Michael Lewis and Billy Beane Talk Moneyball.

FT
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Nov. 13 2011 7:40 AM

Inside Baseball

Michael Lewis and Billy Beane talk Moneyball.

(Continued from Page 3)

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.”

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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.”

Do books never make any difference? The bestselling author chuckles. “The Blind Side [also by Lewis] caused a number of white people to adopt black people. I got letters about that. Liar’s Poker caused any number of young people to go work on Wall Street. I’ve had thousands of letters from people who’ve said, ‘I’m on Wall Street because of you.’ I always think, ‘I’m so sorry I’ve had that effect on your life.’ So I have shifted individual decisions, but I don’t have a sense of having changed the culture.”

At least books beget films. Ten years ago, Beane could not have foreseen that one day Brad Pitt would be sitting in the A’s changing room (which looks more like a junk room) eating pizza and trying to figure out Beane’s psyche. Pitt and his twins also visited Beane and his twins at home, much to the excitement of Beane’s wife and nanny.

The movie was made chiefly because Pitt wanted it made. That begs the question of why he cared so much. When I ask Beane, he squirms: he hates talking about Pitt because it makes him sound like a wannabe celebrity. He is midway through a long garbled answer when Lewis interrupts: “I think he [Pitt] saw himself in Billy.”

Why? “At the core of the book,” explains Lewis, “is misperception of value of people. It resonated with him because of his own acting career. Because he’s constantly on the receiving end of other people’s evaluations. At the beginning of his career, he’s thought to be a pretty actor. His skill is not judged, it’s his looks. And you could tell, he’s weary of being judged by his looks. ‘Is this the way people get screwed up ideas of other people and their value?’”

When Lewis first saw a rough cut of the movie, he said his gut reaction was, “Thank God it doesn’t suck.” But after he left the cinema, satisfaction crept up on him. He felt the director Bennett Miller had “got” the same core theme that had attracted Pitt: the misperception of people’s value. Lewis says, “What he did that was so clever: at every level of that film he echoed that theme. So Jonah Hill’s misperceived as just this bawdy, comic actor. Jonah Hill’s value is discovered as a serious dramatic actor. The Coliseum, perceived as a shithole, is gorgeous in that movie. I thought, he’s figured out that that’s the thing he needs to reprise in different ways.”

We both turn to Beane: what was his gut reaction? He reflects: “For the first two minutes I feel like I’m watching a Brad Pitt movie. Until you hear your name and you squirm.” But it wasn’t the film that worried Beane. “The most stressful part of this whole thing was the idea that I was going to have to walk the red carpet. I said, ‘How quickly can we run across this thing?’”

Lewis breaks in: “To be totally fair to Billy, he likes attention less than anybody who’s got as much attention as he has. You’re shy, that’s what it is! You just hide it well.”

Actually, admits Beane, the film did give him one good celebrity moment. Unusually for anyone in professional sport, Beane counts among his many obsessions punk and indie music. (The Clash poster on Pitt’s office wall in the movie is strictly accurate.) When the film came out in north America, Beane found himself at a table at the Toronto film festival organised by Moneyball’s producer, Sony Pictures. He says, “I was sitting next to the Sonys. Brad and Angelina Jolie were over there. And right there was this guy, and the whole night I kept thinking, ‘Man, that guy looks just like Chris Cornell from Soundgarden.’ So the guy gets up to leave and I turn round and say, ‘That guy’s trying too hard because he’s trying to look just like Chris Cornell.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, that is Chris Cornell from Soundgarden.’ I went, ‘What? I’ve been asking him to pass the scallops all night!’ And off I go and introduce myself to him. That was my closest lookie-me moment.”

At this point Lewis exits the Coliseum to plug his newest bestseller, Boomerang, about the global financial crisis. The interview is over. However, ending any conversation with Beane is a struggle. He starts talking about how with the movie finally out, he can get back to the important things: family, work, and obsessing about soccer. The other day he was in London, at a conference at Chelsea Football Club, thronged by soccer people trying to learn Moneyball methods. Beane has come to love London. “I even like coming in from Heathrow,” he admits. “Hammersmith, and I think of the Clash song. The Kings Road—this is where the Sex Pistols started. Then I start thinking, ‘Where did that darn fire start, during Samuel Pepys’ diary?’ Just going on a cab ride is fascinating for me.”

We chat about Moneyball’s inexorable spread through all sports. I tell him about the England cricket team’s recent victory in the Test series with India. England’s coach, Andy Flower, is a devotee of Moneyball. Before the series his statistician, Nathan “Numbers” Leamon, carried out a Moneyball-style analysis of India’s great batsman Sachin Tendulkar. “Numbers” discovered that Tendulkar struggles early in his innings to score runs on his “off side”—that is, when the ball is bowled on the side of his bat rather than his legs. In the 22 years that Tendulkar has played Test cricket, nobody had previously spotted this. England bowled to Tendulkar’s off side early in his innings, and repeatedly dismissed him cheaply.

Beane is amazed that cricket has only just started doing this analysis. On the shelf behind him, he finds the A’s’ statistical file for their recent routine series against the Detroit Tigers. The file is perhaps 40 pages thick. Beane leafs to the pages for one of the Tigers’ batters, Alex Avila. A chart shows exactly how Avila has fared in each tiny section of his strike zone, and how that varies depending on the phase of his at-bat. The chart looks, as Beane likes to say, like a piece of analysis done at a hedge fund.

That’s Moneyball. Beane puts the file away. He still likes this stuff, but there’s so much else to think about. He walks me to the car park, where he engages the friend who drove me here in a 15-minute conversation about growing up in San Diego.


This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

Simon Kuper is an author who writes about sports "from an anthropologic perspective.

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