Stephen DUBNER: It was so much fun to go back and read the book. Gosh, I just love the book, so thanks.
Michael LEWIS: You just did something I’ve never done.
DUBNER: I was going to ask you if you’ve ever read it.
LEWIS: Uh-uh. No. I never sat down and read it. I wrote it in pieces and sent it in. So, no.
That is Michael Lewis. He may be one of the few people who doesn’t read his books. He is perhaps the most prominent non-fiction author of our generation. It doesn’t hurt that several of his very good books have been turned into very good movies, including The Big Short and The Blind Side. He has written a lot about finance and sports, but he has also written books about the systemic vulnerabilities of government agencies and of our public-health system. As for this book, the one we’re talking about today, I asked him to read a bit aloud — apparently for the first time. This is from the preface:
EXCERPT, PAGE XI: I wrote this book because I fell in love with a story. The story concerned a small group of undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball.
This book is called Moneyball. It too was turned into a good movie. As for the book: Lewis didn’t know it at the time, but he was writing about a revolution that would soon spread not just throughout baseball and other sports, but into a great variety of realms. When someone says they’re trying to do “the moneyball of the music industry” or “the moneyball of medical research” — that is part of the legacy that Lewis helped create when he fell in love with a story about one baseball team, the Oakland A’s, and their iconoclastic general manager, whose name is Billy Beane. Moneyball is coming up on its 20th anniversary, so I thought it might be a good time to go back to the source. I asked Lewis how he and his publisher were planning to celebrate the anniversary.
LEWIS: I didn’t know it was the 20th anniversary until you called.
In that case, I’m glad we did call. This week, in the latest installment of the Freakonomics Radio Book Club, the man behind Moneyball — and the man behind the man behind Moneyball.
LEWIS: He was so angry when the book came out. The sound coming out of the phone, it was like this, “RAAAAAAAA.”
* * *
Before this podcast took over my life, I wrote books. Many of my close friends were also people who wrote books. And I’ll be honest with you: most of them (most of us) could be neurotic. There is a lot that goes into the writing of a book, which creates a fair amount of opportunity for regret. I asked Michael Lewis if he felt the same about Moneyball.
LEWIS: I’m not a writer with lots of regrets. I’m deeply pleased with how the book went, and the controversy it stirred up, and the legacy it’s left.
Moneyball essentially covers a year in the life of the Oakland A’s, a baseball team that had previously spent a lot of money on players but under its current ownership was only willing to spend less than half of what big-money teams like the Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers were spending. The orthodoxy in sport is that more money buys better players, and that better players will win more games. The Oakland A’s, out of necessity, challenged that orthodoxy. How? They hunted down good data and analyzed it ruthlessly to answer a simple question: when a baseball team wins a game, exactly why did they win? Which characteristics or behaviors were truly valuable, and which ones just appealed to the tastes of the orthodoxy? The A’s then identified which characteristics of winning were overvalued, and which ones were undervalued — and then they set out to acquire the type of player who possessed those undervalued qualities. Which, fortuitously, meant these players were cheap. Also: maybe not so visually appealing. Here’s another excerpt from Moneyball.
EXCERPT, PAGE 37: The statistics enabled you to find your way past all sorts of sight-based scouting prejudices: the scouting dislike of short right-handed pitchers, for instance, or the scouting distrust of skinny little guys who get on base. Or the scouting distaste for fat catchers.
One moral of the Moneyball story was to not trust your gut so much. The other moral was that history is one long battle between traditionalists and new thinkers. If Michael Lewis’s books have a common theme, it’s that: an old way of doing things being replaced by a new way. This began with his first book, Liar’s Poker.
LEWIS: My first job was in the very best place to tell the story about Wall Street in the 1980s.
Lewis had done what a lot of smart kids from good schools did back then: he got a job at an investment bank. In his case, Salomon Brothers. Liar’s Poker is part-memoir and part exposé of the money-harvesting industry. Lewis did recently have occasion to go back and re-read Liar’s Poker. What’d he think?
LEWIS: The only times it was actually funny was when I wasn’t thinking I was being funny. I was sort of laughing at my own jokes on the page and it felt like I thought I was funnier than I was. So that was one thing. The second thing was the persona I created for myself was just different from how I am now. It felt a little — I don’t know, it just didn’t sound like me. And why would it, right? I mean, it’s a long time ago.
Still, Lewis has always had good timing. Liar’s Poker was set in the beginning of what turned out to be a movement to monetize and financialize everything. And how does he think this movement has turned out?
LEWIS: Poorly. The rent-seeking class are the highest-paid people in society for the most part, and that’s not good. I think it’s been a huge distraction for a lot of bright people who go to the best schools and don’t know what to do with themselves when they get out. And it’s given them an easy off-the-rack answer when they could have actually found more meaningful lives to lead. I don’t think, like, most of what goes on on Wall Street is evil. It’s not that. It’s just, like, I think it’s a little pointless.
Lewis may think Wall Street is pointless, but Wall Street has long regarded people like Lewis as exactly the point. He was a sort of golden boy, a well-bred and well-educated young man — Princeton, in his case — whom the financial industry can easily turn into a millionaire, sometimes a billionaire. But Lewis bailed after three years; he’s been writing journalism and books ever since.
LEWIS: I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Both parents’ families had been there forever. My great — my distant grandfather had been sent down by Thomas Jefferson, Joshua was his name, to be the first chief justice of the Louisiana Territory. So, the first legal opinions are Lewis 1.1.
DUBNER: So you were, if you don’t mind me labeling you thusly, a boy of privilege, right? I’m just curious how aware you were of that?
LEWIS: New Orleans made it so clear to you what your privilege was because there were all these elaborate social rituals and particularly, the whole Mardi Gras scene. When I was 15 or 16, I was made king of the New Orleans teenager Mardi Gras organization. And I used to go from baseball practice to a little house where there was a lady who trained royalty. And I learned how to sit on thrones and how to wave scepters and how to treat subjects. And even I was aware that this is a bizarre level of privilege in a society.
DUBNER: I’m really curious how you, coming from the environment you did, the family you did — I’m curious how it affected the kind of reporter you became?
LEWIS: I suppose I’ve never felt inferior toward anyone. I had no practice in being confined to my box and being told to stay in my place. And so whenever I hit a subject, I’m always overrunning it. I’m never, like, behaving like a journalist. I’m assuming, “I’m your equal” — even if it’s the president of the United States. I want to walk in your shoes, I want to see everything I want to see, what I’m doing is as important as what you’re doing. And that has had a big effect on the nature of the material I get, because I tend to be pretty invasive and gain a kind of access. If you talk to Billy Beane about the experience of having me come to write about them, one of the things he’ll say, with a kind of wonder in his voice is, “Michael became another member of the front office. He’d just come in to work, and sit in the office.” And because I was allowed to do that, it wasn’t like, “Oh, the journalist is here for his half-hour interview.” I would just come and squat. If I’d come at them in a more formal, normal way, I don’t think I’d ever have been in that situation.
Billy Beane, the man running the Oakland A’s, had played professional baseball himself, but not all that well and not for long. This has been a surprise. Beane was so good in high school that major-league scouts considered him a can’t-miss superstar: he was big and fast, and he just looked like a superstar. In that regard, Billy Beane the athlete was exactly the kind of player that Billy Beane the general manager had come to believe should not be pursued by the Oakland A’s. Beane’s deputy was a young, analytics-driven strategist named Paul DePodesta.
LEWIS: And they find that there are huge inefficiencies in the market — that there are huge inefficiencies in the way the baseball players are being valued, good ones are being missed, and bad ones are being exalted. There are strategies teams are pursuing that are dumb and there are smarter ways to play the game. And the way you find these better values of players and better strategies is through statistical analysis.
Paul DePodesta, importantly, had not been a professional baseball player. Otherwise, the Oakland A’s — like most teams at the time — were run almost entirely by former players, some who had been successful and many who hadn’t. These men were split into two major groups: the scouts, who identified young players they thought the team should draft; and then the manager and coaching staff, who oversaw the roster and made most in-game decisions. In sum, the sport was fueled by lifetime upon lifetime of accumulated wisdom, some of which was right but much of which — as Lewis argues in Moneyball — was demonstrably wrong. So, Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta set out to course-correct, with an eye toward saving money at the same time. They examined every data point used by the baseball traditionalists, and they found a lot of what you might call statistical abuse: caring way too much about certain obvious stats and failing to even consider some more nuanced ones. One important insight was that a lot of conventional decision-making in baseball had evolved with an eye toward avoiding humiliation. Let’s say you are the manager of a team who’s ahead by one run going into the bottom of the ninth inning. You put in the best relief pitcher you have in your bullpen — he’s called the closer — and you want him to secure what’s called a save. But: your closer blows the lead, and your team loses. It’s a bad result, but at least you followed the conventional wisdom by putting in your best bullpen pitcher. So at least you would avoid humiliation.
LEWIS: What the A’s figured out was that — obviously there were points in the game that were much more important to have a great pitcher coming out of the bullpen: fifth inning, you’re up by one, and the other team has the bases loaded, and there’s one out. So what they started doing, but much to the distress of their manager because it made the manager look like an idiot to other baseball people, was they would take not their best pitcher and make him the closer — they would take their third-best pitcher and make him the closer and he would naturally accumulate lots of saves because they were very good and there’d be lots of games where they were up by three runs going into the ninth inning. So he’d then get a reputation of being this great closer — and they’d go sell him off for way too much at the end of the season. And then use their best pitchers in the moments during the game that were much more critical. So that’s an example of a statistic being used to create a strategic rule that everybody followed, and since everybody agreed on what you did by rule, if it didn’t work out, nobody shouted at you.
Just last week, Billy Beane stepped down as the A’s executive vice president of baseball operations. He’s been with the team for 33 years, much of it spent trying to dismantle this kind of conventional wisdom. And it worked. In 2002, the year that Michael Lewis showed up with his notebook and just acted as if he belonged there, the A’s won 103 games, tied with the Yankees for the most wins in Major League Baseball. And they were spending much less money than other teams.
LEWIS: Beane thought of himself as like a Wall Street trader. Like he was arbitraging human beings.
DUBNER: Had he read Liar’s Poker?
LEWIS: Yes, he had read it. And I think that’s why he let me through his door in the first place. When I got there, and started asking him questions that sounded like the kind of questions you’d ask a Wall Street trader, but the assets were baseball players, he just lit up.
DUBNER: There are a lot of beat reporters on any major league baseball team. He’d been doing this unusual approach to baseball for a while by now. Was he surprised — were you surprised that nobody else had been at him about this?
LEWIS: He had been a player too, right? So he dealt with the media then. And I think he’d gotten so used to being asked the wrong question, that he never thought that anybody was ever going to ask him the right question. He didn’t know what I was doing. Like, he didn’t know I was writing a book about the Oakland A’s. He knew I was writing a book about baseball. He was so angry when the book came out.
DUBNER: Explain why he was angry. What was the problem?
LEWIS: I had a sneaking sense of guilt because I thought, “He’s going to be pissed. And he’s going to be pissed because I’ve given away his secrets. I spent my time trying to describe how he’s been doing what he’s been doing, and all of baseball is going to read it, and he’s not going to have an intellectual advantage anymore.” And so he calls, and the sound coming out of the phone, it was like this, “RAAAAAAAA.” It was not articulate. It was like an ape in the jungle screaming and beating his chest. He was so angry. And I said “Billy, wait, what, like, what’s the problem here?” And he said, “It’s me, the way, you’re describing me.” I said, “How did I describe you? How does it bother you?” And he says, “You have me saying ‘f***’ all the time.” And I said, “You do say ‘f***’ all the time.” And he said, “You don’t understand. My mother is going to be furious.” I said, “Your mother is going to be furious?” And he said, “Yeah my mom’s going to read this book.” So I started laughing, and I said, “Billy, I’m so relieved. I thought you were going to be angry because all of baseball is going to read this, and you’re going to lose your edge.” And this silence on the end of the line, he said, “You don’t think anybody in baseball is going to read your book? They don’t read books.” He said, “Nobody’s going to read your book. But my mother is going to read your book.” So now, flash-forward two months, and I was in a bookstore in San Diego, and I was giving a reading, and everybody seemed to be enjoying it. And there was a woman of a certain age at the back just staring at me with hatred. And it was Billy’s mom. And she came up and all she said was, “My son doesn’t talk that way.” And I took her out to dinner to try to mollify her and she would have none of it. She was furious. She’s probably still furious. So Billy was angry because of that. The rest of it, he kind of could care less about.
DUBNER: He didn’t care about losing his advantage?
LEWIS: Look, from their point of view, it wasn’t like they were cooking up theories all by themselves. A lot of it was publicly available information.
So why weren’t more baseball teams using this publicly available information to change how they operated? The answer to that question has to do with another revolution that Michael Lewis stumbled into:
LEWIS: I subsequently learn that there is a whole wing of psychology devoted to the mistakes people make.
That’s coming up after the break. This is Freakonomics Radio; I’m Stephen Dubner.
* * *
DUBNER: I’m curious how you feel when people say, “Oh, we are doing the moneyball of crime fighting” or “the moneyball of politics” or “the moneyball of the restaurant industry.” What does Michael Lewis feel when he hears that proclamation?
LEWIS: Some people just take it very crudely that, “Oh, I’m just disrupting in some way.” They think of moneyball as just disrupting an environment. And about half the time I wind up thinking, “Oh, you just needed a sports metaphor for what you’re doing, and you’ve used Moneyball to make some boring business much more entertaining to yourself than it actually is.” But other times I’ve thought, “Wow, I mean, yes. You are finding better data and you’re analyzing it in different ways, and you come to pretty radical, different conclusions about how this should be done.” What interested me the most about the whole story was the way people got misvalued by markets.
When Lewis says he’s most interested in how “people got misvalued by markets,” he’s not just talking about baseball players. Here’s another excerpt from Moneyball:
EXCERPT, PAGE 72: If gross miscalculations of a person’s value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over- or undervalued, who couldn’t? Bad as they may have been, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players were probably far more accurate than anything used to measure the value of people who didn’t play baseball for a living.
DUBNER: When you say these people are scrutinized for years and years and years, then there are values put on them and the values are often wrong — and then I think, and I’m sure you’ve thought about this, what about all the rest of us? You think about, you know, a child in a family, an employee in a firm, a member of a community, and how often people are just mispriced in some way. Do you think about that much?
LEWIS: I do. And I think about the reasons they’re mispriced. I didn’t have an intellectual framework to drop the moneyball story into when I wrote Moneyball. I wasn’t thinking, “This is an example of something much larger than itself.” I thought, “This is just an incredible story that illustrates these points.” I subsequently learn that there’s a whole wing of psychology devoted to the mistakes people make when they do things like evaluate a person for a job.
DUBNER: And we should say one of your other books, excellent book, is called The Undoing Project, about Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Was the seed for that sort of planted in writing Moneyball?
LEWIS: It was more than that. Moneyball came out and it was reviewed in The New Republic by Thaler and Sunstein, Nobel Prize-winning economist and a prominent legal scholar who said, basically, love the book, but the author doesn’t seem to understand that he’s written a case study in the work of Kahneman and Tversky. And I thought, “Who the hell is Kahneman and Tversky?”
Okay, who are Kahneman and Tversky? Danny Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky are a pair of Israeli psychologists who created an astonishingly original body of research around human decision-making. Along came the economist Richard Thaler, to help turn that research into the field now known as behavioral economics. Michael Lewis’s book The Undoing Project was about the Kahneman-Tversky partnership, and their research. One big takeaway from their research was that we all use mental shortcuts to make decisions, even important decisions, and those shortcuts can create cognitive biases. Michael Lewis came on this show in 2017 to talk about The Undoing Project — that episode was called “The Men Who Started a Thinking Revolution.” Here’s Lewis from that episode, talking about one bias that happens to apply to baseball:
LEWIS,: The vividness bias. People think that a baseball player is a better baseball player than he is if his talents are very vivid. If he’s really, really fast or has a lot of power he is more likely to be overvalued than if he had subtle abilities, like plate discipline, because those aren’t vivid.
“Plate discipline” means a batter is able to keep himself from swinging at a pitch that’s going to be hard to hit solidly, even if the pitch may be a strike. Over the long run, plate discipline can lead to a higher batting average as well as more walks, and therefore higher on-base percentage — all of which lead to more winning. But it is not very sexy. It is not the kind of attribute that baseball scouts get excited about. The scouts wanted vividness. Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta had a different view. Here’s another chunk from Moneyball.
EXCERPT, PAGE 37: Billy had his own idea about where to find future major league baseball players: inside Paul’s computer. He’d flirted with the idea of firing all the scouts and just drafting the kids straight from Paul’s laptop. The Internet now served up just about every statistic you could want about every college player in the country, and Paul knew them all. Paul’s laptop didn’t have a tiny red bell on top that whirled and whistled whenever a college player’s on-base percentage climbed above 0.450, but it might as well have.
DUBNER: I feel like you must have been curious about how these characters, Billy Beane or Paul DePodesta, were representative of a new way of thinking that could be extremely valuable in many realms. Or am I giving you too much credit?
LEWIS: No, there’s no question I was thinking about that. I just didn’t have time to think too much about what realms those were. Except that, there was a funny exchange I had with them one afternoon in their office. I was saying, “Look, you guys have figured out that people are misvalued simply because, say, how they look. Is this having any effect on the way you move through the world?” And they both said, “Yes, we were having that conversation not long ago about our stock market investments.” They had read somewhere that something like three-quarters of the C.E.O.s of Fortune 500 companies were white men who were six-two or taller. And at that moment, they decided they’d never invest in a company that had a white man, six-two or taller, who was running it, because that was the equivalent of the good-looking, you know, jacked, fast, but sucky baseball player. They went looking for C.E.O.s who were sort of oddly misshapen in the same way that their baseball players were, because they figured if that person got to be a C.E.O., it’s because they actually were good at running a company, not because they looked the part.
DUBNER: Okay. So, getting back to this kind of religious war between the old-school scouts and this new way of thinking — it wasn’t just that you were writing that the old guard was often wrong. It strikes me that you are impugning not just their intelligence, but their virtue almost. Would you say that’s a fair characterization?
LEWIS: No, I think it was more just the intelligence. I didn’t have much to say about their virtue. What bothered me the most is they thought they knew everything. It was kind of a smugness, like “I know because I’ve been here.” And an unwillingness to be open to new information. The book made a mockery of the management of every other baseball team. Billy was mocking them behind their backs. And it was worse — it wasn’t that the Oakland A’s had dreamed up all kinds of private information that they were using to gain an edge. They were just reading stuff written by baseball intellectuals and using it. So what the book was saying was that the people running baseball teams didn’t know what they were doing, and the people running baseball teams were, by and large, old baseball players. It was a pretty closed system. It was a challenge to the status of the people who ran baseball teams. And it was such a challenge that I can remember that the Baseball Scouts of America had a conference in New Orleans — oddly, my hometown — devoted to how to defend themselves against Moneyball. And the tone of the thing was, “We’re all going to lose our jobs because of this book. So what do we do?”
DUBNER: And what is the state of scouting today?
LEWIS: It’s been overhauled. And especially the management in the front offices. I mean, what’s happened is a wave of people who are very comfortable with statistical analysis have displaced a bunch of people who actually played baseball. A whole new character has invaded this space: the geek, the nerd. The scouts thought there were things that were just true about players and, when subjected to analysis, proved to be false.
DUBNER: But facts don’t really win arguments. I mean, look at politics, right?
LEWIS: Facts do win arguments when they win baseball games. People looked and saw, if we do it this way, we lose. And if we do it this way, we win. You’re right. Facts don’t win arguments — when two people are shouting at each other and they both think they’re right, nobody changes their mind. The old management was not going to have their minds changed by the book or by the nerds who came in. What happened was the owners were a completely different breed, right? These aren’t people who played baseball. These are people who made their money often in very analytical fields — Wall Street or tech or whatever — are completely open to the idea that they can understand things that, say, baseball players don’t. And they had friends who said, “You got to read this book because this team you own is being completely mismanaged.”
DUBNER: How well has this style of analysis transferred to other team sports? And if less than baseball, let’s talk about why that might be.
LEWIS: Less than baseball. It’s just so much harder to generate good statistics out of a flow sport like basketball or a really complicated sport like football. Baseball, it’s very easy to isolate and assign credit and blame on a field and capture it with a statistic. In basketball and football, it’s just much harder. Things have happened. I mean, there’s no question there’s been an analytics revolution in basketball. The most conspicuous expression of it is what’s happening with the three-point shot. Everybody now has come to understand the expected value — even talking in these terms — of the three-point shot is greater than the expected value of most two-point shots. And you see things in football, like coaches going for it on fourth down where they didn’t used to.
DUBNER: Here’s a very nice sentence from your podcast Against the Rules. This is from an episode you made about Bill James, the modern-day father of baseball analytics. You say in this podcast, “The numbers start out as rules for thinking. They wind up replacing thought.” Can you unpack that for me, especially as it pertains to what people call the big-data revolution we’re living through right now? In other words, I think a lot of people think that, “Let’s just get all the data and it will answer all our questions for us.” And I want to know where you see that failing us.
LEWIS: You would once get buffaloed in a conversation by someone saying — let’s just take baseball — “I know that stealing a base in this situation is the smart thing to do because I played for 20 years, and we stole bases and it won us the World Series.” And there was no answering it. That person was allowed to just dominate, to decide what the truth was. And no one could say anything back to them. That person’s been replaced by someone who says something like, “Your odds of winning go from 80 percent to 70 percent if you try to steal that base.” And nobody knows what to say then, right? It’s just like, “Oh, they know the probabilities. And they’re the smart person.” When you start to really dig into it, sometimes the probabilities aren’t the probabilities. Or there’s something peculiar about the situation that means that it doesn’t belong in the class of objects that they are analyzing. Or whatever. I never meant to say that experience is completely irrelevant. I never meant to say that the person who’s just got the numbers knows everything, and that there’s no other form of knowing things, that someone who’s actually done the thing might not have something really important to say that the person who’s got the numbers — I never meant it to be that extreme.
DUBNER: So one argument for why the A’s were so good during those years was not that they outfoxed everybody on the analytics front, not that they focused on on-base percentage and these other undervalued areas, but that they just happened to have three total studly pitchers: Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. In the book, you’ve got one rival executive say, “Billy got lucky with those pitchers.” It was also curious to me that you don’t write about the pitchers very much in the book, even though their contribution to the season was large. You also don’t write so much about Miguel Tejada, who was the A’s big-hitting shortstop who I believe won the M.V.P. that season. Why did you not at least pay some service to those obviously super-talented players who were a big part of the success?
LEWIS: Well, the book was about who was being overlooked, and everybody knew those players. And so first, the pitchers weren’t an accident. The pitchers were the college pitchers that Billy drafted because he’d seen through the mistake that other teams were making, so they were part of the process. It served no purpose to tell everybody how good they were. Everybody already thought that. What they didn’t understand was that the runs created by Scott Hatteberg were almost as great as the runs created by Miguel Tejada, who was going to get the M.V.P. for the runs he was creating.
Scott Hatteberg — who, if you’ve read Moneyball, you’ll remember as “The Pickin’ Machine” — he was perhaps the purest piece of evidence in Michael Lewis’s argument about the value of Billy Beane’s philosophy. Hatteberg had been a catcher for several seasons with the Boston Red Sox, and he lacked vividness in almost every way. He also lacked the ability to throw a baseball very well, having recently torn a nerve in his elbow. For a catcher, this was a big problem. So the Oakland A’s were able to pick him up cheap; and, in order to put his bat in their lineup, they converted him into a first baseman. As a batter, what Hatteberg lacked in vividness, he more than made up for in plate discipline. And how’d that work out for the A’s in 2002?
EXCERPT, PAGE 187: Scott Hatteberg will finish the season at or near the top of a couple of odd statistical categories, and one not-so-odd one. He’ll be first in the entire American League in not swinging at first pitches, and third in the percentage of pitches he doesn’t swing at. Trivial accomplishments, if they did not lead to another, less trivial one. At the end of the season, Paul DePodesta will measure the performance of every A’s hitter. He’ll want to know how efficient each has been with his plate opportunities. He’ll answer that question in an unorthodox way, by asking: how many runs would a lineup produce that consisted of nine perfect replicas of that hitter? If Scott Hatteberg, for example, had taken every single at-bat for the Oakland A’s in 2002, how many runs would he have generated? Nine Scott Hattebergs generate between 940 and 950 runs, tied for the Oakland A’s lead with Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, obviously much flashier hitters. The offensively explosive 2002 New York Yankees, by comparison, scored 897 runs. Nine Scott Hattebergs are, by some measure, the best offense in baseball.
LEWIS: The second point is, with the A’s budget, even though they got lucky with three pitchers and a shortstop and Eric Chavez, their third baseman, if they had not surrounded them with 20 other players who were good and cheap, they never would have won. Three pitchers, they’re not going to do it for you. So the contribution of the analytics department, of Paul DePodesta, was huge. So it’s not like they would have won without that. What would have happened? You would have had a few good pitchers on a very mediocre team and people wouldn’t have seen how good the pitchers were because they wouldn’t have won that many games because they wouldn’t have scored as many runs. You know? The final point I would make is that, “Are you really saying this to me?” Because the whole freaking sport is now overrun by the way the A’s do things, because everybody’s figured out how important it is. I don’t need to defend this. Talk to anybody who’s running a major league baseball team now. They’re doing it exactly this way because they know they get their butts kicked if they don’t.
DUBNER: So when I was a kid, I ate, breathed, and slept baseball. Played all the time, watched as much as I could. But over time, I just fell out of love with it. And today, if I’m being honest, I find baseball so boring that I can barely stand it. Even in person, I can only make it through a few innings. So, is that sort of your fault, Michael? Because, you know, before the analytics revolution, there were around 50 percent more hits per game than strikeouts. And now there are more strikeouts than hits. So strikeouts are fun for the pitcher, maybe the pitcher’s mom, but most fans would prefer hits.
LEWIS: So first I’d say, it’s not true that if I had not written Moneyball, the game would just motored along just as it was. John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, was about to moneyball the Red Sox. I think the biggest effect Moneyball had was to possibly speed up the analytics revolution at the very beginning, popularize it to the larger culture. But the big thing was to get the Oakland A’s the credit they deserved for being the leader of it. Because if the book had never been written, the Red Sox would have gotten the credit.
DUBNER: Ah, interesting.
LEWIS: So I think it would have happened anyway.
DUBNER: But it would have felt really different because the Red Sox have always been a big-dollar team.
LEWIS: It would have felt different, that’s true. People would not have noticed exactly the power of the thing. But it is true that the smarter ways to play baseball, make baseball more boring. And this isn’t true of all sport — that in some sports, the analytics make the game more exciting. It’s certainly opened up football. I mean, it used to be three yards and a cloud of dust. The passing game is all fueled by analytic insights. And not true of basketball. Steph Curry’s career is made possible by insights about the three-point shot. And so I think it just so happens that the smart way to play baseball is to move less and the smarter way to play the other sports is to move more. And so there’s less movement, less action on the field. And I agree with you. I don’t watch it.
DUBNER: So if you were the commissioner of baseball and you wanted to improve the modern product — and there have been some feints toward speeding up the pitcher and the batter, but it’s still a really long game without a whole lot of action—
LEWIS: And the backdrop is a culture that is speeding up and its attention span is declining every moment.
DUBNER: So can you imagine a way in which you could respect this lovely, long tradition of baseball and the sport that many of us have loved or still love, while also making it more modern?
LEWIS: Put a lion on the field.
DUBNER: A line?
LEWIS: A lion.
LEWIS: Not just a zoo lion —
DUBNER: So a coliseum match, we’re talking?
LEWIS: A lion that’s actually hungry. And you put it out on the field, and everybody would start moving more.
DUBNER: Not a purist argument, for sure.
LEWIS: I’m joking, of course, but if you put a lion on the field, people would say, “Well, you can’t really do that” — especially if the lion got hurt. But if it just created like some injuries and some damage and some sense of danger, pretty soon people would start to think, “This is great. I can’t watch baseball without the lion in it.” Baseball has a peculiar problem — it’s why you can’t put a lion on the field — baseball is selling simultaneously a sport that you’re watching and the history of the sport. People are so invested in the continuity of the game. It’s an old and aging fan base. And they’re attached to the game being pretty similar to the way it was played in the thirties. And they want the statistics the accomplishments to be comparable.
DUBNER: Although in football and basketball, those games have changed so much that the statistics aren’t comparable and yet those sports are growing.
LEWIS: That’s exactly right. So baseball is going to have to, I think, make a decision between its future and its past. And I think eventually they’ll choose its future. And probably the game will start to look very different from the way it was played.
Coming up after the break: what’s Michael Lewis working on now?
LEWIS: I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you because it would just blow it.
Ah, but we can tell you. That’s coming up. And if you want to hear more episodes of the Freakonomics Radio Book Club — we usually do four or five of these a year — or if you want to hear any of our regular episodes, they are all available on any podcast app and also at freakonomics.com, where we publish complete transcripts too. I’m Stephen Dubner; this is Freakonomics Radio; we’ll be right back.
* * *
DUBNER: So the A’s, as amazing as they were at finding talent and as many games as they won for a whole bunch of years, they never won a World Series. In fact, they lost most of their playoff series. I think they made the playoffs 11 years during this stretch, and I think they only advanced twice. So there are people who say, “Well, he, Billy Beane; he, Paul DePodesta; even he, Michael Lewis, couldn’t be so right if this team can’t win the World Series.” What’s your response to that?
LEWIS: Well, the numbnut response, if you’re having that numbnut argument is, look, the Red Sox won the World Series. They were doing the same thing. They were doing it with more money, but they used exactly the same tools to evaluate the players and the strategies. And the Houston Astros are, right now, the poster child for analytics.
DUBNER: Is there a non-numbnut response then?
LEWIS: In a funny way, it gave me the ending to the book — that they had this great season and then they lost a five-game playoff series. And Billy Beane says, “My sh** doesn’t work in the playoffs.” And what he means by that is that there’s a huge amount of randomness in any baseball game. And in a very short series, the very worst team in baseball might be the very best. It’s not like the best team wins the World Series. Baseball is constructed — it’s diabolical — it’s constructed to have this very long season where randomness is sort of bled out, where you get to see who the best team is. And then you chuck all that away and you put teams together in very short series where anything could happen.
DUBNER: Let me throw at you then a question from a listener. This is someone named Patrick Kelly. He wanted me to ask you, “How would you translate the Billy Beane method for building a successful professional baseball club to an individual’s approach to life?”
LEWIS: I think the first takeaway in a very general way — from Moneyball for your life — is to ask why you’re doing things the way you’re doing things. And it’s intoxicating, once you start. Once you start saying, why do we have to steal a base when there’s nobody out and a runner on first? Or why isn’t anybody placing any value on a walk? Or why do we have to have a starting pitcher? Once you start asking these questions, you start to get answers that might surprise you. And then after that, it’s sort of like how do you start to evaluate the things you need to evaluate? And if there are ways to try to put numbers on things, to try to make probability judgments about things that you’ve just been not thinking about, you might get to a different answer.
DUBNER: You know, I found just the thrill of reading this book on a sentence-by-sentence level to be really large. I’d love you to talk about whether it was fun to write. If I recall correctly, you are not a tortured writer. You are a writer who enjoys writing. So talk about Moneyball and the writing thereof.
LEWIS: So for me, there’s a tortured process, but it’s the process that occurs before I start to write. It’s like, what is this book about? The biggest question is — is this worth a book? Like, is it urgent enough? I do feel like there’s too many books in the world. And the last thing anybody needs is a mediocre one by me where I go out and try to sell it hard. If it’s going to be mediocre or just good, there’s no point. So I have to work myself up into a lather before I sit down to write. By the time I sit down to write, I’ve seen the whites of its eyes. So by the time I sat down to write Moneyball, I had a beat on the thing. And it was a total pleasure to write. There was one very bizarre hiccup at the beginning. I’m going to sound like a kook when I tell you the story, but this is what happened. I had written a piece for the New York Times Magazine about some Iranian dissidents in Los Angeles who had created a satellite T.V. show. And I went down, and I not only wrote a piece about them, I went on air, and I addressed the Iranian people. I was having fun with it, right? I was like, “Overthrow your rulers!” kind of thing. I thought, “Ha ha, this is fun.” Three weeks after the piece appeared, I was out to lunch, literally out to lunch from my office in Berkeley. I came back and every file in my office had been stolen, including the first 50 pages of Moneyball. And the only thing anybody saw — the neighbor saw a white van with blackened windows come up, they left no fingerprints, they jimmied their way into the office. They didn’t touch anything except they stole two computers, and all the floppy disks. So I lost the first 50 pages of the book after I’d written it. And it was momentarily crushing for me. But I actually had enjoyed writing it so much that it turned out to be not that big a deal just to write it again.
DUBNER: Can I just say, my stomach just sinks when I hear that — like, if I lose a page of something, I cry.
LEWIS: I know. So I actually was so freaked out, and the police came. They said this is some sort of professional job. And the only thing I could tie it to was these Iranians. Why would anybody want to steal my computer? So the beginning of Moneyball got stolen by Iranian secret agents. I don’t know. Maybe.
DUBNER: It strikes me that one big component of sports — and life — is luck, which people generally have a hard time measuring and maybe even a harder time acknowledging. Do you think much about the role of luck in your career, good or bad?
LEWIS: Oh my God. All the time. I’m at the mercy of accident — with every book, the whole of my career. It wasn’t planned that I would walk into one of the best nonfiction storytelling environments conceivable on the planet when I was 23 years old, with the ambition to write nonfiction. That just happened.
DUBNER: Now, you’re talking about Liar’s Poker here, not Moneyball, correct?
LEWIS: Liar’s Poker. Pure accident. I could have landed in the Oakland A’s during a much less compelling season. It was a pretty compelling season. I mean, I was completely at the mercy of what happened. Over and over, yes, I’m struck by the role of accident in my career and in my life. As a broad matter, I think we’d all be better off if we saw the luck more clearly, because we’d understand that lucky people kind of have an obligation, and it’s an obligation to the unlucky.
DUBNER: So on one of the very rare occasions that Billy Beane actually watches a baseball game — you describe how he does anything he can to avoid watching — you write that he watches it because, “He somehow allowed himself to be trapped into watching the game with me.” So you’re sitting there with him, and the A’s are going for their 20th consecutive win, which would be one of the longest streaks in the history of baseball.
LEWIS: So I’m going to tell you a story that I don’t know if I’ve told before. I went out to the Coliseum, and there were 50,000 people there and the world’s media was there because they were about to maybe break the consecutive-win record. And I got there, and I was so distressed, because I’d had this story all to myself up to that point. And I thought, “Screw this, I’m not even going to stay for the game. No point. Like, the whole world is going to see it.” So I got on the highway and started driving back home — the highway was empty because all of Oakland was watching the game. And I call my wife, Tabitha, and say, “I’m coming home, there’s no point.” She said, “This is stupid. You know it might be important. You ought to just go out there and loiter.” So I get back to the Coliseum and they’re in the, I don’t know, second or third inning. And there’s no security to stop me from walking down to the A’s clubhouse.
And the door was closed, and I banged on the clubhouse door. And Billy Beane answers the door. And he’s in there alone, in the manager’s office watching the game. And they were up like 11-nothing — the A’s were just going to win. And so he’s like relaxed and chill. He says, “You know, you’re not supposed to be in here. It’s against the rules, media in the clubhouse during the game, but come on in.” And I went in and sat in the manager’s office, and we’re just talking about anything but the game, and there’s a little television set. And on that T.V. set, as we’re talking, the A’s unravel. It’s 11-6, and 11-7, 11-8, and then all of a sudden, it’s like 11-11. And he’s losing it. And he’s furious with everything at once. He put some chewing tobacco in his mouth. His face gets red. He starts screaming at the T.V. He looks at me, I’m sitting there with my notepad. And he’s like, “You a******. How did you get me in this situation? This is like my nightmare. Not only having to watch this game, but you watching me watch this game.” It was hell on earth for him.
Well, at that moment, I knew Scott Hatteberg was going to sit right in the middle of this book. And it was like the invisible man who was incredibly valued, who had been put in a very awkward position of playing first base, which he’d never played before, because Billy had seen his value as an offensive player. The statistics had exposed his value as an offensive player. And Scott Hatteberg, who I’d gotten to know quite well at that point, I just was wondering how I was going to wind this story up — was off that night. He’d been told, “You’re not playing.” And he had gone into full chill mode. He had like five Starbucks lattes and, he was all amped up, but he was like reading books. He barely had his uniform on, but he was in the dugout. And what is it? The bottom of the ninth. It’s tied. And the manager says, “Swing a bat, Hatteberg, you’re going to pinch hit.”
And he comes running back through the clubhouse to go back to the batting cage and get some swings in. And he’s thinking, “I am just not prepared for this.” He couldn’t find like his regular bat. He had this new bat, weird bat he never used before. He goes sprinting back out to the field. And there he is coming to the plate. And Billy and I are watching, and I thought, “This is really going to happen, isn’t it?” And sure enough, he hits one out, and that’s the game. And it was a kind of a moving moment for me because I was so wrapped up in this guy, no one knew who he was, no one was paying attention to him. And he’s the hero of the moment? And Paul DePodesta, Billy’s number two, he knew how important Hatteberg was to my story, he knew that I was focusing on him. He comes running back and he looks at me. He says, “Like first, like, what are you doing here?” And I said, “It’s a long story.” And then he says. “You are so lucky. Like, of all the people who got so much out of what just happened, you got the most. I don’t know what’s going to happen in your book, but you are so lucky.”
And here is how Michael Lewis describes that lucky moment in Moneyball.
EXCERPT, PAGE 261-262: Hatty takes his short swing; the ball finds the barrel of his bat, and rockets into deep right-center field. He leaves the batter’s box in a crouching run. He doesn’t hear 55,000 fans erupting. He doesn’t notice the first baseman turning to leave the field. The only one in the entire Coliseum who does not know where the ball is going is the man who hit it. Scott Hatteberg alone watches the ball soar through the late-night air with something like detachment. When he’s finally certain that the ball is gone for good, Scott Hatteberg raises both hands over his head, less in triumph than disbelief. Rounding first, he looks into the Oakland dugout. But there’s no one left inside — the players are all rushing onto the field. Elation transforms him. He shouts at his teammates. He’s not saying, “Look what I just did.” He’s saying, “Look what we just did! We won!” As he runs, he sheds years at the rate of about one every twenty feet. By the time he touches home plate, he’s less man than boy. And, not five minutes later, Billy Beane was able to look me in the eye and say that it was just another win.
DUBNER: This is not a question, but a comment from a listener named Matt Ball. He writes, “Just a note, that Michael Lewis is one of those writers that makes me swoon but also makes me feel bad about myself as a writer.” You have any response?
LEWIS: So first, it is not true that I don’t agonize. Before I sit down — it is really a miserable, messy process, figuring out that I want to write about it and how I’m going to write about it and what the structure of the story is. It sucks. I’m in the middle of it right now and if you sat down with me over a drink, and I started to pour out my problems, you’d feel sorry for me. You’d think, “Oh, his book is going to suck. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Boy, it’s boring.”
DUBNER: Yeah. What’s the book you’re writing now?
LEWIS: I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you because it would just blow it. It’s — but — and I haven’t actually — I’m at the agony stage. I’ve got — there are probably — probably another couple of months before I actually put words on paper, but I’m still figuring out how to tell the story.
A few days after we spoke, Michael Lewis’s secret was broken. Perhaps you’ve been hearing about the collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX and its C.E.O. Sam Bankman-Fried? Until recently, he was a multi-billionaire and everyone’s favorite boy genius; suddenly, his billions — and other people’s billions — had vanished in a cloud of hubris and what looks a lot like fraud. And guess who had spent the past six months “traveling with and interviewing Sam Bankman-Fried?” Yes: Michael Lewis. This news broke when Lewis’s Hollywood agent sent an email shopping the film rights to a book that is still “at the agony stage,” as Lewis put it. I sent Lewis a quick email: “Okay,” I wrote, “maybe you are really lucky.” His response: “I told you.” To be fair, Michael Lewis has seen his share of tragedy too. Last year, his oldest daughter was killed in a car crash. Her name was Dixie, she was 19 years old. If you want to hear Michael talk about that, he appeared earlier this year on our sibling podcast People I (Mostly) Admire, hosted by Steve Levitt. It’s episode 63 of People I (Mostly) Admire, and it’s called “The Only Covid-19 Book Worth Reading.” The main focus is Lewis’s most recent book, The Premonition. Thanks to Michael Lewis for the conversation today, and thanks to you for listening.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Morgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Katherine Moncure, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Alina Kulman, and Elsa Hernandez. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Michael Lewis, author.