Thursday, September 15, 2011

Breaking News: Michael Lewis Doesn't "Get" Moneyball Either

By The Common Man

If you’re a baseball fan, there’s a good chance that you’re profoundly interested in the new film Moneyball, that is set to debut on September 23rd at a theater near you. The Common Man is planning to see it, but hasn’t seen it yet, so this is not a review of the film. Others, including Aaron Gleeman, Keith Law, and John Bonnes, have seen it. Gleeman and Bonnes found themselves entertained by the film, with Aaron saying that “what the movie lacked in historical accuracy it made up for in witty dialogue, likable characters, and a surprising amount of humor.”

Keith had an entirely different reaction, calling it
“an absolute mess of a film, the type of muddled end product you’d expect from a project that took several years and went through multiple writers and directors. Even good performances by a cast of big names and some clever makeup work couldn’t save this movie, and if I hadn’t been planning to review it, I would have walked out.”
Yeesh. KLaw goes on to lament the movie’s “lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, [and] isn’t any more welcome on screen (where some of the scouts are played by actual scouts) than it was on the page.”

After reading KLaw’s review, someone at Moviefone tracked down original Moneyball author Michael Lewis  to get his reaction. Lewis was taken aback, but rather than react with a modicum of restraint, went on the offensive, saying,
“He's intellectually dishonest, and I don't know to what purpose….I don't understand why he goes from being -- when I interviewed Keith Law, and I did, at length -- he was so nasty about scouts and scouting culture and the stupidity of baseball insiders. He was the reductio ad absurdum of the person who was the smarty pants who had been brought into the game and was smarter than everybody else. He alienated people. And now he's casting himself as someone who sees the value of the old school. I can't see where this is all heading and why. But I learned from experience that the best thing to do is ignore it, because it goes away."

Lewis’ response is pretty damning, what with calling Law “intellectually dishonest” and all. But here’s the problem, Moneyball is actually really old. It was published eight years ago, in 2003, which probably means the interviews Lewis did to write it were conducted in 2002. That’s practically a lifetime when it comes to baseball and the statistical revolution. Statheads in both baseball’s front offices and in the online writing community have grown significantly since those bad old days where scouts were denigrated, spreadsheets worshipped as golden idols, and on-base percentage was the only thing that mattered.

Indeed, Lewis seems to be indicating that Law should feel exactly the same in 2011, as the four-year veteran of a baseball front office and five years as a writer for ESPN, as he was just a year after he had been hired by JP Ricciardi to his first job in baseball. As though Law’s experience should not have been able to influence his initial impressions, which should have been cast in amber, crystalized, and frozen in carbonite just be sure. KLaw’s not being intellectually dishonest, he's gotten smarter.  Most of us have to varying degrees. He’s seen that good scouting has incredible value to an organization and can be used in tandem with numbers and figures to get a complete picture of a player or an organization. Those who reject either stats or scouting as useless are dinosaurs who can’t help but be lapped by their more flexible rivals.

What’s amazing is that Lewis’ rigidity is completely counter to the thesis that most of us seem to take from his seminal work in Moneyball, for organizations to zig when others zag, to find undervalued resources, and to exploit every advantage over a competitor in order to maintain their competitive advantage.

The Common Man doesn’t blame Michael Lewis for not keeping track of how the debate has developed over the last eight years (unless, of course, he’s working on a Moneyball 2). He’s undoubtedly moved on to other things. But it’s stupid for him not to have learned the lessons of his own work, and to get stuck in a past paradigm and to view that as unchanging. The Michael Lewis who wrote Moneyball would, or should, have known better. But maybe he’s changed a lot in the last eight years too.

Update: Keith goes into greater detail about the evolution of his mindset regarding stats and scouting in today's ESPN Today podcast.  It's very interesting and compelling, and certainly clears up some of the concerns of readers in the comments.  And, hey, it was all prompted by a question from your very own TCM.  Go to about 18 minutes in.


Anonymous said...

If Law alluded to the fact that he felt one way and changed, this would be a sturdy defense. But he didn't. One of his major criticisms of the book and movie was the idea that scouts are outdated and buffoonish, which according to Lewis, Law was a big part of. Not mentioning his involvement and former opinions is intellectually dishonest. There's no other way to put it.

Charles Simone said...

Yeah, got to (mostly) disagree with you here, TCM. If Law is criticizing the “lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, [and] isn’t any more welcome on screen than it was on the page,” then he's got to acknowledge that the book (on which the movie was based) was written 8 years ago as well, and he was part of the lampooning. It's hard not to think of him as being hypocritical whether his own thinking has evolved or not.

Lewis comes off as overly defensive, but I don't think this is an ounce of evidence that he doesn't "get" the concept of Moneyball.

The Common Man said...

That's a totally valid take on the situation. That said, eight years is a very, very, very long time, especially in the world we currently inhabit. And if we have to rehash everything that we may have said or believed eight years ago when we want to criticize someone or something, that doesn't seem to The Common Man to be terribly useful or necessary.

Eight years ago, KLaw was just starting out in the industry, and it should be understood that positions change over time, which you can see if you look at the body of his work. Actually, completely separate from the Lewis debate, there's probably a very interesting article to be written about someone who was rabidly anti-scout having a come-to-Jesus moment and growing to appreciate it. The Common Man, for one, would love to read that.

Jason Wojciechowski said...

This post reflects basically the same reaction that I had: "You apparently did not take from your book what we all thought we were supposed to take, which is that teams have to be open-minded about methods of evaluation and looking for undervalued players." It's funny that Lewis seems to think that he was writing about scouts being horrible when many of us would consider that a misreading of the book's message.

I don't think it's incumbent on Law to say "I once was lost" because his criticism, that the movie portrays scouts in an incorrect light, is true whether Keith Law believed it in 2002 or not. Which is why his response, that Lewis's rebuttal was a mere ad hominem, seems correct -- Law attacks the movie (and the book), and Lewis attacks Law.

The Common Man said...

The Common Man updated this conversation above, but KLaw takes time in his Baseball Today podcast to address the concerns of people like Anonymous and Charles above, and to explain his arc as an analyst.

Charles Simone said...

I wasn't necessarily saying Law needs to admit he "once was lost and now he's found," but that the movie takes place circa 2002 and reflects what many (including Law) believed at the time. So, to criticize the movie based on that is a little ridiculous. Unless I'm missing, or otherwise misinterpreting, something.

I guess he should criticize the fact that they even made the movie in the first place.

Bill said...

My reading of it (not having seen the movie, just interpreting what Law wrote) is that what he was criticizing is not that the movie shows Moneyball dudes disrespecting scouts, so much as that the movie itself disrespects scouts, suggesting that they really are that useless. That's obviously different than just "reflect[ing] what many (including Law) believed at the time," it's endorsing it.

Which is certainly the idea the book rolled with, so I assume the movie did too. And it's completely fair for Law to criticize that, even if, nine years ago, he was part of the problem.

The Common Man said...

But he primarily criticizes it based on its merits as a movie. And there are any number of films that have changed older stories in some ways to reflect modern sensibilities. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it's not.

He's acknowledged his lack of respect for scouts in 2002 and detailed the change in his own philosophy. He's also criticized the book for caricaturing scouts (a caricature he agreed with at the time). It's not hypocritical to change your mind, Charles and to believe that a film need not mindlessly heed to a flawed rationale.

Anonymous said...

Meh. It's not Michael Lewis' responsibility to keep up with Keith Law's change in attitude towards scouts. Lewis read the scathing review, and saw that a portion of it was diametrically opposed to what Law passionately stated when they talked years ago. It may not have been a classy move to rip him for it, but then Keith Law isn't exactly a classy individual either.

The Common Man said...

Really? When's the last time that Keith Law went after someone personally? When's the last time he mocked a person, rather than their ideas? That's an extremely unfair characterization.

As The Common Man said above, it's not incumbent on Michael Lewis to have followed KLaw or the sabermetric debate. He's a busy guy, after all. But it is incumbent upon him to realize that, in almost a full decade, that debate and the attitudes of many people engaged in it may have changed. Lewis doesn't acknowledge that at all, and thus comes across as backwards as the scouts in his book.

Anonymous said...

Cripes, follow Klaw's Twitter account. He does it all the time. Granted, usually to someone who does it to him first, but ripping a 12 year old that thinks Ryan Howard is valuable because of his RBIs isn't classy.

And it's not incumbent on Lewis to realize that Law's adamant position may have changed in 8 years. How many people who were adamantly against the Iraq war 8 years ago have changed their position? Not many.

The Common Man said...

You're right, TCM should absolutely start to follow KLaw on Twitter. Goodness, how foolhardy that The Common Man wasn't following Keith Law on Twitter until the very moment that you suggested it. Thank you for pointing out the obvious chink in TCM's armor.

Look, if you can't see the difference between obliterating someone's argument and obliterating someone personally, The Common Man doesn't see much hope for you. And even if he were to tear into someone personally on Twitter, how would KLaw know how old the person is? Frankly, it's entirely appropriate to poke holes in arguments and to mock those who engage in namecalling and ad hominem because it just might teach them a lesson (and TCM means that in the benign sense, mostly).

Finally, how many people who were adamantly in support of the Iraq war have changed their minds since then? All of them? So yeah, not a persuasive argument.

Anonymous said...

So Michael Lewis should realize that Keith Law's views may have changed but Keith Law shouldn't realize that he may be ripping into a naive youngster. Yeah, you're being fair. Especially with your ridiculous response to my Iraq question. But I guess this is what happens when you have a conversation with someone who refers to himself in the third person.

The Common Man said...

Oh right, the "He Talks In the 3rd Person" defense, that's always a strong one.

Again, there's a difference between tearing into someone's argument and tearing into someone personally. If you've got examples of that, please share.

For instance, The Common Man can tell you that your Iraq War argument was stupid to begin with without calling you stupid. Indeed, TCM doesn't know you, and wouldn't presume to know anything about you. But your argument itself is silly and irrelevant.

And it's worth noting that, in responding to KLaw's review of the movie that Lewis didn't really have anything to do with, Lewis never addressed the points KLaw made about the movie; instead, he chose to attack Keith personally. Not Keith's argument, but Keith the person.

Anonymous said...

1) You referring to yourself in the third person is not a defense, just acknowledging that you obviously have an inflated sense of self. But that's your issue, not mine.

2) Yes, there's a difference between tearing into an argument and tearing into someone personally, but it's one of degree. I still find Keith Law classless, even if his insults are subtle and indirect enough for you not to think so.

3) The Iraq argument is pretty simple. When people are passionate about something, they rarely change their minds about it, even with long passages of time. You seem to think Lewis should have thought that through about Law. I disagree.

4) Lewis DID address the point in the review that he had issue with--I don't know why you would deny this. And yes, he did attack Keith personally; I'm not defending that. But I think Lewis had the right to bring up an obvious disconnect when he reads a pretty damning review.

The Common Man said...

1) Right, TCM is obviously full of himself. Obviously, this is meant to be taken entirely seriously.

2) It is in no way a question of degree. One of them is a personal insult. The other is a refutation of an idea. Completely separate. And again, if you want to say that Keith is insulting people on Twitter, subtly or otherwise, you'd better come with evidence. Because in your mind, apparently he does it so often that it should be readily apparent to all of us and easy for you to find.

3) Look, again, TCM doesn't know anything about you personally. You've chosen to reveal nothing about yourself. You could be 15 or you could be 65. So TCM will simply tell you that, in his experience, 8 years is a long damn time. Eight years ago, TCM wasn't married, he didn't have a child, he didn't own a house, he wasn't Catholic, and he didn't live in his current city. People change over the course of a single year all the time, let alone 8 of them, even about things for which they feel passionately. Keith's been clear about his journey as an analyst, and it's clear his life and philosophy have undergone major changes in 8 years too.

4) We can't blame Rip Van Winkel for waking up 20 years later and not understanding the world he's in. But we could blame him for knowing he's waking up 20 years later and believing that everything and everyone should be exactly the same way that he left it.

Anonymous said...

1) It's pretty much the definition of someone who describes himself in the third person. Deal with it.

2) Sept. 11: "You're a looney." Sept. 7: "Don't run away from what you don't understand." And that's just in the last week. Look, I'm sure you enjoy the snark and snide put-downs. I don't.

3) Fair point. Change happens. But I would be as shocked as Lewis on such a transformation without any explanation in the review.

4) You didn't refute my point that Lewis did, in fact, address the review. You may not have liked it, but contrary to your statement, he did address it.