a record number of games in the 2002 season, their success should speak for itself. However, instead of drawing the obvious conclusion—that the A’s sabermetric strategies are revolutionizing the game of baseball—other baseball insiders’ first reaction is to question the A’s strategy and suggest that the A’s won so many games because they were lucky.

Right away, it should be obvious that the A’s didn’t win because of luck. Teams may win individual games because they’re lucky, but they don’t win twenty consecutive games due to sheer random chance. Nevertheless, it’s easier for coaches, players, and reporters to believe that the Oakland A’s strategies are “sheer folly.” Baseball insiders have very clear ideas about how the game should and shouldn’t be played. Rather than give up on some of these ideas as outdated superstitions (which is what the Oakland A’s success has proven them to be), baseball insiders compensate by criticizing the A’s performance in 2002.

"I made one decision based on money in my life—when I signed with the Mets rather than go to Stanford—and I promised I'd never do it again." After that, Billy confined himself to the usual blather about personal reasons. None of what he said was terribly rational or "objective"—but then, neither was he. Within a week, he was back to scheming how to get the Oakland A’s back to the playoffs, and Paul DePodesta was back to being on his side.

Related Characters: Billy Beane (speaker), Paul DePodesta
Related Symbols: The 2002 Playoffs
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the book, Billy gets a shot at an incredible contract with the Boston Red Sox: he has the opportunity to manage the team for more than twelve million dollars over the course of five years, a record for professional baseball. At first, Billy is excited about the prospect being a highly paid general manager for the Red Sox, but in the end, he chooses to remain on as the general manager of the Oakland A’s.

Billy’s explanation for his surprising decision is tantalizingly vague. He claims that he didn’t want to make a decision purely for the money—i.e., he didn’t want to manage the Red Sox, a team he didn’t really care about, just because they wanted to pay him a lot. But Billy doesn’t explain why he chose to remain with the A’s instead of transferring to another team. It’s not clear if Billy was motivated by loyalty to his team and his players, a desire to win a World Series with the A’s, or some other reason. Nevertheless, his decision not to leave the A’s brings the book full circle from where it began—with Billy’s decision to sign with the Mets. Billy is fond of saying that after signing with the Mets, he never made another decision purely for the money. Billy honors his promises to himself and he remains with the A’s.

Epilogue Quotes

Everybody's laughing at him again. But their laughter has a different tone. It's not the sniggering laughter of the people who made fun of his body. It's something else. He looks out into the gap in left center field. The outfielders are just standing there: they've stopped chasing the ball. The ball's gone. The triple of Jeremy Brown's imagination, in reality, is a home run.

Related Characters: Jeremy Brown
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:

In the epilogue of the book, Michael Lewis describes one incredible play by Jeremy Brown. In the game, Brown hits the ball hard into the crowd, but he assumes it’s going to bounce back into the field. In the meantime, he hustles to first base and slips. Embarrassed, Jeremy gets up and realizes that, contrary to what he expected, he’s just hit a home run.

In many ways, the passage is symbolic of the Oakland A’s new approach to baseball. Jeremy Brown isn’t the most graceful ballplayer in the league—he slips in the dirt, after all. But Jeremy is, without a doubt, one of the most successful and talented players in the league, even if his plays aren’t always that beautiful to watch. By using sabermetrics so extensively, Paul DePodesta has ushered in a new generation of ballplayers like Jeremy, who lack conventional baseball talent and polish but who still succeed at the sport. Moreover, as the passage—with its deft mixture of comedy and drama— proves, sabermetrics isn’t going to ruin baseball, as some people have claimed. Instead, sabermetrics creates ballgames that are fun, entertaining, and surprising to watch.