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Psychology and Talent Theme Analysis

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Psychology and Talent Theme Icon

In a way, Moneyball is about the hundreds of millions of dollars that professional sports franchises spend answering the question, “What is a good athlete?” Talent scouts traditionally measured ballplayers’ talents based on the simplest, most tangible criteria: speed, strength, reflexes, and agility. One of the book’s key insights, however, is that athletic talent isn’t just a matter of physique: often, the most talented players have a certain psychological profile that enables them to maintain their focus and withstand the pressures of professional sports. Having established the importance of psychology in baseball, the book poses a challenging question: is it possible to use statistics to measure one’s psychological aptitude for the game?

Over the course of the book, Michael Lewis establishes the vital importance of psychology—in particular, drive, ambition, and concentration—in athletic success. A good baseball player must be ambitious; he must have a strong desire to push himself hard and improve in the face of adversity. Baseball players must also have the concentration to focus on winning long, exhausting baseball games. While traditional scouts and coaches may recognize the importance of psychological factors like ambition and concentration in building a talented athlete, the book argues that talent also requires many other psychological qualities that the world of baseball wrongly ignores. For instance, Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta realize that the most successful, talented baseball players are often the most cautious—the hitters who don’t swing at balls in the strike zone. They also recognize that good pitchers need to be good at reading hitters and deciding how to handle them. While there’s nothing revolutionary about this idea, Billy and Paul attach so much value to the ability to read hitters that they draft pitchers with unusually slow pitch speeds.

Billy says on more than one occasion that every aspect of a player’s talent, physical and psychological, can be represented in some concrete number, but Moneyball challenges and complicates Billy’s claim by suggesting that some aspects of a player’s talent (particularly their psychological aptitude for the game) cannot be measured. Toward the end of the book, for example, we learn about the career of Chad Bradford, a pitcher who, contrary to every rational, statistical expectation, developed an unexpected talent late in his career and went on to become one of the best players for the Oakland A’s. To the extent that anyone can understand why Chad succeeded, Lewis suggests that he succeeded because of his incredible optimism and hope. Once Chad began pitching well, sabermetrically-minded general managers like Billy Beane could see his talent clearly. But no sabermetric measures can explain why, exactly, Chad had the psychological talent necessary to change up his game and become a great pitcher. Moneyball ends, then, with a conflicted view of talent and psychology. Statistics give some information about what an athlete does, but, in order to fully understand these numbers, one must look to that athlete’s intangible psychological qualities—an important but indecipherable component of their talent. Yogi Berra put it best: ninety percent of baseball is half mental.

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Psychology and Talent ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Moneyball related to the theme of Psychology and Talent.
Chapter 3 Quotes

"Baseball organizations don't understand that with a certain kind of highly talented player who has trouble with failure, they need to suck it up and let the kid develop," Dorfman said. "You don’t push him along too fast. Take it slow, so his failure is not public exposure and humiliation. Teach him perspective—that baseball matters but it doesn't matter too much. Teach him that what matters isn't whether I just struck out. What matters is that I behave impeccably when I compete. The guy believes in his talent. What he doesn't believe in is himself. He sees himself exclusively in his statistics. If his stats are bad, he has zero self-worth. He's never developed a coping mechanism because he's never had anything to cope with."

Related Characters: Harvey Dorfman (speaker), Billy Beane
Page Number: 53-54
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Lewis discusses Billy Beane’s baseball career: a career marked by failure, disappointment, and the inability to live up to potential. There are many possible reasons why Billy never became a great professional athlete, but most of the explanations for Billy’s burnout that Lewis offers hinge upon Billy’s inability to cope with the psychological pressures of Major League Baseball. As the Mets’ psychologist, Harvey Dorfman, argues, the Mets didn’t prepare Billy for the stresses of professional play: they just naively assumed that he’d be well-equipped for pro ball based on his physical skill.

The passage is important because it suggests that, in some ways, being extremely talented and charismatic is a liability in the long run. Talented professional athletes command a lot of attention, and scouts have high expectations of them. As a result, some talented prospects burn out early and crack under the pressure to succeed. Years later, perhaps confirming Dorfman’s ideas, Beane assembles a team for the Oakland A’s that consists almost entirely of underdogs who, slowly and steadily, proceed to dominate their league.


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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.

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.

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.