Persuasion, Selling, and a Baseball Renegade

With Game Four of the 2009 World Series now in the bottom of the fourth inning, I’m multitasking, watching the game, listening to announcer Tim McCarver and crew, and looking over notes I made recently about bond-trader-turned-journalist Michael Lewis’s stupendous book, first published in 2003, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

In Moneyball, Lewis chronicles the efforts of Billy Beane, renegade general manager of the Oakland As, to make his team competitive even though he had only one-quarter of the money to hire and pay salaries of players, as compared to top competitors like the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

To accomplish this difficult task, Beane rejected the conventional wisdom about how to evaluate players and predict a player’s future performance and success. Instead, going far beyond the RBI and the ERA, he drew on the studies of far flung math geek baseb all fanatics to apply arcane statistical analyses which no other professional baseball team used.

One of the things Lewis talks about is how certain statistics describing a player’s performance are so meaningful, predictive, and telling as to “have the power of language.”

Meanwhile, following the author’s lead on this, the book as a whole demonstrates that some writing has more of the power of language than other writing.

Lewis, a masterful story-teller, captures the language of the players, the baseball scouts, the managers who inhabit the world of professional baseball; he describes in compelling, can’t-put-it-down, page-turner prose, the completely weird, arcane statistical analysis concepts which were at the root of Billy Beane’s unconventional yet effective strategies for putting together an unexpectedly competitive, frequently winning team at fire-sale prices.

In lesser hands, this unusual story of a daring strategist who epitomized outside-the-proverbial-box thinking, would likely be eyes-glaze-over gobbledy-gook.

Moneyball is a powerful, persuasive, and controversial book. In fact, when it was first released, it caused an uproar and downright anger within the insular society of professional baseball (see Lewis’s discussion of the angy, almost bitter, nearly violent reactions to it in the 2004 paperback edition’s new Afterword).

Negative reactions from inside baseball aside, along with the simple pleasure of reading great writing and compelling storytelling, anyone interested in how writing can persuade, provoke and sell, can benefit from this book. And, as British novelist Nick Hornby, who admits to knowing nothing about baseball, points out, you don’t have to know anything about baseball to appreciate and enjoy the book, its story, and its writing.

What follows are excerpts which show some of my favorite passages, which serve as examples of what makes this book so very powerful, persuasive, fun, and, at the same time, controversial:

1. The title of the first chapter, “The Curse of Talent,” which is intriguing and compelling in its counterintuitive promise: I thought talent was a good thing. Why is it a curse?

2. Setting the scene, on page 16:

On draft day the Oakland draft room was a ceremonial place. Wives, owners, friends of the owners—all these people who made you think twice before saying “fuck”—gathered politely along the back wall of the room to watch the Oakland team determine its future.

3. An ear for hearing, and capturing on paper, the spoken word, like novelist Hubert Selby, Jr., (Last Exit to Brooklyn) idiosyncratic styles of speaking in the secret language and vocabulary of a specialized world, baseball, on page 24:

Lark is a high school pitcher with a blazing fastball. He’s a favorite of one of the older scouts, who introduces him in a language only faintly resembling English. “Good body, big arm. Good fastball, playable slider, so-so change,” he says. “A little funk on the backside but nothing you can’t clean up. I saw him good one day and not so good another.”

And, further discussion about whether to draft this high school pitcher, Lark:

“There might be some, uh, family issues here,” says the old scout. “I heard the dad had spent some time in prison. Porno or something.”

No one on either side of the room seems to know what to make of that. You can see thirty men thinking: is porno a crime?

4. On the question whether a ballplayer under consideration to be drafted is “too stupid for the job”: “So is this guy a rockhead?” (p. 24)

5. As one facet of a central theme in the book, a piece of the baseball establishment’s view of how to recognize talent included baseball scouts’ view of young players’ records (p. 36):

The scouts don’t see the point of history. In their view history isn’t terribly relevant when you’re talking about kids who haven’t become who they will be.

6. After one of the character’s careers of playing professional baseball is described through his own statistics, accumulated over several years, the book puts these numbers (e.g., including “11 walks and 80 strike outs”) into perspective: they “told an eloquent tale of suffering.” And in series of eight short phrases, he tells that “eloquent tale of suffering”: without even knowing this player,

You only needed to read his stats—to sense that he left every on-deck circle in trouble. That he had developed neither discipline nor composure. That he had never learned to lay off a bad pitch. That he was easily fooled. That, fooled so often, he came to expect that he would be fooled. That he hit with fear. That his fear masqueraded as aggression. That the aggression enabled him to exit the batter’s box as quickly as possible.

(At p. 52)

7. Among a small but growing group of scientists, statisticians and other math geeks who took refuge from their day jobs by honing their considerable mathematical skills to unraveling the mysteries of baseball through statistics was one Pete Palmer, who “worked as an engineer at Raytheon, on the software that supported the radar station in the Aleutian Islands that monitored Russian test missiles. At least that’s what he did for money; for love he sat down with his charts and slide rule and analyzed baseball strategies.” (P. 80)

Lewis explains further:

Palmer really was a gifted statistical mind, and he had done a lot of work, just for the hell of it, that demonstrated the foolishness of many conventional baseball strategies. Bunts, stolen bases, hit and runs—they all were mostly self-defeating and all had a common theme: fear of public humiliation.

“Managers tend to pick a strategy that is least likely to fail rather than pick a strategy that is most efficient,” said Palmer. “The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move.”

(Ibid.)

8. On the weight of remarkably overweight player, Cecil Fielder:

Cecil Fielder acknowledges a weight of 261,” Bill James once wrote, “leaving unanswered the question of what he might weigh if he put his other foot on the scale.

(109)

9. Regarding the Oakland As’ unconventional draft picks:

They [opposing pro baseball teams] will make fun of what the A’s are about to do; and there will be a lesson in that. The inability to envision a certain kind of person doing a certain kind of thing because you’ve never seen someone who looks like him do it before is not just a vice. It’s a luxury. What begins as a failure of the imagination ends as a market inefficiency: when you rule out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job.

(115)

10. Seeking the reverse doppelganger:

Billy Beane was a human arsenal built, inadvertently, by professional baseball to attack its customs and rituals. He thought himself to be fighting a war against subjective judgments, but he was doing something else, too. At one point Chris Pittaro said that the thing that struck him about Billy—what set him apart from most baseball insiders—was his desire to find players unlike himself. Billy Beane had gone looking for, and found, his antitheses. Young men who failed the first test of looking good in a uniform. Young men who couldn’t play anything but baseball. Young men who had gone to college.

(117-18)

11. On closers:

Established closers were systematically overpriced, in large part because of the statistic by which closers were judged in the marketplace: “saves.” The very word made the guy who achieved them sound vitally important. But the situation typically described by the save—the bases empty in the ninth inning with the team leading—was clearly far less critical than a lot of other situations pitchers faced. The closer’s statistic did not have the power of language; it was just a number. You could take a slightly above average pitcher and drop him into the closer’s role, let him accumulate some gaudy number of saves, and then sell him off. You could, in essence, buy a stock, pump it up with false publicity, and sell it off for much more than you’d paid for it. Billy Beane had already done it twice, and assumed he could do so over and over again.

(125)

12. On top batters like Jason Giambi, who not only can hit, but also wear down the pitcher, which is hugely valuable:

Giambi has all the crude offensive attributes—home runs, high batting average, a perennially high number of RBIs. He also has the subtler attributes. When he’s in a lineup, for instance, the opposing pitcher is forced to throw a lot more pitches than when he isn’t. The more pitches the opposing starting pitcher throws, the earlier he’ll be relieved. Relief pitchers aren’t starting pitchers for a reason: they aren’t as good. When a team wades into the opponent’s bullpen in the first game of a series, it feasts, in games two and three, on pitching that is not merely inferior but exhausted. “Baseball is a war of attrition,” Billy Beane was fond of saying, “and what’s being attrited is pitchers’ arms.”

(144)

13. On the significance of the count; it’s effect on the likelihoods of hitting, getting on base, or getting out:

The odds depend on who is pitching and who is hitting, of course, but they also depend on the minute events within the event. Every plate appearance was like a hand of blackjack; the tone of it changed with each dealt card. A first-pitch strike, for instance lowered a hitter’s batting average by about seventy-five points, and a first-pitch ball raised them by about as much. But it wasn’t the first pitch that held the most drama for the cognoscenti, it was the third. The difference between 1–2 and 2–1 in terms of expected outcomes is just enormous,” says Paul DePodesta. “It’s the largest variance of expected outcomes of any one pitch. On 2–1 most average major league hitters become all-stars, yet on 1–2 they become anemic nine-hole hitters. People talk about first-pitch strikes. But it’s really the first two out of three.”

(147)

I could probably keep on picking more compelling snippets, but perhaps this is enough to give you a flavor for this book. Rumor has it that the book is now being made into a major Hollywood movie, with Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane. It might be a good movie, or not. Either way, the book itself is worth reading.

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