Why I’m a little skeptical of the Moneyball movie

If you read a lot of baseball blogs, you are no doubt aware that there have been some decent reviews and some pretty scathing reviews of the new Moneyball movie by baseball writers.  I respect the opinions of Gleeman, Law, and Leitch, so I will go into the movie with a few key questions that will probably determine how much I enjoy the film:

  1. How much can I suspend disbelief in the areas where I know the movie takes liberties with the facts?  The scouts and Art Howe are not evil or stupid enough in real life to turn them into movie villains, so I know they will be characterized as much more obtuse than they really were.  Law explains these  and other differences in some detail in his review, so I won’t revisit them all here.  Leitch likens this problem to the “it would take more than 1.21 gigawatts to power that car” feeling from Back to the Future.  If you can get past that, perhaps there’s an enjoyable movie to be found.
  2. How is “Peter Brand” portrayed?  As a stat nerd, I’m more than a little self-conscious about how far the character that will be portrayed onscreen by Jonah Hill descends into stereotype.  I already know he’s a baseball nerd who “never played a game in his life,” which is not at all fair to Paul DePodesta (the real “Peter Brand” who wouldn’t let them use his name for the movie).  My concern is that Brand will give, for non–baseball fans, a “face” to baseball nerds which really isn’t representative of the baseball nerd population.
  3. How is the “moneyball” philosophy portrayed?  One of my chief annoyances with critics of the Michael Lewis book, particularly those who never read it, is that the “moneyball” philosophy was boiled down to selecting fat college players who can’t play defense but get on base, and that the stats trump everything when it comes time to make player selections.  Real sabermetrics uses all information including both statistical profiles and scouting reports to make informed decisions.

    People will need to understand that this movie represents a period of time (2002) from which the sabermetric community has grown in the last nine years.  Law explained that in a recent Baseball Today podcast discussing the movie, how he was much more gung-ho about thinking he as an analyst could “replace” scouting when he joined the Blue Jays’ front office, but now he takes a more balanced approach.  This is true of most proponents of sabermetrics today.

    The “moneyball” philosophy, then, is really about exploiting market inefficiencies.  That’s really what the A’s, Beane, and DePodesta were doing when they signed guys like Scott Hatteberg (portrayed in the movie by Chris Pratt in a role I’m excited to see).  It’s a nuanced enough concept that I’m concerned most viewers will take away something else.

  4. How does the conflict portrayed in the book translate into a movie plot?  We’re not talking about The Blind Side, a Lewis book that was a ready-made movie story.  Moneyball distinguishes between the “traditional” approach and what the Oakland A’s were doing ten years ago, but there’s really nothing in the book resembling a plot that will make for a watchable story in anything other than a documentary format.  Obviously this movie is not a documentary, so will the manufactured story lines, clichéd sports movie “big games,” and tense scenes really add up to a satisfying movie?

    Since we’re dealing with Aaron Sorkin’s writing, I’ll bring up The Social Network for comparison.  My main complaint (really my only complaint) with that movie was that it lacked a big payoff at the end, something to truly bring everything you’ve seen into perspective.  Like Moneyball, I knew what was going to happen, and The Social Network was a terrific movie not because of the payoff but because of the fascinating characters and dialogue.  Can the writing carry Moneyball similarly?  I don’t know, but I’m not optimistic because the standard set by The Social Network is so high.

  5. Perhaps more than anything else, I’m a little worried that this movie will re-open a debate that just doesn’t exist today among informed baseball people.  Ken Rosenthal had a nice article to this effect yesterday, explaining that front offices did adapt to the inefficiencies the A’s discovered and adjusted accordingly.

    So when you hear baseball writers and fans (many of whom have remained willfully ignorant) laugh at the A’s struggles since Moneyball, remember that winning teams are not winning because they are ignoring stats.  They are winning because they (a) have more resources or (b) have an approach that likely includes both statistical analysis and traditional scouting.  Very few real baseball decision makers are ignoring the stats in 2011.

    The take-away from Moneyball in terms of baseball philosophy should be that the A’s were ahead of the curve but still imperfect in their approach.  (What’s often forgotten is that the A’s had a terrific starting rotation, one which wasn’t the result of the oversimplified “on base percentage and college players rule” selection process.)  Other teams adjusted, and now low payroll and an awful stadium has the A’s again near the bottom of the league in terms of talent.

In the end, the stats didn’t “beat” the scouts, and it’s unfair and unnecessarily polarizing to portray that as what happened with the A’s.  Hopefully the movie is smart enough to avoid doing that—if it isn’t, we may be close to square one when it comes to educating new baseball fans about the history of the game and player evaluation.

And that’s why I’m a little skeptical heading into Moneyball, the movie.  There are too many ways it can fail in my view, and it will take some masterful writing to achieve something that is both enjoyable for the masses and fair to the baseball community.

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