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Take a Number . . .
am 2. Juni 2004
Moneyball is about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's efforts to use statistics to get a competitive edge that translates into more runs scored versus the opponents and more wins. If that's all the book was about, it would be a bore. The story is enlivened a little by the fact that Mr. Beane has less money to work with than most other clubs, so we've got an underdog to root for. But Mr. Beane also turns out to have a volatile temper and a mindset that makes it hard for him to make good decisions in the heat of battle. Those problems kept him from having the "all-star" career that many expected for him as a player. So ultimately the book is about a man getting grips on himself so he can be more successful. Now, that story (if was the entire focus) would have been fascinating . . . but Mr. Lewis clutters the book up with unnecessarily long and boring nonmathematical descriptions of mathematical issues . . . and hurts his story.
That said, chapter two ("How to Find a Ballplayer") has some of the funniest dialogue in it that I have ever read. I had to stop reading the book every so often to stop laughing long enough for the pain in my abdomen to go away. I kept racing through the book to find something else as funny or as good . . . and didn't find it.
Mr. Beane believes that he needs to maximize on-base and slugging percentage for his club and the percentage of strikeouts and ground balls hit by opposing batters. So he focuses on finding players who are good at creating these results. Some of his searches take on a comic character when he finds players who are very deficient in fielding or speed.
This book will appeal most to those who admire Mr. Beane and those who run fantasy baseball teams on the Internet. Such readers will enjoy understanding more about the practical issues involved in applying statistics to baseball in the big leagues.
I was extremely surprised that Mr. Lewis did not briefly show someplace the statistical analyses that favor the quantitative ideas expressed in the book. This book could have been an entry point to interest young people in statistical analysis, but the book's content falls far short of that level. I mention that point because I did a science fair project as a youngster based on Branch Rickey's writing about what factors influence winning pennants. That article, although vastly out-of-date, probably did more good than this one will to encourage the statistical study of human behavior.
One of the better parts of the book is the chapter on Scott Hatteberg (chapter 8) which describes how he came to focus on batting discipline . . . which made him attractive to the A's after his catching career was over. I would have enjoyed understanding more about how disciplined hitters came to be that way. Instead, the book provides much too much information about why most hitters are undisciplined.
If you have never dreamed of being a general manager of a baseball club, you will probably find this book to be a little below average as a sports story.
As I finished the book, I wondered what it would take to stimulate millions of people to start doing these same sorts of measurements and analyses for reducing poverty, housing the homeless, conquering illiteracy and many other social ills. Now, that would be a book!