MICHAEL LEWIS VS. BASEBALL: Michael Lewis, who last year turned the Major League Baseball world upside down with his Billy Beane biography/sabermetrics bible “Moneyball,” has a piece (not online) in this week’s Sports Illustrated defending himself from the many critics of his book- and he fights back so fiercely that you’d think organized baseball was systematically cracking down not on steroids, but rather on his book.
Now I’ve gone on record numerous times as saying that I loved “Moneyball,” consider it the most important book about baseball since Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” and truly believe that the onset of statistical-analysis use as applied by Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and others has been one of the most important developments in the last decade of the game. However, intrigued as I am by it I do not believe sabermetrics to be the be-all and end-all of baseball strategy, and I’m a bit irked by those who look on it in an almost messianic way. Lewis’ SI piece is much more in that vein than the book was, and while he’s right in some places the overall tone in the piece is paranoid, self-important and, above all, very arrogant.
Lewis writes of all the shots he’s taken from the media and baseball establishment since “Moneyball” was published a year ago, lumping all the scattered voices who have dared to criticize the book into an amorphous entity he calls “The Club,” as though players and executives and sportswriters and scouts are all on the same page and don’t have natural feuds with one another. Sounding a lot like Rush Limbaugh bashing the Democrats, Lewis takes a few extreme examples (Joe Morgan’s repeated, misinformed insistence that Beane actually wrote “Moneyball,” and the ludicrous piece in the Toronto Star which argued that sabermetrics was racist), and paints anyone and everyone who ever argued with the book with the same conspiratorial brush. He writes not so much about “Moneyball” being a highly acclaimed, extremely successful best-seller that most fans loved; Lewis is too busy playing the victim to bother dwelling on the positive.
For instance, as an example of the “scorn” he and Beane have earned from various sportswriters (who, bizarrely, he twice calls “the womens’ auxiliary”), Lewis includes this from Art Thiel of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
It was Beane who had a best-selling book, “Moneyball,” written mostly about him, in which he bragged endlessly about outsmarting more wealthy clubs by reinventing the way players were evaluated.
It’s critical of Lewis, yes- but is any part of that statement not true? Not to mention that in the original piece by Thiel, which doesn’t even mention Beane until the 12th paragraph, the above statement is immediately followed with “much of Beane’s system is a worthy consideration.”
Lewis doesn’t treat baseball establishmentarians as people with a differing opinion- he speaks of them as though they were heretics for daring to disagree with his book- even at one point comparing his battle with his critics to “a religious war… between creationists and evolutionists.” True, sabermetrics is a revolutionary idea that has transformed the game and will continue to do so even more in the future- but does that mean the old way has never worked or will never work again? Of course not- there have been many great teams built various ways throughout history- would the ’86 Mets have been so vastly improved if they’d brought in a centerfielder with a higher on-base percentage than Mookie Wilson’s?
Additionally, is it not a legitimate argument to point out that Oakland has not yet won a playoff series and has suffered four straight first-round exits under Beane, or that another small market/low payroll team (the Florida Marlins) won last year’s World Series without any use of sabermetrics at all? And of course baseball’s fraternity of scouts has resisted the “Moneyball” phenomenon- if a new, untested theory were introduced that threatened to make your entire profession irrelevant, you’d fight it tooth and nail too.
But the biggest weakness of all in the piece is that “The Club” isn’t nearly as monolithic as Lewis says it is: Someone in baseball must’ve liked the book, since one of the sport’s most tradition-bound franchises, the Dodgers, just hired Beane protege Paul DePodesta as their GM, and more such hires are likely to come. In fact, what will probably happen in the next decade is that sabermetrics in baseball will end up like the West Coast offense in football- about half the clubs will use it, and teams will constantly be hiring GMs who are proteges of Billy Beane and proteges of his proteges, the way Bill Walsh begat George Seifert who begat Mike Holmgren. But other systems will be used by other teams, and no one will ever be under the illusion that Moneyball is the only way to go. After all, has anyone ever tried to argue that the West Coast offense is the only right way to win football games?
Michael Lewis wrote an entertaining, well-received, and very influential book which may in fact change baseball forever. But due to his apparent aversion to ever being criticized for any reason, he has unfortunately tarnished the book by writing a condescending, overly defensive polemic which is apparently based upon his belief that baseball doesn’t appreciate him enough. He’s spent so much time accusing others of being closed-minded that he’s become closed-minded himself.
NOTE: Jeremy Wahlman, who will almost certainly be posting a contrary response to this entry imminently, met Lewis at a book signing last year, and is generally credited with being the very first person to alert Lewis to Joe Morgan’s repeated claim that Beane wrote the book.