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.
Psychology and Talent ThemeTracker
Psychology and Talent Quotes in Moneyball
"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."
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."
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.
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.