Moneyball in Basketball


I recently finished reading the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis.  No, I didn’t read it because of the movie.  The movie, starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as Paul DePodesta, has gotten great reviews and I’ll probably see it because I think there’s finally a chance of a Brad Pitt movie not being self-serving and forcing a shirt-off situation.  The book was great.  I’ve really enjoyed Michael Lewis’s stuff for a while.  I read his first book Liar’s Poker, about his own experience as a bonds trader in the ’80s, and it really explains a lot of the things that happened then that have led to our economic situation today.  His more popular book is probably Blindside, about Michael Oher, which led to the movie starring “The girl from the Bus,” as George Costanza’s Dad would call her.  The dude is good, I have all of his books in my cue on Amazon and I’ll continue to keep an eye out for anything he recommends or whatever people say is like him.

This particular book popularized and drew attention to what he dubbed “Moneyball.”  That is, finding the most economically adventageous players you can, drafting with stats in mind rather than scouted feelings.  It follows the Oakland A’s through the 2002 season.  Billy Beane and his staff were doing things differently and were the precursors to an evolution in the way baseball teams were formed.  Whenever you mention you’ve read this book or are reading this book, baseball guys tend to say “Yeah, I knew about on-base-percentage way before that crap.”  When you think about it, it isn’t all that earth-shattering.  What did the A’s really accomplish over those years?  From 2000-2003 they made the playoffs and won a whole lot of games in the regular season but they lost to the Yankees (historically largest payroll in baseball) twice in the ALDS, then the Twins and then the Red Sox.  They didn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs in any year until 2006.

What they did was, with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, was draft well, make epic trades and win more than 28 other teams with about 2/5 of the payroll the 3 they didn’t win more than.  It was a really great story and I would encourage you to read the book to get all the details.  Some of the best parts are about Bill James.  James was a writer, well, he was a night-watchman at a bean-factory that wrote about baseball to start out with.  His “abstract” that he wrote, published, advertised and mailed himself in the early days were the basis of the thought processes that Billy Beane and his staff began to use.  James’s whole deal was to quantify everything on the baseball field.  Everything that happens in a game leads to the outcome.  It’s more complex than “If Albert Pujols had struck out instead of hitting a home run…” no, it’s like “If Albert Pujols had swung at the first pitch he wouldn’t have gotten the ball thrown into the area on the 4th pitch that would have enabled him to hit a home run in his next at-bat.”

James’s questions and desire to refine the statistical systems that told the stories of baseball games came at or around the same time that “geeks” were able to use computers to process and gather stats in a way that wasn’t available before.  The confluence resulted in lots and lots more analysis.  The invention of “Rotisserie” or fantasy baseball added to guys who weren’t “inside” baseball to begin to take an interest in real stats and analysis.  It was a matter of time before MLB front offices started to learn from the guys who were dominating their fantasy leagues.

The perfect storm happened in Oakland.  Billy Beane took over for a GM who got him reading Bill James.  Beane hired DePodesta who was a Harvard grad and not a baseball guy, with all of the scouting “knowledge” and prejudices that come with it.  They looked at stats, and most importantly, what stats other teams didn’t care about, that could help win games, that would enable them to get players cheap or draft guys that other teams overlooked.  This came from necessity.  The A’s ownership wasn’t going to spend what the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Mariners or any of the other big spenders in baseball would.  They’d spend about a third of what those teams did at the time.  They found a way to make it work, with what they had.

Now, you must be thinking, I am here for basketball not a book-report, what does any of this mean?  Well, we don’t have basketball right now, first of all and second, that book got me thinking about basketball and if those principles could ever be used by the Bobcats or some other small market franchise.

I knew about “Moneyball” for a while, as any sports fan would and as any book fan would.  I didn’t really care to read it until I read Michael Lewis’s first book.  What solidified the purchase for me was when Rich Cho came to the Bobcats just before the NBA draft this season.

I asked someone who knew “Who is this guy?  Why is everybody so high on him?”  The answer I got was “Have you ever read Moneyball?”  No but I had heard of it.  “Well, he comes from the basketball school of Moneyball.”  Hmm, interesting.  I knew the concept, use stats more than scouts “feelings” and quantify as much about the game as you can, run in through the computer and the numbers don’t lie.  But I hadn’t read the book, I knew it was about baseball and I thought, “Great, how is this possibly going to help?”

As I’ve said before, whether it was here, at as a blogger or simply as a poster on the forums, basketball is more about eyeballs than stats.  It’s a game that is more fluid, faster paced and more collaborative than most other sports.  I think in baseball, because the sample sizes are so large (162 regular season games vs. 82) and the defense is set, you can sort of use stats to determine what might happen.  Stats become telling in baseball, while in basketball, we use them more to explain what we saw with our eyes.  Basketball stats are more for evidence than probability.

I simply don’t think you can use the Moneyball model in basketball.  I love stats, I love how telling they can be, but as I said, in basketball, rarely do you ever see the same sequence of events with the same parties involved.

I loved the book, I love the process, I love the logic and rationality of the whole thing.  I think it’s important to look at the lessons there and try and glean some knowledge for basketball.  You can win operating at a lower budget than the other teams.  Or, really, in the NBA, can you?

Andrew Barraclough is Senior Editor for, a Charlotte Bobcats Blog on the Fansided Network.  Follow him on Twitter @therobertogato and Like the site on Facebook.