Rob Neyer is the national baseball editor for SB Nation.
He has written six books about baseball and from 1996 to January 2001 he worked for ESPN.com and prior to that he worked for STATS Inc. and the legendary Bill James, who once said: “Rob Neyer is the best of the new generation of sportswriters. He knows baseball history like a child knows his piggy bank. He knows how to pick it up and shake it and make what he needs fall out.”
So, as a noted disciple of sabermetrics, a movie buff and someone who considers Moneyball to be “the most influential baseball book ever,” who better to talk to about the book, its legacy and the upcoming film starring Brad Pitt?
We recently caught up with Neyer on the phone…
AUDIO: Full interview with Rob Neyer
CORMACK: I read that you actually read a version of the initial Moneyball manuscript before the book was sent to the editors. Is that right?
NEYER: Yeah. Michael (Lewis) sent me the book and asked me to look at it and make notes and comments.
CORMACK: Did you know him before that?
NEYER: We met in the summer before the book came out. I was in Boston for the SABR convention (Society for American Baseball Research). He was there, I think just doing research and apparently Billy Beane had told Michael to talk to me if he had a chance and so he just searched me out and we spent some time together there.
CORMACK: When you finally got your hands on the book, what were your impressions of it? Did you have a sense for the impact it might have, or the controversy it might elicit with old-school types in the media and baseball front offices?
NEYER: I didn’t. I didn’t think I was or am smart enough to think that far ahead. I certainly thought that it was a wonderful story and obviously a lot of stuff in the book dovetailed with a lot of what I had been writing about at ESPN.com. I honestly didn’t have a great familiarity with Michael Lewis’ work. At that point he wasn’t obviously the household name he is now.
I didn’t know that the book would be a bestseller. I didn’t realize how inflammatory it would be in the baseball world. I assumed that a lot of baseball people wouldn’t even read it, and to some degree that is true. A lot of people in baseball who reviled the book probably never read it.
CORMACK: Why do you think it did become so controversial, or well-read given that you said yourself you didn’t think that many baseball people would even read it?
NEYER: I think really what it comes down to, the secret to the book’s success—if it’s a secret—is that he wrote what was essentially seen by many people as a business book, but because it’s based on an incredibly accessible subject like baseball and is written with an incredibly accessible and engaging style, which is how he writes, I think that combination is what led to the book’s success.
It became required reading. I like to say that the book is not about baseball, it’s about an idea. Certainly it had a massive surface impact in terms of people being told, "hey, you know what? You gotta read this book."
That happened in baseball. But it happened everywhere else as well.
CORMACK: I read that in 2003 you referred to Moneyball as “the single most influential baseball book ever.”
NEYER: I don’t think there’s any question about it. I would take that a step further and suggest that it’s been more influential than every other baseball book combined.
I should throw a caveat in there.
It’s possible that Moneyball would exist without the Bill James Baseball Abstract in the ‘80s, so maybe my statement is a little overblown, but it’s hard to think of another book that’s had any sort of impact like Moneyball has had.
I think before Moneyball the only books that were really influential in terms of changing something in our society, let alone within the sport, were probably Ball Four and Bill James’ books, which certainly had an impact.
Maybe Moneyball wouldn’t exist without Bill James. I don’t know. There’s an argument to be made there. Certainly Bill’s books had an impact. There are a lot of people who trace their take on the world to reading Bill James in the ‘80s.
Bill’s books did not seem to resonate a great deal within baseball itself, and I’m not sure why that is. My take has always been that Bill’s books were not read by people in baseball at that time, not many of them anyway. It’s hard to see any real impact in baseball in the ‘80s while the Abstracts were coming out.
I think a lot of the people running the teams were just too entrenched in the traditional stuff to really pay attention.
A lot of people read the Abstract in the ‘80s and later went to work for baseball teams, they tended to be teenagers. I can tell you for example Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, he started reading the Bill James Abstracts when he was in the third grade and I think he would acknowledge this as well, but he wouldn’t do what he does now in sports if he hadn’t read the Abstracts in the third grade.
Obviously Michael Lewis’ book had a huge impact immediately after it came out. I would suspect a great number of owners in baseball read the book and they made sure that the people that worked for them read the book.
Most baseball teams now employ at least one, usually more people whose job it is to just look at the numbers, collect numbers, disseminate data. That simply wasn’t the case 10 years ago.
Once the book came out, it became sort of a litmus test. If you didn’t have people running the numbers in your organization, you weren’t serious about winning.
I don’t think that would have happened, not as quickly as it happened, without the book.
SPORTSNET.CA VIDEO: Zaun talks Moneyball legacy
CORMACK: How has the baseball media changed since Moneyball came out, the vocabulary that’s now used in blogs and columns and it’s willingness to accept and even debunk the more traditional stats such as wins and RBIs?
NEYER: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. It’s certainly played a part. A lot of it would have happened already. ESPN did a pretty good job with it but (Moneyball) probably accelerated it a little bit, made it a little more acceptable, palatable to people, the sabermetrics, the numbers.
But if you watch a broadcast to this day, I think it was just this year—I didn’t see it, but somebody told me that they saw it—wins above replacement (WAR) appeared on ESPN.
Moneyball came out what—2002?—so it isn’t like it happened quickly.
Before Moneyball came out ESPN was using on-base percentage on their broadcasts and that was a huge step forward, so it’s inched forward year-by-year in their broadcasts.
Most of the interesting stuff analytically being done in the media tends to be a generational thing. The younger a writer or a broadcaster, the more amenable he’s going to be to that stuff and it’s always going to be that way.
The people who really drive those decisions are the producers and the editors and to whatever degree they’re comfortable with adding a layer of analysis is going to drive what happens on the air or in the paper or in a magazine or on the web.
CORMACK: As someone who uses a lot of sabermetrics in their writing, do you ever find yourself pausing or thinking twice about using a certain sabermetric term or stat based upon how many of your readers will understand it? Or do you feel that it’s up to the reader to educate themselves on it?
NEYER: I’ve never felt that it was the reader’s job to go educate themselves. To me, that’s a condescending way to look at things. Generally speaking, when I try to get my point across, I don’t need to get that sophisticated.
If I want to write about batting average on balls in play (BABIP), for some people that doesn’t make any sense. I’ve been writing about BABIP for 10 years now. To me, it’s not that complicated and I think for a large percentage of readers, it’s not that complicated either.
The tricky part is to get across the point that (BABIP’s) largely related to luck when you see wild swings in a pitcher’s BABIP year-to-year. That’s a difficult thing for some people to accept although the evidence is fairly clear.
I don’t need to point that out every time, but one of the nice things about writing on the web is that rather than having to explain it again and again, I can just put a link to whatever it is.
But most of the discussions I have with readers don’t really require to dig that deep. The game is not that complicated on the level at which we write about it.
Certainly, there are writers out there for other web sites, and occasionally our web site, who go a little deeper into this stuff—and there’s a place for that as well—but I try to be pretty accessible when I write about this stuff.
CORMACK: I read a lot of sabermetric-friendly blogs and columns and I find myself wondering if they might be alienating some readers because it’s almost like trying to read Chinese sometimes.
NEYER: I know when I started 15 year ago at espn.com I felt like my purpose was to make sabermetrics accessible to more people, so I’ve got a lot of practice in doing that.
There certainly are web sites where within a paragraph or two you’re seeing all these different acronyms and abbreviations and you don’t know what they mean. That’s fine for those writers and the people who go to those sites, but you’re right, you can lose readers that way.
I don’t want to be the president of an exclusive sabermetrics club where if you’re not already in we don’t have any room, so we always try to welcome people in.
Most of us anyway. The goal is not to be exclusive, but inclusive, and I think there’s a way to do that.
CORMACK: It’s a really interesting time in the game. There is a titanic shift taking place and we’re starting to look at players in totally different ways. In Toronto, it’s interesting how differently people now look at a guy like—and not to pick on him—but Joe Carter. Here’s a guy who seems to be under more intense scrutiny from fans because he was known as an elite player simply because of his RBIs when nobody paid attention to his on-base percentage or OPS.
NEYER: The example of Joe Carter points to the limits that we’re still operating under, because Carter in a sense was a similar player to Jim Rice and to Andre Dawson in that all three of them were overrated because they drove in a lot of runs.
And yet Jim Rice, years after Moneyball came out, was elected to the Hall of Fame.
Andre Dawson, years after Moneyball came out, was elected to the Hall of Fame.
It is a slow process and it’s not like there’s been a tipping point where all of a sudden everybody was looking at the same numbers and coming to the same conclusions.
CORMACK:Was Felix Hernandez winning the AL Cy Young Award last year maybe a tipping point in that regard?
NEYER: Not really. Just the year before, Zack Greinke had won the Cy Young Award with 15 wins maybe, 15 or 16.
So Hernandez, while he won with 13 wins which is certainly anomalous, he did lead the league in a traditional statistic, ERA, and he was one away from leading the league in strikeouts, so it wasn’t like the voters went crazy in picking him.
It’s certainly a little surprising that they’re de-emphasizing wins. They still have ERA, which is not a terrible statistic, but it isn’t like they completely ignored traditional statistics.
They have come around to the notion that wins and losses are—to some degree in certain cases anyway—independent of the pitcher’s actual performance.
Bert Blyleven getting into the Hall of Fame, finally, is a small example of that as well.
PHOTO GALLERY: Characters from Moneyball
CORMACK: To go back to Beane for a second, I’d read that you said in order for him to remain successful, he would need to "stay ahead of the curve." In what ways have you seen him try to do this?
NEYER: One of the basic ideas in the book—and unfortunately too many people miss what the book is really about—is that’s it’s not about fat guys who hit home runs and draw walks. It’s about an intellectual idea, which is essentially: "If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this how we would do it?"
And the other thing that it’s about on a less fundamental level is finding inefficiencies in the market, which is probably what most people take away from it.
For a year or two, the A’s thought they found a market inefficiency in defence which is the exact opposite of what most people think about when they think of Moneyball.
And last winter, they thought they found a market inefficiency in relief pitchers. They couldn’t figure out how to spend what little money they had on hitters—which they needed—and they didn’t need any starting pitchers, so they went out and got Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes.
That’s still what they’re trying to do, only it’s a lot harder now because almost every team also has someone looking for market inefficiencies.
They’re not really that hard to spot.
CORMACK: What about Toronto and market inefficiencies and the moves Anthopoulos has made when it comes to getting guys that still have some upside, but maybe have fallen out of favour with their clubs.
I’m thinking of Escobar, Rasmus and Morrow. Does that jive with Beane’s thinking, and an example of an inefficiency in the market?
NEYER: Absolutely and I think those are even tougher because sometimes those players are seen as undesirable for reasons that have nothing to do with performance.
Rasmus was not getting along well with his manager, so now we’re throwing personality into the mix, but I certainly think if you’re the Blue Jays you got to take a chance on getting some of those guys.
I think that’s a great example of a potential market inefficiency; a player who might be fine personality-wise who just doesn’t get along with his manager. If you can get those guys on the cheap, as the Blue Jays did, I think you’re in good shape.
CORMACK: With a movie coming out on a book you’re obviously fond of, how do you feel about it? Are you excited, are you anxious, indifferent?
NEYER: I am excited. Mostly because the clips I’ve seen look pretty good.
It’s always really tough when you love something and Hollywood takes it and turns it into a movie. They’re not making the movie for you. They’re making it for the 20 million people they hope wind up seeing it as opposed to this tiny little subset of people that you’re a part of.
They have a good director and I’m a huge fan of both Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill so I think they’ve made great choices.
I just think when you look at the talent of the people involved, and their general artistic integrity, it’s hard for me to imagine this is going to be a bad movie. But I think it’ll be hard for me to think of it as a great movie because of my familiarity with the material. But I think it’s going to be good and it’s going to do a lot better than people thought.