My problem with “Moneyball” and Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis is a talented writer and I particularly have enjoyed his books on the investing community, but he has a reputation of being too much of a story-teller to be writing what he sells as non-fiction. Or as someone at the Wall Street Journal put it, “he never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.”
In August of 2002 Lewis asked to interview me in regard to his research for his book eventually titled “Moneyball.” I was reluctant to do it without firm written conditions being in place. The most important one was:
I want to read before publication the sections that relate to our interview and point out to you any sections I think are inaccurate or misunderstood. I'm not seeking editorial approval. Whether you make any changes is up to you. It's your name on it, not mine.
Mr. Lewis agreed to honor my conditions and acknowledged them as “very reasonable.” We did one brief interview over the phone. He estimated it would take about 45 minutes, and I doubt it was any longer than that. He suggested he might want to do a follow-up interview but I never heard from him again, and I assumed there would be nothing in the book that related to our interview. I was wrong. He instead denied me the promised right to review and comment. When I called him on this breach of trust, he wrote:
“I'm sorry. … I suppose what happened is that I assumed, after our interview, is that you wouldn't appear at all in the book. In the writing of the section about James you wound up appearing … in such a way that added nothing new to what had been written about you by Neyer and others and so I didn't think anything of it.”
His rationalization is a poor one. First, that was not the agreement. Second, even if that was exactly what others were writing – which I don’t see as consistently true – that would not be the same as saying it was accurate. More important the perception would be their own, and they would not be offering it under the appearance of having come from me, of being supported by me.
How Mr. Lewis used our interview is exactly why I insisted on that condition in the first place. I felt he manipulated the material from our interview to make it fit the theme of that chapter and his overall story. My actual experience was an anomaly to his theme, which I think is why his first thought was to totally leave it out of the book, and then instead briefly mentioned it while inaccurately portraying it to fit his storyline.
If Mr. Lewis had honored our agreement and shared that section related to our interview, he would have gotten a letter like this.
You tell your reader I “spent many frustrating years” with the Rangers and imply this was around “the early 1990s.” That’s off by a whole decade. By the early 1990s I am already half-way through my 21-year career in the majors. While there are points of frustration throughout my career, I would hardly use an overall description of my years in Texas as “frustrating.” I have very good memories from those days and wonderful friendships that have lasted decades to this day. As far as my work, it is fair to say those first few years in Texas were more frustrating and understandably so given the handicap of the utter newness of this perspective. But that doesn’t mean “frustrating” should be the dominating adjective for those years. One could just as easily and with as much accuracy describe them as “rewarding.” But the really big error is that the wording in your sentence – “… spent many frustrating years as the sabermetrician with the Texas Rangers, and then many more consulting other big league teams” —implies your overblown take of the frustration continues throughout my career. Given the rest of the surrounding text, there is little doubt that is what you mean to imply, but it is very, very wrong. By the end of the 1980s my career experience is overwhelmingly a rewarding one. I am greatly enjoying my work; it is respected, and I am well paid. By “the early 1990s” — the period you specifically mention, I am working as a year-round consultant with a team in each league and turning away offers of employment from other teams. By 1994 Dodger GM Fred Claire thinks so much of my approach and my work, he is encouraging me to apply for a GM position, telling me, “Not only could you do the job, you would be a good one.”
You quote Larry Lucchino describing a view of those taking a scientific perspective of the game as a “… cult. The cult status of it meant it was something that could be discarded easily.” But the mere existence of such a view, even as a majority view, did not mean there was not a small pocket of teams and GMs with a more open and respectful view. Lucchino was never associated with a team that I worked with, and he certainly didn’t know me. We never met during my career, and the one time we spoke on the phone was after my retirement, when I was trying to decide whether to take up an offer from Boston owner John Henry to work for the Red Sox. It was clear in that conversation that Lucchino had only a very vague knowledge of my career.
RE: the quote "I needed to be a GM if I was going to see my stuff ever used."
There is a lack of context here giving a decidedly false impression. That was said in relation to my decision to retire. Without that context it sounds as if the quote applies to my experiences during my career rather than about the radical stuff that I wanted to do if I were going to continue my career. As is, it seems to imply that none of my stuff was ever being used, which is a zillion miles from the demonstrable truth. Again, that quote was about my recent decision to leave that career because I felt I had accomplished all the ground-breaking stuff that the present atmosphere in the game would allow me to do in an advisory role. I wanted to continue to push the envelope, and I realized that the stuff left in my bag that I was really excited about doing was also such radical stuff that I would need to be a GM if it were to ever see the light of day.
It pains me very deeply to think of all the people I worked so well with during my long career who might read that and mistakenly think that I am denying the good work we had done together.
RE: the quote "And I never even got asked to interview for a single GM job."
You use this without context to further your theme that no one in baseball thought much of “sabermetrics” until Billy Beane, and that back then no one in baseball would envision someone from my background as a GM candidate. It was of course an extremely radical notion at that time, but you neatly steer away from why I sought such an interview — leaving it hanging as to whether it was hubris or whether there actually were some people in baseball who already had developed such respect for this approach that they could see it being useful in a GM.
It would have been a more accurate and complete picture if it read: "With encouragement and recommendations from people he had worked with – GMs, assistant GMs and scouting directors – Wright applied for a handful of GM jobs as a dark horse candidate during the last eight years of his career, but he was never given an interview."
I realize that acknowledging that as early as 1994 there were a few GMs who were envisioning someone of my background being a GM, and recommending exactly that, would not fit with your theme of this section, which went:
“You could count on one hand the number of ‘sabermetricians’ inside of baseball, and none of them appear to have had much effect. After a while they seemed more like fans who second-guessed the general manager than advisors who influenced decisions. They were forever waving printouts to show how foolish the GM had been not to have taken their advice.”
Those are the exact sentences you used to lead into
your brief mention of my career. Yet I didn’t tell you anything like that,
and I’m sure you didn’t get it from Fred Claire or Tom Grieve or other GMs I
worked with. Fred would have quickly set you straight. Tom probably would
have conceded – as he did in another interview – that while he wished he had
listened to me more, he would have told you my advice was always listened to
seriously and there certainly were times it played a significant role. In the
same early 1990s period that you specifically reference as sabermetrics
having no impact within the game, Tom was very serious about spending huge
bucks to sign free agent pitcher Mike Moore, who had just had back-to-back
17-win seasons and was already one of the highest paid pitchers in the
league. My report argued strongly against pursuing Moore, making a case that
he was not just past his prime but that he had a very poor aging profile and
was already starting to show signs of the beginning of a serious decline. By
his own account, Tom credits that report with changing his mind and his
telling Moore’s agent we were no longer interested.
If you had been more open to the notion, you could
have gotten literally over 100 powerful examples from just my career
alone. All my contracts were 1-year
contracts. Do you really think teams are going to keep shelling out the money
year after year just to have you give advice that they will ignore? All the
teams lost huge amounts of money in the strike of 1994, and when it was over,
a lot of teams were reducing their budget for front office personnel. More
than a few folks had their positions either eliminated or they were let go to
bring in someone who would do it cheaper. I had friends in traditional
baseball jobs who started off their careers at roughly the same time as mine
who suddenly found themselves out looking for jobs. When
RE: your sentence "He eventually quit his profession altogether."
You are clearly going way out of your way to make it sound like someone who in mid-career got fed up, couldn't take it anymore, and abruptly quit – particularly when you follow it with your account of Eddie Epstein’s career and write, “… he, too, wound up quitting in a huff.” Applying that to me is absolutely pure invention on your part.
It seems to me you have gone to great lengths to avoid ever mentioning to your reader that I had had a long career, that I worked full-time with the major league teams for 21 years. I had reached my financial goal for retirement. When I reached a point where I felt I had made about as much progress as I could hope for – at least in the context of the near future, I decided to leave baseball in an orderly manner by letting my contracts run out and move on to do the kind of work I had always aspired to do in my retirement years.
Was there a level of dissatisfaction with my opportunities to progress in the near future? Sure, I had always directed my career along the route I wanted, and I liked being on the cutting edge. After a couple decades I had advanced to a point where I was starting to feel boxed in, hitting my head against a ceiling and feeling like I was marking time. But so what? It is literally no different than what is felt by a lot of other guys following a more traditional vein who have spent a long time in assistant GM and advisor roles. If I had been one of those guys, and it was under these same circumstances, I’m sure you realize you would not have characterized it that same way.
RE: General context of that section
Shortly after our interview I read an article by Rob Neyer giving a brief history of "sabermetricians" and I found myself balking at an assumption running through Rob's column, and I made a note that if you called again, that we should talk about that, for I had heard that same assumption in some of your questions. There's this idea, this story, that the pioneers in doing this type of work were knocking their heads against a wall and weren't able to accomplish much because the approach was just too new, too radical. Michael, you basically follow that storyline and expand it with their getting so frustrated, they conclude they were wasting their time, and quit.
That simply does not fit my experience, and I feel like you are trying to make me fit your account of Eddie Epstein’s view of his career. But my career in the majors was not like that. It started sooner, lasted longer, and compared to your account of Epstein’s view, I apparently had a lot more fun and greater satisfaction in my work and accomplishments.
I don't blame those who write it that way, for it appears many of these pioneers actually claim that as having been their experience. But people are funny in the way they perceive things, and mistaken expectations can make one man miserable where another is happy, even though their circumstances are much the same. I can't speak for the experience of others, but I can at least say for my own career that it doesn't really fit that story.
Understand, I'm not saying there wasn't prejudice and unfairness to deal with. There certainly was, including certain GMs and teams who would never consider working with me or someone with a similar perspective. And even with the organizations that were glad to use certain services of mine, there would often be cases where someone in the organization would feel threatened and try to make things difficult. But the question is whether this level of prejudice was sufficient to keep me from being effective? I honestly think it wasn't much of a factor.
How much room does a pioneer need to build his beachhead? You certainly don't need every team coming after you. You can only do so much. And in regard to those who tried to interfere with my contributions, they weren't the ones who hired me, and unless they advanced into a significant position, they rarely succeeded in diminishing my effectiveness. In a lot of cases they only served to damage their own credibility and improve my own. (There is something relentless about the ability of good work to eventually shine through.)
Now this is not to say that I don't understand the sense of frustration expressed by, say, an Eddie Epstein. I'm just not convinced that this frustration ties as neatly to an idea that prejudice and resistance to new ideas was really able to stymie progress as much as they believe – or as you claim in this chapter. I see two ways that these frustration levels are simply emotion and perception rather than a reality of their lack of accomplishment.
A certain level of frustration is a common phenomenon among those in advisor roles regardless of whether their perspective is traditional or not. There are darn few advisors -- certainly darn few good ones -- who can honestly say they haven't longed for the role of the decision-maker. And it seems to me that they often mistakenly weigh their influence against the measure of the decision-maker rather than the other advisors. And by that mistaken measure they are of course going to feel frustrated.
And really, the level of frustration one feels, whether it is justified or not, that's just personal drama. Even if you could tie it to prejudice rather than simply an unfortunate side-effect to the advisor role – well, so what? It still doesn't have anything to do with objectively weighing how much you accomplish and how much you are listened to.
Sure, I didn't have the impact on the decision-making that the GM did, or whoever else was given the real weight of making the final decision. But such impact is largely defined by the job itself, and it wasn't my job to be that final decision maker. Comparing my impact to the GM isn't the right comparison for my judging whether I was being treated fairly enough to accomplish anything worthwhile.
Relative to my position, I believe I managed to accomplish a great deal in my career. If I honestly weigh my actual net contributions – and not what I could have contributed – I see that it only took me about a half dozen years before I started stacking up very well with all but the actual decision-makers.
I came into baseball at a time
when barely anyone knew such incredibly basic stuff as who led the league in
on-base average. There were no significant books of any kind on performance
analysis. Bill James had never published anything that didn't come out of his
garage. I knew absolutely no one in professional baseball. But thirteen years
later I ask
I reached a point where my work was booming and I had to turn away work or refer it elsewhere. I was better paid than the best scout, and better than just about anybody but the GMs and scouting directors. I had fabulous job security that included leaving the game with two very good offers on the table and I got offers to return to MLB for many years after. I got to play a significant role in the development of a non-prospect into one of the greatest future Hall of Famers. I got to significantly help the careers of hundreds of individual players, including leveling the playing field for a lot of sleeper players, making literal multi-millionaires out of players who had earned that opportunity but for some reason or another were slipping through the cracks and headed out of the game. I got to play a role in the birth of a franchise and helped them have the most successful expansion draft ever.
Now how could I suggest with a straight face that I'd only been banging my head against a wall and never really accomplishing anything?
Again, this doesn't deny that there was unfairness at play. I had to be incredibly good at my job to accomplish what I did, while there were others guys with the "right background" who were being given equal say on certain matters even though some of them couldn't reason their way out of a paper bag. That's not fair. And, yes, it wasn't fair that I didn't get any kind of a shot to move from the chair of advisor to the chair of decision when even the weakest traditional candidates were almost guaranteed to get at least a courtesy interview. But none of that means progress wasn’t being made.
The simple existence of unfairness doesn't make it a winner. It doesn't mean that we’re stopped, wasting our time, or that we are not making very real contributions that shape the very landscape of the game. Geez, I hear pitching coaches like Bryan Price and Rick Peterson talking about some theories I brought into the game 15 to 20 years ago, and they speak of them with such acceptance today that you would think it was something learned it at their grandfather's knee and something that has always been accepted.
But the “unfairness” that did exist could and did have a mighty impact is on the subjective perceptions of some of the people involved. It sometimes fueled a frustration that went beyond the fact that advisors are often inherently frustrated from the get-go. As a young teen-ager I was mildly involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, and while it is not exactly the same analogy, I saw much the same thing happen back then. The unfairness picks away at folks and comes out in a form of frustration that blinds them from seeing and appreciating their very real and significant accomplishments.
If you get an Eddie Epstein
talking about his years with
I know the theme of your story fits with how people already talk about and write about this period of evolution in baseball history. I can understand how you might have glossed over the distinctions I was trying to make in our interview and assumed it was simply more of the same. But if you had given me the chance you promised me, I could have brought you back to those distinctions and shown you that my own experience doesn't support that common view. I could also have shared with you my doubts about the significance of the frustration that these other pioneers expressed to you. Again, I can’t speak for them, but I don’t believe their experience was really all that different from mine, just their perception of it.
If so, then is it right to tell the story from the perspective of how they felt about what they accomplished, to the exclusion of what they actually did accomplish?