The Rise and Fall of Moneyball

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Simon Kuper talks to writer Michael Lewis and Oakland GM Billy Beane about the Moneyball phenomenon and how Lewis discovered it:

The Oakland A’s baseball team were routinely beating teams with several times their budget. Clearly they must be doing something clever. The pre-eminent business writer of our times came to visit. The A’s’ general manager […] cautiously told Lewis how the A’s were using new statistics to find good players ignored by other clubs….Beane was increasingly letting his twentysomething Harvard-educated statistician Paul DePodesta choose players on his laptop.

….“Moneyball” is [] a phenomenon, which after changing baseball is now sweeping almost all ballgames, from British soccer to Australian rules football. And it’s a phenomenon that reaches beyond sport. With hindsight, what Lewis captures in his book—the triumph of the highly educated over the lesser educated—is exactly what happened in the American economy.

….A year after the book appeared, the Boston Red Sox, with the 30-year-old Yale graduate Theo Epstein as general manager, won the world series of 2004 using Moneyball methods. In 2007 the Red Sox won again. Other teams began hiring Epsteins and Beanes rather than clubbable ex-players. Last season only three of 30 GMs in the major leagues had played professional baseball, none of them very successfully. Beane has ended up restricting job opportunities in baseball for people from backgrounds like Beane’s….The New York Yankees recently hired 21 statisticians, Beane marvels.

All us college graduate types shouldn’t get too smug, though. Those highly educated folks Kuper talks about are now mere front ends for Siri and Watson and their spawn, and soon they’ll no longer be needed. But all those grizzled old scouts who were put out of work by the Moneyball revolution? They no longer evaluate talent, we’re told, but are still needed “for their soft skills.” Before long, that’s the only thing any of us will be needed for.

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