Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sweating the small stuff: A mathematician reads Moneyball.

A friend has invited me to the opening night of Moneyball this upcoming Friday evening and lent me Michael Lewis' book to read. I'm not as keen on it as I was on his more recent book The Big Short, and this is because I know more about baseball history than I know about Wall Street today. Still, Lewis is an exciting writer and baseball is so interesting, even a book with flaws can be endlessly entertaining.

Let me be immodest for a moment. Lewis can appreciate math and I can actually understand it. If we compare math to its nearest (and superior) rival, he's a music critic who can write well and I'm a musician who can write legibly. It's Frank Rich vs. Salieri. It's more fun to read Rich (and Lewis), but Salieri (and I) have some inside information the other guys don't have.

No brag. Just fact.

With Moneyball, Lewis didn't start out with the intention of canonizing Billy Beane, the general manger of the dirt cheap but competitive Oakland Athletics, but that's how the book reads. In an afterword, Lewis explains that baseball insiders hate Beane for the book, not Lewis. Some of them think Beane wrote the book himself.

No one with a brain ever said baseball insiders had big brains.

And that's the point of Moneyball, much like it is the point of The Big Short and The Blind Side and most of Lewis' best-selling non-fiction. Insiders in the systems he studies don't really understand the system, and the outsiders who make honest scientific attempts to understand are widely despised.

There's the obvious and compelling core of every best-seller Michael Lewis has ever written.

Consider Billy Beane, the hero of this story. It is very common in Hollywood versions of "true stories" that the movie star is way prettier than the person being protrayed. I submit that Brad Pitt might be a little prettier than Billy Beane, but he's way too small. Young Billy Beane was a freaking Winklevoss twin, 6'4" tall, lean and supremely talented. Scouts salivate when they see a high schooler like Billy Beane.

Some may actually do more than salivate in private. I have no proof of this, but it is the strong subtext of the first few chapters of Moneyball.

Billy Beane knew the scouts of baseball didn't know shit. His best evidence was that they fought like bobcats over Billy Beane. When he became available for the baseball draft, it was either him or another Southern Californian, Darryl Strawberry, that HAD to be the first round pick that year. Strawberry became an honest to Pete baseball superstar until drugs brought him down.

Drugs weren't Beane's downfall. It was pride instead.

Beane could have played football or basketball, but he chose baseball. Beane hated to fail and hated even more to be shown up in public, and that is a nearly impossible character trait to overcome.

After they are drafted, Strawberry rises and Beane sinks, and the scouts and the best baseball minds are at a loss to know why. Beane gets violently upset when he fails, and he cannot turn this rage into positive action. Strawberry becomes a star in short order, but Beane bounces around, finally becoming roommates with Lenny Dykstra, a prospect with a tiny percentage of the promise Beane has.

The thing is, Dykstra has the small talent combined with the attitude of Babe Ruth. He ignored his failures like they didn't happen and reveled in his successes. Beane's attitude of hating failure is more like Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio, but not quite at their godlike levels of talent.

Williams and DiMaggio truly hated to strike out, and they changed their way of batting to avoid it. Beane couldn't figure out how to avoid strikeouts and still to be feared at the plate. Had either Teddy Ballgame (good nickname) or Joltin' Joe (very inaccurate nickname) had the same "I don't give a shit" attitude about looking bad at the plate that Babe Ruth had, they might have made a serious run at the career home run record.

Neither did. Joe DiMaggio ended his illustrious career with 361 home runs, barely half of Ruth's 714. Williams, who missed prime seasons due to being a Marine pilot in both WW II and the Korean War, hit a home run in his last at bat, which brought his to a still remarkable 521 for his career.

Back to our main story.

Billy Beane, the failed Adonis, is still a baseball insider, but he listens to the baseball outsiders, the guys who think the statistics have been accurate but useless since the late 1850s.

Not a typo. 1850s. Before the American Civil War when players were not allowed to wear gloves.

I love that Lewis blames Henry Chadwick, a cricket fan from the 1850s, for inventing the "modern" baseball boxscore. There's actually a lot of math of that era that is still considered modern. The difference is that mathematical logic, group theory and quadratic reciprocity are still paying dividends, while the baseball box score is getting in the way of progress.

In Chadwick's original system, a base on balls is an error on the pitcher. Like other errors, it does not count positively towards the batter's numbers, but unlike errors, it now counts as zero instead of negative. It never occurred to him that it might be a skill of the batter to avoid bad pitches and only swing at good ones.

Some people cry in the wilderness that baseball is being mismeasured. It isn't until the 1970s that a guy named Bill James actually has the stick-to-it-iveness to shout this every year, at first to an audience of less than 100 people reading his self-published book.

In Lewis' mind, this is the beginning of baseball's salvation.

More on that tomorrow.

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