Everyone who knows me well, or who has sat through a number of Monday Morning Meetings would have thought this segment would be titled “Moneyball” after Michael Lewis’ 2003 book titled the same. It doesn’t hurt that my memory is often jogged by a rebroadcast of the 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. I talk about Moneyball all the time and reference the importance of team victories ensured by position play. For the record, my father introduced me to the subject while I was in high school. Not only had he coached Little League teams, he helped found the first Rotisserie Baseball group in our hometown. Every week during the season a bunch of academic (read: out of shape) middle-aged men would meet, check on their players’ performance, compare notes, trade players and compute the standings of their teams. None of this was done on a computer; stats were looked up in the local paper and The Sporting News.
Saved after all of these years on my bookshelf is a copy of a paperback titled The Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1984 Edition. The tag lines on the cover are from Esquire: “A Must for Fanatics,” and at the bottom, “It’s a Whole New Ballgame!” Inside the covers is a trove of statistics from 1983 on every team and player in the majors, regrouped into such categories as left-handed starters, not to mention leading hitters against left-handed pitchers. He also made up whole new methods of combining statistics (formulas and simple algorithms) such as “Basic Runs Created Formula,” and “Isolated Power,” all seeking to compare specific strengths and weaknesses of individual players. This may not sound strange to us today, with on-line sports gambling being such a growing industry, but it was in 1984. Bill James published his abstract from 1977 to 1984 (self-published – before that was a thing – from 1977 through 1980). Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s and then finally with the Boston Red Sox, was introduced to Bill James’ work in 1990, and it was this body of work that inspired his success that, in turn, became the subject of Moneyball.
Baseball is a sport awash in statistics, and this appealed to the statistician Bill James, to my scientist father, to the baseball man Billy Beane, and to the Author Michael Lewis. It is not, however, just the statistics that appeal, it is how statistical analysis can inform decision making and predicting an outcome, whether for a major league team or a fantasy team. I am a Cubs fan and in spite of the 2016 World Championship, I don’t really follow baseball any longer, and couldn’t recite a single statistic (although I just checked, and the Cubbies are today narrowly in first place in the NL Central Division). Notwithstanding, the principles Michael Lewis brought alive in Moneyball significantly influence our approach to team building here at DFA.