By Simon Kuper
Nov. 11, 2011
The moment you see Michael Lewis and Billy Beane together, you realise how Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game got written. The book that changed baseball – and then most other ballgames – isn’t so much a book. It’s more a conversation. This morning the writer and the baseball executive meet in the tumbledown Oakland Coliseum, where it all began, and pause only occasionally to answer a question. Most of the time they just continue their decade-old conversation.
Lewis, who lives around the corner in Berkeley, noticed in about 2001 that something strange was going on at the Coliseum. The Oakland A’s baseball team were routinely beating teams with several times their budget. Clearly they must be doing something clever. The pre-eminent business writer of our times came to visit.
The A’s’ general manager, Beane, let him in. He had read Lewis’s debut book Liar’s Poker, and he was curious. He cautiously told Lewis how the A’s were using new statistics to find good players ignored by other clubs. For instance, baseball teams had spent a century focused on a hitter’s “batting average”. It turned out that something called “on-base percentage” was much more telling. Beane was increasingly letting his twentysomething Harvard-educated statistician Paul DePodesta choose players on his laptop. The gnarled old A’s’ scouts didn’t like that.
Today, Beane recalls: “Michael said within three minutes: ‘I know exactly what you guys are doing. You’re arbitraging the mispricing of baseball players.’” When Lewis mentioned his own experience of arbitrage on Wall Street in the 1980s, Beane got interested. “We really were looking to Wall Street as a guide,” he says.