Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hitting it out of the park

So where does baseball fit in to this „growth‟ versus „value‟ debate ? In an absolutely fascinating book called Moneyball: the art of winning an unfair game‟ (W. W. Norton, 2004), former Salomon Brothers bond salesman Michael Lewis shows how one of the poorest teams in American baseball, the Oakland A‟s, under the leadership of its anti-establishment general manager, Billy Beane, and his unorthodox approach to buying talent – at deeply discounted prices – managed sustainedly to outperform rivals with far bigger payrolls.

“What does it take to turn a subject like baseball statistics into a true-life thriller not even a
baseball-loathing bibliophobe could put down ? Answer: saturation reporting, conceptual thinking of a high order, a rich sense of humour, and talent to burn. In short, Michael Lewis. Moneyball‟ is his grandest tour de force yet.”

No synopsis of this marvelous book could hope to do it full justice, so of necessity we can only
hope to share a tiny distillation of its rich savour here. The essence of "Moneyball‟ lies in assessing the state of play of a sporting industry – baseball – and the way it deploys its financial resources, and then scrapping the conventional rulebook entirely. In the view of "traditional‟ talent scouts, for example,

“you found a big league ballplayer by driving 60,000 miles, staying in a hundred execrable motels, and eating God knows how many meals at Denny‟s, all so you could watch 200 high school and college baseball games inside of four months, 199 of which were completely meaningless to you.”

Then, fuelled by bloated payrolls and oversized buying power, the bigger name baseball teams would impose a relentless salary inflation upon the sport, taking their pick of the supposed stars but driving up every other team‟s operating budget in the process. (This sounds unerringly similar to the state of UK professional football, with the key distinction that, Manchester City apart, the most grotesquely moneyed teams are actually winning.)

Not blessed with an overabundance of financial resources, Billy Beane and the Oakland A‟s are
obliged to cut their suit to a different cloth;

“Many of the players drafted or acquired by the Oakland A‟s had been the victims of an unthinkable prejudice rooted in baseball‟s traditions. The research and development department in the Oakland front office liberated them from this prejudice, and allowed them to demonstrate their true worth.”