Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

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Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
Michael Lewis
First published on 24 April 2004

An iconoclastic riot - and a good lesson for the markets

I could not possibly know (or, to be honest, care) less about baseball. Nonetheless, I found this to be a fascinating book, and have been recommending it to everyone I meet. It contains a fundamental truth of investing that anyone could use, useful precisely because most people think they know best:

If all armchair sports fans think they know better than the others, it stands to reason that most of them are wrong.

The fact that the Oakland A’s never won the World Series is absolutely not the point. If the market was functioning efficiently, on their budget, they should never have got within cooey of it: the buying power of behemoths like the Mets should have ensured that. What is remarkable — and important — is that the A’s consistently, massively, exceeded *their own* expectations.

Sport is a business. I mean that figuratively as well as literally: profit can be measured in dollar terms but also in percentage of wins to losses. Fans seem to forget that. In business, consistently exceeding expectations is an even better thing than winning the World Series, because it necessarily means you’ve made MONEY. If you’re the favourite and you win the World Series, you have only met expectations, and you may even have made a loss.

If baseball were a perfect market, it wouldn’t be possible to exceed expectations over a long period. Over a few games, maybe - that could be a fluke. Over two seasons, it almost certainly couldn’t be. That means two things: (a) conventional wisdom about the value of certain baseball players and certain attributes is wrong; and (b) The Oakland A’s have worked out what is right, or at any rate their model is better than the conventional wisdom.

This is the sort of thing Billy Beane should have kept as quiet about as possible. Michael Lewis’ book ought to be a Eureka moment for every baseball manager: if it is, then the market mis-pricing will disappear, everyone will acquire players on the strength of the new valuation methodology and the Oakland A’s will gradually fall down the rankings to where they should have been in the first place, given their budget. I dare say that has already started to happen.

What it ought to do is open eyes of managers from other codes, and indeed other businesses: the key is in having sufficient data. If you have enough good quality data (like baseball does) then if your analysis of it is better than your competitors, then as long as your approach is disciplined and consistent, you will, over time, turn a virtually risk free profit. It’s called arbitrage.

I haven’t even got onto the fact that Michael Lewis is one of the most insightful and witty writers writing in business at the moment, and this book is a pleasure to read from start to finish, notwithstanding my ignorance of its subject. I have read a number of business titles recently, and compared to the rest of the pack Lewis is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a major leaguer amongst amateurs.

Highly, highly recommended.