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    Moneyball & Smooth Strokes

    Since they've just come out with a film version of Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, I thought it would be interesting to revisit a 2003 review I wrote comparing Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book, to Long Strokes in a Short Season, a book about swim coaching.

    I just read three books in a row. One involved a boy wizard with a scar on his forehead. The other two were about men taking a new approach to their sports using ideas that were not new, but which had languished because they challenged the conventional wisdom. In both cases, their teams showed significant success due to the contributions of athletes who were not obviously gifted.

    Moneyball, the bestseller by Michael Lewis, concerns the application of Bill James' sabermetrics to the big-money team sport of baseball. Briefly, "working with either the lowest or next to lowest payroll in the game, the Oakland Athletics had won more regular season games than any other team, except the Atlanta Braves. They'd been to the playoffs three years in a row and in the previous two had taken the richest team in baseball, the Yankees, to within a few outs of elimination."

    The Yanks out-spend the As three-to-one; they can afford to pay top dollar to get the best free agents available. The As use James' ideas to find less expensive and overlooked players that have succeeded in ways that many scouts overlook. Unfortunately, the featured players from the 2002 draft (where As GM Billy Beane, a failed "can't miss" prospect himself, completely embraces James' ideas) have yet to mature and are not yet in a position to really *prove* the premise. It is possible that the As have chosen a course that will always bring them a sound team but will never provide the players for a great team. I don't know squat about baseball, but given that they cannot match the Yankees payroll, the As are definitely doing something right.

    I do recall reading that other teams had incorporated sabermetrics concepts into their drafting and coaching - the Red Sox even hired Bill James as a consultant - and Nate Silver applied similar analysis to handicapping horse political races. A review of the new film in The Atlantic confirms that the A's have fallen just short of greatness:

    ... Beane has moments of triumph. He gets his scouts to adopt a new, more effective way of evaluating potential players, and the A's transform from basement-dwellers to playoff contenders. But even his victories are muted. When the A's start winning, sportscasters give credit to the team's uncooperative, vacant-eyed manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), not Beane. And—this is a spoiler for readers who don't at least casually follow professional baseball—though the A's make it to the post-season, they never win a World Series under Beane, a fact that haunts him. As he tells his assistant GM (Jonah Hill) a few times over the course of the film: "If you lose the last game of the season, no one gives a shit."

    ... as hard as Beane works, as pioneering as his managing techniques may be, he is ultimately bested by teams with more money.

    I enjoyed Moneyball, and just about anything by Lewis, but even though I ride past Camden Yards every day, I'm still not very interested in baseball. I do swim several times each week, though, and the rest of my review was about swimming:

    Long Strokes in a Short Season, by Art Aungst, concerns the application of ideas, originally inspired by Bill Boomer, about technique and streamlining to the no-money sport of girls' swimming at a public high school.

    For twelve weeks each winter, Coach Aungst coaches a mix of gifted swimmers, less-gifted swimmers and athletes who are simply swimming during the offseason between their primary sports. There is no recruiting, so he doesn't face teams with enormously greater or lesser talent, but he does face teams whose coaches still adhere to 'more is better' training philosophies (How do we do it? Volume!).

    Already one of the better teams in the league, Aungst's team improved markedly in the six seasons following his addition of Total Immersion-inspired training to his regimen. His greatest competition seems to come from two teams in his region whose coaches have followed his lead in using TI-style technique with their teams.

    Orchard Park has great depth because even their seasonal swimmers, who might be kayakers or lacrosse players for the rest of the year, do learn to swim fast. Orchard Park does particularly well in the relays at the NY State Championships, finishing first or second at all eighteen relays over those six years with significant contributions from those seasonal athletes.

    Like others at TI these days, Aungst is clearly fascinated with Eastern philosophy. There are quotes from the 'I Ching', 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' and a description of Japanese rock gardening from the novel 'Shibumi'. But he doesn't wallow in profundity; he can also be very funny, whether at his own expense or quoting Homer Simpson.

    Coach Aungst was kind enough to answer a few of my questions:

    Q - How does your Win-Loss record compare before and after 1997?

    A – “I don't mention this much, but in the last five years we lost one meet, and that was by a combined total of .14 seconds in three races. We have always been very successful and have only lost five divisional meets in the last 20 years, but ... I think the only valid comparison of program is us to us."

    Q - What else might explain the better results since 1997? A particularly gifted swimmer?

    Better funding, better facilities, sunspots, or anything else that you changed? A decline at other schools?

    A - "I really have examined this from every angle I can, and objectively there is no other explanation other than the new path we took. I have always had great kids who worked hard, were easy to discipline and who came in knowing how to swim, which makes my job a piece of cake. ... A prime example is that our medley relay had the same four girls in it and won the states in '98 and '99. All four graduated and we won again in '00 and '01, and finished second in ‘02 only because our backstroker slipped off the blocks at the start. As far as the athletes go, they are by far the best I have ever coached, but I attribute that to technique-based programs."

    "I used to coach age group club swimming all year round, and I had lots of kids who identified themselves as swimmers, and that was their main focus in life. I think I squandered many opportunities with these kids in my earlier days. Now, (our) athletes see something that challenges their athletic ability, and not just their ability to endure."

    "I wrote the book mostly anecdotally because to me it is much more about mindset, and how the nuts and bolts come together are going to differ from one program to another based on all the variables you mention. To me – and I think for the kids as well – it has been a much more rewarding process,. I only included times in the book to give readers some frame of reference to see that this approach also produces some very fast swims as I personally had a great reluctance to move to a technique based program. It was a hard leap for an old-school, grind-it-out guy like me."

    "The main thing I would like coaches to carry away is that while the technique-based approach does make really good athletes very fast, it also makes terrible swimmers become so much better even if they will never be fast and it makes kids so much more involved in the process while giving so many more positive accomplishments than just times or championships."

    I followed up on Orchard Park and according to this Buffalo News article from 2010, Coach Aungst and his team are still doing well:

    The Section VI Swimming and Diving Championships conclude today. Orchard Park is expected to walk out of the Erie Community College Burt Flickinger Aquatic Center with the team title for the second year in a row. The Quakers are not only the best team in Section VI, but arguably the best in the state. Coach Art Aungst called his Quakers, "the most versatile team I've ever had."

    Orchard Park is the top sectional seed in all three relays. Its 200-yard medley relay broke the Section VI record earlier this year in 1:37.31, also the top time in the state. Swimming the event at Sectionals will be Collin McArdle (back), Declan McLaughlin (breast), Mike Sutz (butterfly) and Dan Hodson (freestyle).

    The Quakers have already qualified all three relays and six in individual events so what is their motivation to swim fast today? "That's kind of a tradition we have is when it's time to swim fast, we do that," said Aungst.


    I have followed the Twins for fifty one years.

    Well fifty, this last year has been too painful to watch. ha

    I have written before about sitting in the bleachers watching Harmon Killibrew, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle all hitting home runs whilst the Yankees killed us 22-5 (or something like that)

    The miracle Twinkies in 1987 and 1991 just amazed me.

    We are of course the old Washington Senators (I guess on this date there have been several Washington Senators, hahahahah)

    We, Minnesotans who could never win anything but Gophers football in 60 or 61, won a world series not once but twice on a budget that was less than a third of the Yankees Payroll.

    Yeah, it sounds like fun to watch this new film.

    But Oakland never got to the World Series with this fellow.

    And Minnesota has been working with minimarkets forever.

    But the concept:

    Beat the rich is a wonderful theme.

    the end

    Mr. Day, as always, says the right things.  

    I loved the book Moneyball and have not seen the movie yet.  I will.  Unlike Donal, I love baseball and could not actually ride by Camden Yards without going in, unless the Orioles were on the road or it was winter.

    The baseball proletariat, as stupid as the Beltway wise owls, are back at it debunking Beane by pointing to the A's record.  They know, as all honest baseball fans know, that the A's inability to win is because if baseball's continued inability to effectively deal with the huge advantages that a team with money has over those without (oddly, though not really, the same problem as our political system seems unable to resolve).  


    The real meaning of the book, at least to this reader is, as bombastically pronounced  a year or so ago and actually something written by the current owner of my beloved Red Sox, talking as much about how he became wealthy as about baseball:

    Many people think they are smarter than others in baseball and that the game in the field is simply what they think it is through their set of images/beliefs. Actual data from the market means more than individual perception/belief. The same is true in baseball.

    The same is true everywhere, but that is not accepted by the culture in which we exist. Many of us watched as John Glenn orbited the earth 38 years ago today and wondered what other magnificent sights we would see as the hard work and thought which resulted in that achievement are applied to the world we live in but our hopes have been dashed by people who tell us that government is not the answer but the problem and to whom facts and data are just soooooo---boring---or irrelevant.

    The Many Problems With 'Moneyball', a review in the Atlantic:

    The film Moneyball is—just like the 2003 bestseller by Michael Lewis it's based on—an idealized version of what happened with Billy Beane and the Oakland A's in the early part of the last decade. Beane is credited with adapting baseball analyst Bill James's statistical concepts into practical application. James, a lucid and witty writer with a refreshingly iconoclastic view of baseball history, had argued for years that on-base percentage (OBP, which measure a batter's ability to reach base by hit or walk) was much more significant than mere batting average (BA, which only measures hits). James also stressed the relative value of slugging average (SLG, which measures a batter's total bases per at-bat) and dismissed the more traditional baseball stats such as stolen bases and bunts.

    James long ago won over the smart guys, in whose ranks this writer regards himself. The cult of professional statisticians that followed in James's wake came to be known as "sabermatricians" as nearly all of them are members of SABR, the Society for American Baseball research. But a myth has built up around Moneyball the book, a myth largely propagated by the smart guys who want to see their most cherished beliefs about baseball transformed into hard reality. The myth says Beane single-handedly changed the game by recognizing the value of sabermetrics. But the myth doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

    So popular has Moneyball proved since its publication that few have bothered to notice some of its very fundamental flaws. Throughout the book, Lewis makes it clear that he doesn't understand baseball.

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