November 14, 2011

Lewis & Beane interview

Moneyball (the movie) opens in the U.K. on November 25, and as part of the publicity, The Financial Times features an in-depth interview with both Michael Lewis and Billy Beane by Simon Kuper.

It's quite a revealing interview, that digs into the relationship between Lewis and Beane -- why Lewis was interested in finding the story, and why Beane let Lewis hang around.

But to whet your appetite, here's a couple of highlights. First, a quote from Michael Lewis:
"Baseball is a stupid-making enterprise in that nobody wants to be singled out or say something dumb. You wander in the clubhouse and it’s amazing how incurious the players are. One reason I was attracted to Scott Hatteberg [the former A’s player] as a character: he was just curious: ‘What the hell are you doing here, man?’”

On the criticisms of Moneyball:

There are two silly objections often made to Lewis’s book. The first is that if Moneyball works so well, then why haven’t the A’s had a winning season since 2006? We meet on a sunny October morning, mid-playoffs, a perfect day for baseball, but the team’s season has long since ended.

However, the people who make this objection don’t seem to grasp the basic principles of imitation and catch-up. Once all teams are playing Moneyball, then playing Moneyball no longer gives you an edge. Indeed, the richer clubs have the means to play it smarter. The New York Yankees recently hired 21 statisticians, Beane marvels.

The other common snipe is that Beane should never have spilled his secrets to Lewis. That ruined the A’s, the critics say. But Lewis dismisses the charge. First, he notes, Beane had never imagined their conversations would spiral into a book. Lewis says, “I was going to do something little. By the time I thought I was going to do something big I’d hung around so much it would have been socially awkward to ask me to leave.”

Second, notes Lewis, by 2002 Moneyball was already spreading. The book ends with the Red Sox offering Beane the highest GM’s salary in baseball history. Only when Beane turned them down, having decided after Stanford that he’d never do anything just for money again, did the Red Sox hire Epstein. “The market was moving already,” says Lewis. “The teams that wanted to do it were going to do it anyway, so no book was going to make any difference. My view is the only effect of the book was to give them [the A’s] the credit. If no book had been written, Theo would have been branded the man who reinvented baseball.”

Of course, Epstein's stuff worked in the playoffs.


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