Michael Lewis's "Moneyball"

If you’re going to write a book about baseball and statistics, how about actually taking a few minutes and learning what the terms actually are? Somewhere in the “Gosh, Bill James is certainly the most brilliant mind to ever thing about baseball stats, isn’t he?” chapter, Lewis has a rather lengthy footnote about how on base percentage isn’t actually a percentage (which is true), but says it’s a “per thousand”. Um, no. If it were, it would be expressed as “450”, not “.450”. It’s a fraction. He then does the same sort of explanation of slugging percentage, saying that it’s not a percentage (true), but claims it’s a “per 4 thousand”, when in fact it’s an average. Correcting something with another wrong answer doesn’t help.

(There are many, many other things that annoy me about this book, but arrogantly giving an incorrect correction is the low point so far…but I’ve still only about 1/3 of the way through it.)

That book is like three years old. Where the fuck have you been?


And he sure doesn’t make the case that James is the brightest guy on wheels. While James may have been seminal guys like Neyer, Sheehan and the Baseball Prospectus can run rings around him.

You should try getting out more. Go to a ballgame or something.

Neyer? Neyer’s a better writer than James, but he doesn’t come up with anything new on his own like James does. At least not that I’m aware of.

I think Neyer’s sort of on the low end of the statistical analysis community - he’s certainly not up there with Sheehan, Davenport, Tippett, or Woolner.

The book is loaded with tons of ideas and theories about how statistics are used in the scouting of players and the best rant you can come up with is that he got a couple terms wrong?

I should add that I loved that book. Using science to disprove long held, almost superstitious beliefs, what’s not to like?


Actually, it is expressed as 450, and not .450. You never hear anyone say,“Ichiro has an on base percentage of point four-fifty.” They always say “Ichiro has an on base percentage of four-fifty.” So, while I’ve not read the book, I’d say the author is correct in calling it a “per thousand”.

Sloppy writing. Subject matter aside, Lewis is one of those writers who seems to think that saying something in a couple different ways is the same as giving proof. I complained earlier about the “Bill James Is A Genius” chapter - apart from saying that James came up with the Range Factor stat, Lewis doesn’t offer anything much to convince me that James is as smart as he says he is. It seems like he started out assuming that it’s a given that the heroes of his book (Beane, James, DePodesta) are incredible baseball minds, and he doesn’t have to spend any time convincing us of that.

It sounds like you have an axe to grind.

I didn’t read it as “Beane and James are geniuses”, but rather as a story of some men who put a theory to the test. It is about taking a chance and challenging the conventional wisdom that has been unchanged for a hundred years.

It is not that they are smarter than everyone else, they are just more stubborn, and have the courage of their convictions. That was the interesting part of the story to me.

And Lewis is an excellent writer with an impressive resume. Check out Liars Poker and The New New Thing.

You’re kidding right? This is like saying that Carl Sagan is a better astronomer than Kepler.

Bill James was the first person to systematically examine the game of baseball and to question the assumptions of “conventional wisdom” and actually look at the facts to see if they were true. It doesn’t matter if other people are better at chi squared tests or regression analysis. Nobody alive can “run rings around” Bill James when it comes to analyzing baseball and asking the right questions about baseball.

Nope, lots of people had been questioning conventional wisdom before James. Branch Rickey did it, most famously (and I’m not talking about Jackie Robinson). And, of course, Earl Weaver knew the value of the three-run home run before James came along.

But more imortantly was Earnshaw Cook. He published a book in 1964 “Percentage Baseball” that statistically proved sacrificing was worthless and that the sluggers should bat first. He also came up with what was essentially James’s Runs Created formula, except a bit more complicated. He also first began to analyze the success rate for steals to be effective. It was Cook, in fact, that was the inspiration for Davey Johnson.

And there were several before that, too.

Of course there were people like Earnshaw Cook who were precursors to James, just as Robert Hooke was precursor to Isaac Newton. Bill James was not the first person to study baseball statistics.

But neither Earnshaw Cook nor anybody else did anything remotely on the scale of Bill James’s study of the game. Which is why you hear lots of people talking about how Bill James changed their understanding of the game, and you don’t run across many people who have much to say about Earnshaw Cook (if they’ve even heard of him).

And of course there were practitioners of baseball–Earl Weaver and Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel and of course Whitey Herzog–who questioned conventional wisdom and tried to play smart and strategically in the interest of winning games. And of course they watched statistics on their own players and on other players. But none of them did anything remotely like what Bill James did, which was to conduct and publish systematic studies of issues in baseball. Bill James did not just question conventional wisdom, he set about studying the issues in a systematic, academic way.

Yeah, Cook was so obscure that he had SI run features on him and the Baltimore Sun would consult him every season to get his predictions - running headlines like “Cook Predicts Orioles Win” or something like that.

The difference between James and Cook wasn’t the scale. In fact, I’d say that Cook analyzed the game on a larger scale thatn James, it was writing style. Cook’s tomes were densely packed with statistics and Latin and were very difficult to read. James, on the other hand, had an easier writing style. For example, this was one of Cook’s forulas (Scoring Index):

p.R = (K) × (p.H + p.BB + p.E.o + p.HB - 2p.SH - p.XBH) × (p.TB)

where K is a numerical constant and p designates the probability of an occurrence. And this is one of his easier formulas. If you clean it up, it looks like

R = (H+BB+E+HB-2SH-XBH) x (TB)

Which is how James would write his formulas and is much easier to understand.

Cook also proved the ineffectiveness of sacrifices, was the first to analyze the effectiveness of steals and at what rate you had to have success at for it to be worth it, created the base out matrix - which is still used by SABR folks today in their analyses, the first to analyze batting orders and advocate changes in that, advocated huge changes in how pitchers were handled, etc. decades before James even picked up a pen.

His influence was only diminished by the rigorousness of his publications, whereas James made things easier to understand.