More than a decade ago, Michael Lewis was standing in the Oakland Athletics clubhouse one evening when he noticed naked ballplayers walking out of the showers. It was here, of all places, where the award-winning author had his eureka moment for what turned into a book that changed the way professional baseball teams assess talent.
“They looked horrible,” Lewis said of the naked men. “They were misshapen in every way. There’s fat everywhere, and one guy has two clubbed feet. They just did not look like athletes.”
Lewis, who spoke today at the 2014 Tableau Conference in Seattle, would later make his way to the Oakland front office, asking team executives about the players who “looked horrible when naked.” It was then that Lewis realized how the A’s were doing something no other team had ever attempted.
“We are in a market where people aren’t using data to actually profit,” the team told Lewis. “They’re using subjective judgments to value players and strategies.”
And that’s what sparked Lewis to write Moneyball, a book-turned-movie that analyzed how the A’s focused on analytics and sabermetrics — not looks and popularity — to value players. It was a data-driven strategy that challenged the status quo and led Oakland to great success while having one of the lowest payrolls in the majors. Now, countless teams in several professional sports leagues have hired an analytics expert to do exactly what the A’s implemented in the early 2000s.
Lewis, who also wrote The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game and most recently Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, offered up some interesting data-related and storytelling insights to the audience on Wednesday.
“I’m attracted to characters for whom data plays an essential role,” Lewis said.
Here are some of the other tidbits from Lewis’ talk at the event put on by Tableau Software, a publicly-traded Seattle company that specializes in data visualization products.
- Lewis said that while what Oakland did was smart, it was not original. Other people had written about baseball analytics on the web already. But what made the Athletics special was their courage to not only use the data, but apply it. “It isn’t just enough to have the better information and have the better visualizations,” he said. “You have to have the nerve.” Lewis said the same about the main characters in Flash Boys who revealed the unfairness going on with high-frequency trading on Wall Street.
- Lewis noted that the way the Oakland front office turned away from subjective data to find success is a method that can not only work in baseball, but other industries, too. “The data is the antidote to the biases that people bring to judgments about people, securities, about markets, about whatever,” he said. “It’s the argument for doing something a different way. In order to do it a different way, you have to understand the data.”
- When asked how he takes complicated subjects and makes them simple to understand, Lewis said that he always imagines that he’s explaining something to his mother. “I try to think, I’m explaining this so that someone who has no prior knowledge can understand it,” he said. “That is a very useful exercise.”
- On that same subject, Lewis advised people who are trying to tell a story to get rid of everything that’s not necessary, which in turn makes the subject less complicated. “The big challenge of storytelling is figuring out what you can get away with not saying, figuring out what you can eliminate from the story.” Lewis added that he tries to leave a hole for his audience to walk into where they can exercise some discretion over a story. “What I do is try to leave the audience with some opportunity to object.”
- As for his next project, Lewis hinted that he may spend time with President Barack Obama during his final year of presidency to write a book about decision-making. Obama has already allowed Lewis into his life for a Vanity Fair piece. “There’s a book to do about decision-making, using the presidential decision-making as the material,” he said. “That really interests me.”