This is the story of how Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics, turned a baseball team with one of the league's lowest payrolls into a perennial contender for the World Series: by using statistical analysis that no other team had ever heard of, and finding gaps in the market for baseball skills. Beane was a hot prospect when he was in high school. Baseball scouts loved him: by their traditional methods of judging a young player's potential, he looked like a future star. But after he was drafted, Beane struggled in the minor leagues and never made a splash in the majors, playing just a few scattered games across several seasons.
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After retiring as a player, Beane began working as a scout, and eventually progressed to become general manager of the A's in 1997. By this time he was becoming familiar with sabermetrics, a term applied to the use of nontraditional statistics to measure the skill and value of baseball players. For instance, baseball players and fans have traditionally used batting average and RBIs to determine how great a hitter is, while in sabermetrics, esoteric stats like OPS (On-base percentage Plus Slugging percentage) are considered a better metric.
Armed with statistics that no one else was using, Beane was able to build a team of players who were undervalued by baseball insiders. During the major league draft, and later when trading for established players, Beane chose those who were passed over or neglected by other teams, and he could therefore offer them less money than they would have earned if they appeared strong in traditional baseball stats. An example from the book is Kevin Youkilis, a then-minor leaguer whom Beane attempted to trade for on several occasions. Though Youkilis was pudgy and lacked running speed, he racked up more walks than most, giving him a high on-base percentage.
The book focuses on the Athletics' 2002 season, in which the team Beane assembled finished first in the American League West. The team was controversial because fans found some aspects of A's games less exciting. For instance, strategic moves such as bunting to move a runner from first to second base, or attempting to steal second base, are not statistically likely to be successful, so Beane's A's attempted these plays less frequently, though they make for a more interesting game to watch.
The A's lost in the first round of the playoffs and did not advance to the World Series. Beane states that because the playoffs are so short (a seven-game series for each round) the winner of the series is not always the best team, and that his sabermetrics-based approach only shows results when spread over the whole 162-game season. In the end of the book, he considers an offer to be the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, who can offer him a bigger salary and larger payroll with which to build a better team. But he chooses to stay in Oakland and continue the work he began there.
Best part of story, including ending:
While Moneyball is specifically about finding better ways to evaluate baseball players, its depiction of using new techniques that seem unusual and even offensive to traditionalists changes the way you look at anything that can be evaluated: cars, employees, jobs, politicians.
Best scene in story:
Billy Beane is not just about the stats. In one scene he works the phones with other general managers, structuring trades among multiple teams to get the players he wants. He is particularly ruthless with the Expos' Omar Minaya, another GM working with a very small budget for player salaries.
Opinion about the main character:
Beane is a driven individual, but he ends up being depicted as nearly infallible. In a postscript published in later editions of the book, the author addresses this issue, noting that the point is not that Beane is the "best" GM in baseball, only that he was successful because he made decisions based on a new way of looking at information. But in the book itself, he comes off as nothing short of incredible.