5 Questions w/Michael Lewis
It’s no secret to members of the PROTRADE nation that we’re fans of author
Michael Lewis. His book ‘Moneyball’ inspired PROTRADE and, I think, laid a
clear and convincing case for measuring human performance with something
measurable. Something to test against and refine. After all, if you’re
about to drop $50 million on a pitcher, you might want a more objective way
to assess the potential investment than: "This guy may be the best body in
the draft." (Page 31) Yesterday morning, when we were considering Tuesday’s
50-round first year professional player draft, we got to thinking: what does
Lewis think of the state of ‘Moneyball’ today?
So, we asked him a few questions.
Jeff Ma: When you look at the ‘As’ 2001 and 2002 amateur
drafts with the hindsight of a few seasons, does the success of 2001 players
like Bonderman, Crosby and Johnson alter your original assessment of the
"Moneyball" approach? Why not?
No, because I didn’t have an original assessment, and even if
you assume those three players wind up having good big league careers the
2001 draft, like just about all drafts, was a ridiculously risky way to
invest millions of dollars. The point of the draft chapters in "Moneyball"
was not "The Oakland A’s have found the secret to drafting future major
league players but "The Oakland A’s, seeing the general, and increasingly
expensive, inaccuracy in the evaluation of amateur players, have set out to
find a new and better way to do it."
They weren’t sure the 2002 draft was going to be a big success — though of
course they hoped it would. But, they had some then-novel theories about the
statistics of amateur players, and what they might say about future
professional success. The big difference between what they did, and what big
league teams have always done, is that they could prove themselves wrong,
and move on to refine their ideas. Which they are doing.
Jeff Ma: Since the publication of "Moneyball" several
teams, including the Mets, Padres, Cardinals and Diamondbacks have joined
the As, Red Sox and the Blue Jays on the ‘Moneyball’ train. Is their
adoption making the MLB talent market more efficient?
Lewis: I assume so. On some of those rosters are productive players
who, five years ago, would have been cheaply snagged by the A’s. (Kevin
Jeff Ma: Oakland ‘A’s GM Billy Beane is central to the
story of "Moneyball." Has pulling back the curtain, so to speak, on his
strategy undercut his ability to trade for value?
Lewis: Only he would know. I can’t see how it’s made it easier for
him, but my sense is that the market was moving that way anyway.
Jeff Ma: Do you think the "Moneyball" approach to
performance valuation will take off in other sports?
I do, just as I think it will in every business where the
employees are Talent, and paid huge sums of money. (Hollywood, Wall Street,
CEO-land). Baseball is so much cleaner to analyze than any business, or any
But I assume progress: the more fancy people get paid, the more it is worth
someone’s time and effort to figure out what they are actually worth. The
spirit of Bill James will be coming to a theatre, or arena, near you.
Jeff Ma: How is the ‘Ladies Auxiliary’ these days?
Lewis: Far calmer than it was three years ago.
For those of you who may not have read the book, the ‘Ladies Auxiliary’ is
the name Lewis gave to the indignant members of the MLB ‘club’ of owners,
management and sporstwriters who, without reading ‘Moneyball’ took to the
airwaves and press to denounce Beane’s approach to quantitative assessment.
Just like the b-school books say, an organization is incapable of reforming
Incidentally, as part of a new partnership with www.MLB.com, we took the PROTRADE black box and
applied our evaluation skills to the first Moneyball draft: 2002. Turns
out, Billy Beane’s approach has aged pretty well. Read it on MLB, here.