I read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball a few months ago after having seen the film. I would’ve preferred to do it in the other order (if I had ended up seeing the film at all) but I hadn’t gotten to the book yet on my reading list and an opportunity to see the movie presented itself that I decided not to turn down.
As I understood the story, the basic premise was the principles of Grahamite value investing in baseball– buy cheap things rather quality things and wait for reversion to the mean to kick in. These cheap things may not be worth much, but you can buy them at such a discount it doesn’t matter as they’d have to be truly worthless for you to have made a mistake in the aggregate.
Specifically, Billy Bean, the GM of the Oakland Athletics at the time, was recruiting players with no star power and no salary-negotiation power that could fill his roster with an above-average on base percentage. In contrast, all the big teams with the big budgets were buying the massive stars who were known for their RBIs and home run percentages. Billy Bean’s motto was “don’t make mistakes”, like a value investor who looks for a margin of safety. The other big teams with their massive budgets were operating with the motto “Aim for the stands, hit it out of the park”, like the huge mutual funds with their marketing machines and their reliance on investor expectations to add super fuel to the market.
That’s the story I thought I read, anyway, and it made a lot of sense. Inspiring stuff for a little value investor guy like me.
Today, I sat in a marketing presentation from a vendor who used Moneyball as a metaphor and he threw this image up on the projector during his slide show:
This is a picture of the Oakland A’s stadium. It is a shared stadium meaning it is not dedicated to the A’s but also serves as the Oakland Raiders football team home field. As a result, the baseball diamond has a lot of extra foul zone on the first and home base lines, which you might be able to see if you get real close to your monitor and squint.
I had never seen the A’s stadium before. I had no idea it had extra large foul zones. I didn’t realize that in a 160-odd game series the As would play around half, or nearly 80 games, at a stadium that had extra large foul zones.
I had no idea that a lot of players who had high on-base percentages got there because they hit balls that would normally end up in the stands at most other stadiums, but at the A’s home field it’d end up in the extra large foul zone. I had no idea that this meant those kinds of players would be extra valuable only on the Oakland A’s baseball team. I didn’t realize, as the demonstrator told us, Billy Bean was building a “pitching team”, not just a cheap on-base team (whatever that means).
This blew my mind. Maybe I just missed this in the book, and the movie. I am not a sports fan so maybe Lewis mentioned it and it wasn’t a detail that stuck out to me (which is actually another important lesson from all of this, but I digress…). Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe Lewis, the consummate story-teller, focused on the point he wanted to make from the story even though the reality, while related, was really determined by something else– the extra large foul zone at the Oakland A’s home stadium.
It reminded me of one of those situations with Warren Buffett. The first time you read Buffett’s biography and learn about his investments, you get the hokey “Just buy good businesses at fair prices!” schtick and you think, “Hey, that sounds simple, makes sense, that’s all there is to it!” Then you learn a few years later that what he was ACTUALLY doing was gaming the tax system, or creating synthetic leverage for himself, or whatever. You find the REAL angle, and it’s a bit more sophisticated and a bit harder for the average Joe to replicate by following the “invert, always invert” mantra of Charlie Munger.
What I took away from this is that people tell the stories they want to tell and you should never, ever take something at face value that involves a story of a person becoming wildly successful, wealthy, etc., just by figuring out some seemingly obvious, simple trick like buying cheap baseball stats.
There’s always an angle, like, he was buying cheap baseball stats that worked especially well in his home stadium.
That’s still genius, no doubt, but there’s less there that anyone operating outside that specific context can learn from it.