Moneyball and What Makes People “Go Batshit Crazy”

I watched Moneyball last night. I read Michael Lewis’s book several years, and it’s still one of the best sports books I’ve ever read. I thought the movie wouldn’t have anything new to offer. Boy, was I wrong.

You don’t need to know about OBP, WHIP, or OPS to get caught up in this drama. Moneyball is a classic underdog story that just happens to have baseball as its backdrop. There are too many excellent quotes in the film, but I wanted to highlight just one. It happens near the end of the movie, when Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland A’s, travels to Boston. While at Fenway Park, Beane is propositioned by John Henry, the principal owner of the Red Sox. Here’s what Henry tells Beane:

For forty-one million, you built a playoff team. You lost Damon, Giambi, Isringhausen, Pena and you won more games without them than you did with them. You won the exact same number of games that the Yankees won, but the Yankees spent one point four million per win and you paid two hundred and sixty thousand. I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always. It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods, it’s threatening their jobs, it’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go batshit crazy. I mean, anybody who’s not building a team right and rebuilding it using your model, they’re dinosaurs. They’ll be sitting on their ass on the sofa in October, watching the Boston Red Sox win the World Series. 

That’s what I call a money quote.

Medalball

What if you could apply the tactics of Moneyball to the Olympic Games? Nate Silver performs a neat thought experiment to do just that. As he writes, “I’ve identified three measures that, when weighted equally, suggest the sports in which the Kyrgyzstans of the world could direct their energy and resources to maximize their medal count.” The formula can be broken down to three parts:

Find a cheap sport:

The average medal winner comes from a country with per capita G.D.P. of $27,000 in today’s dollars, which is well above the worldwide average of around $11,000. But wealthy nations haven’t claimed every sport. Indonesia has won many medals in badminton; Belarus and Ukraine are powers in rhythmic gymnastics. 

Pick a sport with most medals awarded per participant:

Team sports like soccer require a lot of players for a single medal; that’s expensive and illogical for a medalball country. So I ranked the number of medals awarded in the 2008 Olympics, per event, for every 10 athletes participating. The higher the number, the better the chance of a medal.

The final tip is to pick a sport where the diversity of country winners (outside of the top three) is large. Putting these together, Nate Silver concludes the following sports are best for producing a medalball country (scores out of 10 points; 5 is average):

1. Wrestling 8.78
Thirty-five countries, including Kyrgyzstan, have medaled in wrestling since 1996.

2. Tae Kwon Do 8.76
Though an Olympic sport only since 2000, it already has among the most diverse lists of medal-winning countries, including Afghanistan and Venezuela.

3. Weight Lifting 8.69
Its eight male (and seven female) weight classes give athletes of all sizes a chance. The poorer nations of Southeast Asia have done well in the lighter classes.

A great thought experiment!

Michael Lewis on the Role of Luck

Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker and Moneyball are some of my favorite books I’ve read in the last few years. So it was with delight that I read Lewis’s commencement speech to the most recent graduating class at Princeton. The speech is worth reading in entirety, but the core of the message is: people don’t give enough credit to luck in their success. Lewis makes it clear via his life narrative, because shortly after he published Liar’s Poker:

I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn’t disinherit me but instead sighed and said “do it if you must?” Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place?

This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either. 

Lewis also talks about Moneyball and exploiting underlying data:

If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

If you graduated from Princeton (or any college, for that matter), then Lewis’s point should be lucid by now:

[Y]ou must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier.

Excellent.

On Being Michael Lewis

This is a superb profile of Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s PokerMoneyball, and The Big Short in this month’s New York Magazine.

This should immediately leave your jaw on the ground:

The reason, of course, is that he is Michael Lewis. Magazines these days aren’t willing to pay just anyone to go to Europe for 10,000-word semi-satirical finance pieces, especially at Lewis’s rate—$10 a word when he left Portfolio for Vanity Fair.

Good biographical information on Michael Lewis (I didn’t know the fact about his mother):

Even Lewis will admit that he has led something of a charmed life. He was born looking like something out of a Brooks Brothers catalog, grew up in a well-to-do, generations-old New Orleans family, and has aged in that way that Robert Redford has, in that he looks now basically the same but somehow more solid. “He’s a direct descendant of Lewis and Clark,” says Taylor. “That’s on his dad’s side. On his mother’s side, Thomas Jefferson. Or whoever it was that bought Louisiana from the French. His dad is a lawyer. His grandfather was the first Supreme Court justice of Louisiana. The whole family is very southern, the hospitality, the prim and proper, all of that.” He managed to get into Princeton despite being a far from stellar student in high school. “He had such bad grades,” says his mother, Diana Monroe Lewis, who is in fact a descendant of James Monroe. “But he always had the verbal skills,” she added. “He could talk his way out of any situation.”

As I read pretty much all that Michael Lewis publishes, I dare say that this piece about him is a must-read.

Michael Lewis, Coach Fitz, and Moneyball

Today, Moneyball hits the theaters nationwide. I read this Michael Lewis classic a few years ago, and I intend to see the film. If you’re a fan of the book like I am, you should not miss this classic Michael Lewis piece in the New York Times, “Coach Fitz’s Management Theory.” It’s an endearing read about Michael Lewis’s childhood years, in middle school and high school, and how much he learned from his beloved baseball coach.

A glimpse of Coach Fitz’s personality:

When we first laid eyes on him, we had no idea who he was, except that he played in the Oakland A’s farm system and was spending his off-season, for reasons we couldn’t fathom, coaching eighth-grade basketball. We were in the seventh grade, and so, theoretically, indifferent to his existence. But the outdoor court on which we seventh graders practiced was just an oak tree apart from the eighth grade’s court. And within days of this new coach’s arrival we found ourselves riveted by his performance. Our coach was a pleasant, mild-mannered fellow, and our practices were always pleasant, mild-mannered affairs. The eighth grade’s practices were something else: a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound minor-league catcher with the face of a street fighter hollering at the top of his lungs for three straight hours. Often as not, the eighth graders had done something to offend their new coach’s sensibilities, and he’d have them running wind sprints until they doubled over. When finally they collapsed, unable to run another step, he’d pull from his back pocket his personal collection of Bobby Knight sayings and begin reading aloud.

On not brandishing one’s accomplishments:

Fitz’s office wasn’t the office of a coach who wanted you to know of his success. There were no trophies or plaques, though he’d won enough of them to fill five offices. Other than a few old newspaper clips about his four children, now grown, there were few mementos. What he did keep was books — lots of them. He was always something of a closet intellectual, though I was barely aware of this other side of him.

This is my favourite passage in the piece:

We listened to the man because he had something to tell us, and us alone. Not how to play baseball, though he did that better than anyone. Not how to win, though winning was wonderful. Not even how to sacrifice. He was teaching us something far more important: how to cope with the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life, fear and failure. To make the lesson stick, he made sure we encountered enough of both. I never could have explained at the time what he had done for me, but I felt it in my bones all the same. When I came home one day during my senior year and found the letter saying that, somewhat improbably, I had been admitted to Princeton University, I ran right back to school to tell Coach Fitz. Then I grew up.

I highly, highly recommend reading the whole thing.