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.
Bias Quotes in Moneyball
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?
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.
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.
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."
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?
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!
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."
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.”
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.
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.
"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.
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.