Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Moneyball and Why Writers Should Be Baseball Players

Okay, so not really... writers shouldn't really be baseball players, that is. At least, I shouldn't. I suck at baseball. I know; my dad used to make me play softball when I was in high school on the church team when they didn't have enough players to be a team. They would make me catcher, because the catcher doesn't really need to do anything in softball. That, or they would stick me out in right field, because the ball might come that way twice in a game. It was his fault I was no good, anyway, but that's a different story.

But back to Moneyball... Oh, wait, we weren't talking about that, yet, were we? Well, in that case, on to Moneyball!

As you might have figured out, I recently watched it. Yes, Moneyball! What do you think I'm talking about here? >sheesh!< Anyway...

Moneyball is really excellent. Brad Pitt is excellent. Jonah Hill is excellent. Surprisingly so, actually. As it turns out, he can actually act. I hope to see more of him in serious roles like this one. Beyond the fact that the movie is just good, it's very interesting. In case you don't know:

Moneyball is based on  the book about Billy Beane's revolutionary approach to building his 2002 Oakland A's team. Faced with a lack of funds and having just lost his best players to richer teams, Beane knew that a new approach was necessary. The story is fascinating.

But I don't really want to talk about it, because you can go watch it. And, if you're a writer, you should go watch it. And, if you're a writer and you've seen it and you didn't see the parallels to the publishing industry, you need to go watch it again. I will say this much about it, though:
There is a scene early on in which Beane is sitting in a room full of scouts, and they're discussing options on whom to replace their lost players with. There are comments like:

"This guy looks good."
"But he can't play <whatever position> well."
"But he looks good. The fans will love him."

"His girlfriend is ugly."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"It means he lacks confidence."
"But he's a great player."
"His girlfriend is ugly."

And it went on and on and, mostly, the scouts never talked about the abilities of the players. They wanted stars, not good players.

And I couldn't stop thinking of literary agents. They want stars, and the writing doesn't matter at all.

In the end, Beane built the team based on the statistics without regard to the externals of the player.
Too old? Does he get on base? Yes. Take him.
Looks funny. Does he get on base? Yes. Take him.
He looked at the ability of the players. Their ability to perform. That was #1. Not just #1; it was the only thing.

The whole thing had a rocky beginning. The coach wouldn't get in line with what Beane was trying to do. They lost a lot of games. A lot. Even Beane didn't know if he was doing the right thing. It felt right, I guess, but it was a... it was a giant mess.

Then... it started working, and they won a record streak of games. 20 in a row. But, now, I'm talking about the movie, and that's not really the point.

The point is that it was hard. There were rough spots. Everyone ridiculed him. Everyone. And, in the end, they tried to say what he did failed. But today? Virtually every team in baseball has someone on staff that does what Beane did. In the end, sports is about money, and winning means money, so the owners of the teams want to win, so they went where the money is.

Publishers should take a look at that and start trying to go where the money is instead of spending their time talking about how bad self-publishing is and how bad e-publishing is and how bad Amazon is. Bookstores, too. I'll leave you with this quote; you can figure out how it relates (all emphasis is mine):

"You won the exact same number of games that the Yankees won, but the Yankees spent one point four million per win and you paid two hundred and sixty thousand. I know you've taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall. It always gets bloody, always. It's the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it's threatening the game. But really what it's threatening is their livelihoods, it's threatening their jobs, it's threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it's the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go bat shit crazy. I mean, anybody who's not building a team right and rebuilding it using your model, they're dinosaurs."


  1. Moneyball is the dumbest fucking thing ever. Only people who know nothing about baseball think it's great. What has "moneyball" accomplished? NOTHING. Billy Beane has never won a World Series. He's never even gotten to the World Series. My own beloved Tigers swept Beane's A's in the 2006 ALCS. Meanwhile the Red Sox have won 2 World Series and the Yankees at least 1 during Beane's tenure.

    So moneyball can suck it.

    In reality Beane's team succeeded the way most teams do: they had great pitching. Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson made one of the best rotations around. If Beane's statistics had actually been any good he could have got some real hitters to support them.

    One more reason Beane sucks: who won the World Series in 2002? The Anaheim Angels, who were in the same division as Beane's A's.

    So in other words, like "The Social Network" this was only a good movie if you completely ignore the fact it's hardly based at all on reality except that there was a guy named Billy Beane and he is the GM of the A's.

  2. To quote from Wikipedia, about the book: "Moneyball has made such an impact in professional baseball that the term itself has entered the lexicon of baseball. Teams which appear to value the concepts of sabermetrics are often said to be playing "Moneyball." Baseball traditionalists, in particular some scouts and media members, decry the sabermetric revolution and have disparaged Moneyball for emphasizing concepts of sabermetrics over more traditional methods of player evaluation. Nevertheless, the impact of Moneyball upon major league front offices is undeniable. In its wake, teams such as the New York Mets, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cleveland Indians,[1] and the Toronto Blue Jays have hired full-time sabermetric analysts."

    As someone who is full-time employed in numbers myself (I am a financial / data analyst), people who get all riled up when it comes to talking about the reality of numbers make me lol.

    Sarah (aka Andrew's wife)

  3. I have never seen Moneyball, but it is on my to watch list. I really like Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. So I shall have to watch it soon!

  4. I loved the movie too. My dad use to have skybox seats to the A's and I got to see them play enough to root for them.

  5. PT's a bit wrong on this. "Moneyball" didn't work in part because Beane chose to put himself ahead of the team; happens all the time in sports. Beane came up with a sabermetric way for small markets to compete and identify players who were underpriced but performed well -- so they could field a competitive team without paying Yankee money.

    Beane then publicized what he did, which allowed the Yankees to use sabermetrics, too, and now the Yankees could identify those same players and outbid the A's of the world, which is why baseball went back (mostly) to "rich teams win games."

    Kansas City recently had a top-secret method of developing farm players that threatened to make them competitive but cheap -- and they told the world about it and now the world knows and KC won't be competitive for long.

    If you ask me, the As should sue the pants of Billy Beane for giving away proprietary secrets.

    But Moneyball is an interesting concept and your argument assumes a couple of things: first, it assumes that fans want winners and not stars. Teams like the Raiders disprove that theory: What the Raiders want is flashy investments that let them hope, and that's why Al Davis would have drafted a horse if the fans wanted him to do that. The Raiders pack their stadium even though they're not very good.

    I argued last year that the Bears should've signed Favre for the home stretch because not only would he have been no worse than Caleb Hanie for a playoff run, but the attendant publicity would've out-Tebowed Tebow, and teams make money off merchandising; teams routinely LOSE money by becoming winners.

    So Moneyball says teams make money by winning; that's almost certainly not a cause-and-effect rule in baseball.

    Now, on to writing: I see publishers doing that already, using moneyball to buy up what they can get cheap. Didn't they start publishing 50 Shades of Gray and Amanda Hocking, after those two had developed a following? How easy is that. Real Moneyball publishers would be scouring the Kindle Direct publishing list to ID books that are selling without name recognition and then pumping them out there faster, maybe.

    Otherwise, as a publisher, you've GOT to have a name. People buy Dan Brown books because he's Dan Brown. If you slapped Dan Brown's name on "the After," it'd sell 150,000 copies on day one. Put my name on "The Da Vinci Code," you'll sell 8 a month.

    Here's what I say writers do: get a publisher, get a platform, get a name, then go indie and keep all the profits for yourself. Let them foot the bill for your first book tour and after that, Louis CK them into the ground.

  6. I thought Moneyball was a great movie. I didn't think of the parallels to the publishing industry so I guess I'll have to watch it again...

    I'd just like to say that my beloved Red Sox won the world series in 2004 AFTER following Billy Beane's model.

  7. Grumpy: Well, I'm not going to get involved in a discussion about baseball, because I don't watch it, but I did look up the actual facts about the stuff after I watched the movie, and it got most of them. Close enough that my point, which is a metaphor, is valid. I wasn't talking about baseball, I was talking about new ideas and how they are received, hence the quote at the end.

    Sarah: Besides, my wife will argue the numbers. heh heh But, then, that's what she does.

    Michael: It's definitely worth seeing.

    Rusty: Well, my love for the movie really had nothing to do with baseball and more to do with the ideas, but I'm glad you liked it, too! :)

    Briane: First off, I do agree that Beane made a huge mistake in revealing what he did. If he wanted to win, he should have kept his strategy to himself. With everyone doing it, it does reduce it back to a money game.

    Second, I wouldn't try to guess what fans want. I grew up in LA with die hard Saints fans even though they'd never won a playoff game. I do think owners want wins, though, because that always draws in more fans and makes it easier to pull in more stars.

    And my point about publishers is that they don't care about the writing; they only care about the stars. Self-publishing is more about the writing, so it's better, even if it often comes down to money and marketing, too.

    However! If traditional publishers started mining indie authors for good writing and promoting that, things might change.

    I don't see that happening, though.

    M.J.: Exactly! Because they were the first to see what he did and try to reproduce it. And they had the money for it, too.

    I still can't believe Beane turned down that contract with them.

  8. i loved moneyball even though I'm not much of a baseball fan:)

  9. It's on my TBW list of DVD's. That is the sort of connection I would usually make too, and I'll certainly watch it through a different lens now.

    I think there's some validity to the idea that those in publishing happily discredit anything that threatens their livelihood, but isn't that a reasonable response to a threat? If it ever happens that quality writing beats out sensationalism then they'll change their tune, but I wouldn't wait around for it to happen anytime soon. Writing is entertainment, and as long as people are entertained by crap they'll get served a crap sandwich until they're sick of it.

  10. Not gonna add anything to these great posts, but reading this discussion has been almost as stimulating as watching the movie. My hubby and I just had a nice talk about all of the comments, and we agreed that Andrew's post rocks, simply for the sake of drumming up differing opinions. Loved the movie. Totally agree about Jonah Hill being fabulous in it.

  11. I think Grumpy just likes to spark controversy.

    Anyway, I saw this movie and thought it was a great film. Personally, when it comes to Baseball, I prefer player development over free agency. You can thank Leo Mazzone and the Atlanta Braves for holding a record that will never be broken: 14 straight division titles.

    But that's not your point. Your point, which you apply to publishing, but can just as easily apply to why Apple is doing so well while HP and Sony lose billions, is that business has to be prepared to try new approaches. Technology, and society, and knowledge are all changing so fast. Exponentially faster by the year. As people, as artists, as business men and women, we have to learn to keep up.

  12. Someone get PT a tampon, stat.

    It does work, and even just the fundamentals are true. You get a bunch of all stars and mash them together, but that doesn't necessarily make a great team. You need people that work well together as a whole.

    And yes, this absolutely applies to writing. Well said.

  13. nutschell: I like baseball... movies.

    L.G.: I'm not sure if it's reasonable or not. It's defensive and automatic, but that doesn't include involving reason. It seems to me that the reasonable approach is to look at the new thing and evaluate it to see what the success is about. Trying to squash it out-of-hand actually seems rather unreasonable to me.

    Jess: Aw, thanks! That gives me an idea about rocks...

    Matthew: Yeah, it can be applied anywhere... like HP dismissing Jobs and the personal computer or the makers of silent films dismissing "talkies." Sticking you head in the sand doesn't make it go away. Telling other people to do the same is just sure to call even more attention to whatever the "thing" is.

    ABftS: Exactly! And, oh, my! I have another baseball type post coming up tomorrow!