Parrying sabermetrics.

Michael Lewis, author of the somewhat controversial Moneyball, has a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine which I initially thought would be a commentary on the steroid issue, but which in the end is more like a rehashing of Moneyball than anything else: Lewis picks two ‘unconventional’ players who were once in the Oakland As’ system and tracks their careers. The article could have been a chapter from the book; framed by the steroid discussion, it seems to make a point similar to Moneyball‘s, but perhaps a bit more tempered: instead of an ode to Bill James, Billy Beane, and sabermetrics as the new, right way (though, let’s be fair, there’s a bit of that), Lewis seems to be saying that maybe even statistics can’t tell us what we need to know about a player:

Come to think of it, it is surprising how little the people who evaluate baseball players know about them — apart from the shapes and sizes and statistics. They seldom bother to explore their roots as players. Baseball players make their livings doing something they have done since they were small children; every player has a physical history, a source for the reflexes that get him through a game. Mark Teahen is no exception. This odd swing of his — the reason he’s a good hitter but not a power hitter — has a rich provenance. There was nothing to do in Yucaipa except play baseball — or, at any rate, nothing else he wanted to do. Every afternoon he and his two brothers would go out into the backyard for a game of Wiffle ball. Right field — the natural power zone for a left hander like Teahen — ended at the back of the house. If you hit the ball on the roof, it got stuck in the gutter, so the boys declared what would have normally been a home run an out. It was left field, a low brick wall, that tempted the hitter. Reach out over the plate and serve the ball into left field, and you had yourself a home run. Mark and his older brother Matt, both lefties, developed an extreme tendency to go the other way, to try to hit the ball over the left-field wall. Only his younger brother, Mick, the lone righty, learned to pull the ball and hit with power.

It makes a nice story, but while I think he’s got a point here, I’m not sure whether to take this as a backing-down from his Moneyball position (which has been the subject of many attacks). Rereading the beginning paragraphs — the only ones discussion the steroid issue — there is the sense that Lewis sees the ‘ambiguity of steroids’ effects’ as a reason to distrust statistics. ‘Unable to parse the statistics and separate natural power from steroid power,’ he writes, ‘the people who evaluate baseball players for a living have no choice but to ignore the distinction.’ Perhaps Lewis is not backing down from but expanding the Moneyball thesis: it’s not just that old ways of evaluating players are inadequate and better replaced by statistics, but that the statistics themselves aren’t enough.
For some better-supported criticism of Moneyball, head on over to Freakonomics: here, here, here, and, humorously, here. (Thanks to Wally for the article and the Freakonomics tip.)
For what it’s worth, since I picked up Moneyball last fall, I’ve lent it to half a dozen people — it’s currently on loan to Amanda — giving it probably the highest lending rate of any of the books I’ve ever owned. Personally, I found it a good read, and a well-timed one: just when my burgeoning baseball interest and Red Sox fandom, steadily on the rise for years, was hitting its stride, Moneyball offered a concise and interesting history of baseball statistics and recent events that contextualized a lot of what I was seeing. For now, though, I’m just pleased that the Sox look poised to pick up two of the three games against Texas.
Though I have to ask: what’s with the Rangers’ Tampa-Bay-style uniforms this game? Just the other day I was saying that they had respectable outfits — you know, with sensible fonts and, um, sleeves — but now they’re busting out this spandex-and-a-vest thing? I take it all back!

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