The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game


Moneyball is a quest for the secret of success in baseball. Following the low-budget Oakland Athletics, their larger-than-life general manger, Billy Beane, and the strange brotherhood of amateur baseball enthusiasts, Michael Lewis has written not only “the single most influential baseball book ever” (Rob Neyer, Slate) but also what “may be the best book ever written on business” (Weekly Standard). “I wrote this book because I fell in love with a story. The story concerned a small group of und…

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Hullo, I’m British!(r/baseball)

From across the pond, welcome to pretty much the best sport ever! We’re glad you’re here 🙂 I’m gonna try to keep it general, cuz I think once you’ve got the basics down you can just watch some games and refine it from there. Also, I learned a lot of stuff about the game by playing video games like The Show, so if you can get a copy of that and wanna get more in-depth that’s actually not a bad way to come at it from a different angle.

Let’s start with the overall structure of the game. One of the things that’s different from most sports is how many games there are in a season, and to accommodate that two teams will play several games in a row against each other. That’s only really important if you don’t want to look silly when talking to another baseball fan. As far as actual game structure, there are nine innings a game. Each inning has a “top” and a “bottom;” in Major League Baseball the away team gets to hit in the top of an inning and the home team defends (“fields”).

Arguably the main competition happening within a game is between the pitcher and the batter. Whenever a batter steps up to take his swings, that’s called an at bat or AB for short. During an AB, the batter will try to swing at pitches in what’s called the strike zone. The strike zone (and correct me if I’m wrong on this guys cuz it has changed some) is the width of home plate and the height is between a batter’s belt and his knees. It’s important to understand the strike zone because then you can understand balls and strikes. A ball is whenever a pitcher throws outside the strike zone and the batter doesn’t swing at it. However, if a batter does swing and either misses the ball or fouls it off, it counts as a strike. A foul is when the batter puts the bat on the ball but it goes out of bounds. This can be into the seats, behind the batter’s box, outside the foul lines (those little white lines that go straight out from home plate, cross third and first base, and extend all the way to the edge of the outfield), etc.

The total number of balls and strikes in an AB is called the count. The count’s important because once a batter gets 4 balls, he takes first base on a walk, which is also called a “base on balls” in ye olde lingoe and why the stat is abbreviated BB. But if the pitcher throws him 3 strikes, he’s out! That’s called a strikeout. However, a foul ball never counts as a third strike, it’s only a strike out if the batter doesn’t make contact (either swinging and missing or not swinging at a pitch in the strike zone).

There are other ways to record an out too; strikeouts are by far the least common. First let’s talk fly outs. That’s when a batter gets the ball in the air but it’s caught by one of the fielders. There are two “special” fly outs, one being a pop fly. That’s just a fly ball that doesn’t leave the infield (i.e. usually it’s caught by the pitcher or a baseman rather than an outfielder). There are also foul outs. Like I said before, fouls are balls that aren’t in the normal playing field. But pretty much all stadiums have what’s called “foul territory,” which is space between the foul lines and the seats. If a fielder catches a fly ball that stays out of the seats, that’s a foul out! Second, though, there are ground outs. A ball is considered “live” as soon as it touches fair ground. All that really means is that the batter-cum-runner isn’t out yet. Anyway, if the batter hits the ball on the ground, one of the fielders can pick it up and throw it to first base. If the ball gets to the base before the runner does, he’s out!

Obviously if every batter got out all the time the game wouldn’t really have a point, so there are also hits! There are really only four flavors of hits: Singles, doubles, triples, and home runs. As the names imply, it’s just what base the runner can manage to get to safely. If there’s a runner on second or third base, we say he’s in scoring position, which means that any hit has a pretty good chance of getting him home. Incidentally, that’s how points or runs are scored: having a runner cross home plate.

A batter is credited with a run batted in (RBI for short) when he gets a hit and a runner makes it home. There are other ways to get an RBI, too: If there’s a runner in scoring position (usually third base but sometimes second if the guy is REALLY fast) and the batter hits a fly ball far enough into the outfield, the runner can still score if he tags up and runs home. Since the ball hasn’t hit the ground, it’s not live yet. Once it hits the fielder’s glove, though, we’re off to the races! The runner first has to tag the bag he’s on, then when the ball comes alive he can score. If he does, then the batter is out but he still gets an RBI. However, the fielders have a chance to throw the ball home and try to tag the runner out before he touches the base.

There are other sacrifice plays besides the sac fly. Batters can also hit sacrifice ground balls, but these aren’t always to score runs like the sac fly is. Explaining this part requires a lot of strategy talk so I’ll steer clear of a lot of it since I’m just trying to go through the basics, but a lot of the time it’s just to move a runner into scoring position.

I’ll finish out by just talking about a couple of the stats you’ll hear a lot about. Ima start with hitting stats! The most common one you’ll hear is batting average or just “average.” This stat is just what percent of the time a batter will get a hit. Also, even though a lot of these stats are shown as decimals, they’re really percentages. So like if a batter has a .250 average, chances are he’ll get a hit every fourth AB. If he’s got a .333 average, it’ll be a third of the time. So on and so forth. If a player is batting over .300 that’s generally considered really good. Jose Reyes right now has a .350 average and that’s the highest in all of MLB, so that’s really good. As an historical note, batting .400 is kind of a mythical achievement that not too many guys have managed.

I’ve already explained RBIs, but just FYI that’s the other big stat that most media outlets highlight as the most important one. Home runs are usually the third stat that rounds out what they show you on TV when a guy steps up to bat. It’s becoming more common, though, that a player’s on base percentage or OBP is displayed. That’s the average number of times a guy gets on base either by hits, walks, or being hit by a pitch (if a pitcher hits a batter with the ball the batter automatically gets to take first base no matter what the count is). Some people consider OBP to be the most important stat, but that’s something you can read more about if you want.

And now here are some pitching stats! Probably the two biggest stats commentators highlight are earned run average or ERA and wins. The ERA is the average number of runs that pitcher would allow in nine innings. Say, for example, his ERA is 3.00. That means, were he to throw all nine innings of a game, he’d give up 3 runs on average. Anything lower than that is usually considered pretty elite. Wins are becoming more widely regarded as kind of a meaningless stat but, nonetheless, can be a big impressive number we like to ooo and ahhh at. The stat itself is just if one pitcher gave up fewer runs than the other. That’s kind of a gross oversimplification, but I’m not sure I can really articulate the nuances much better than that. The pitching equivalent of OBP is the WHIP, or walks plus hits per inning pitched. I say “equivalent” because both are stats that are really important but only just starting to be talked about during an average broadcast. WHIP is a really crucial stat because it reflects how many baserunners the pitcher allows during an inning. A WHIP of less than 1.00 is suuuuper good, but becoming more common in the post-steroid era.

And with that, I think you should more or less have the tools you need to start watching and loving baseball! Welcome again!

EDIT: Wow thank you guys so much for the great feedback!!! This is my last day at my tearing-my-hair-out internship so I’ll come back and change the things I got wrong later tonight. If you know of somewhere else where people might find this helpful, feel free to repost it wherever (though I’d really appreciate it if you tack my name on it)!

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Michael Lewis

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W. W. Norton & Company

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Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

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Hullo, I’m British!

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