Moneyball Review

I loved the Moneyball book and am a full-fledged baseball stat nerd, but last week I expressed skepticism of its potential as a movie.  Would anyone go to see a movie about the business of baseball?  The answer to that question is apparently yes, as it grossed over $20 million in its opening weekend, no doubt fueled by the star power of Brad Pitt and a significant amount of critical acclaim.  You might not enjoy baseball in the same way that I do, but most critics (and my wife) suggest that it has merit as more than just a genre film.  Now that I’ve seen it, I have to agree with those critics.  It’s a very entertaining movie.

Yes, the movie takes some significant liberties with the facts in order to move the story along.  I have no idea how much of the ex-wife/daughter storyline is true, although Billy Beane’s baseball past is fairly accurate from what I remember (he could have played QB at Stanford instead of signing with the Mets).  The animosity between Beane and (manager Art) Howe in the movie is mostly fabricated.  Jeremy Giambi wasn’t a new signing in 2002, and Scott Hatteberg was an everyday player that year, although he basically only played DH until June.

The movie stayed true to the book in every important way.  Concerns I had about the portrayal of the so-called “Moneyball philosophy” and stat geeks in general were overblown.  The movie understands that Beane’s goal was to maximize the use of his resources.  It makes no attempt to joke about analyst “Peter Brand” living in his mother’s basement or not having what it takes to be an athlete, which would have been a setup for an easy laugh for a less disciplined screen writer, however untrue a portrayal it might be.

I was concerned that the movie would rely too much on relatively trivial moments to really be engrossing from a baseball perspective, and this is true to some extent.  A trade for Ricardo Rincon is not the kind of thing that turns a team around, and a 20-game win streak is not exactly Game 7 of the World Series.

However, it was clear from the outset that this movie was only peripherally about achieving glory on the baseball field.  Rather, it was plainly about a man driven to make the most of his circumstances and at the same time make sense of his own failed career.  This was the most compelling part of the movie for me: the expert way in which Beane’s past was brought into the present to create a character who is perpetually on the brink of figuring everything out, only to never quite get there.  I think this is what makes Moneyball relatable to anyone who may have only seen it because of Brad Pitt or the critical praise—everyone understands what it means to fail and then want to know why.

While the real Billy Beane’s motivations may not align perfectly with those of his movie counterpart, the liberties taken to create an interesting movie character are not so large as to make Moneyball a bad movie from an enthusiast’s perspective.  I’m not so tied to the real-life facts related to the story that I can’t enjoy the movie for what it is: a well-written story with good acting.  The baseball scenes are well put-together and accurate, even if they mostly ignore Oakland’s true key players from that season.  The scene with John Henry at Fenway Park brought back memories of my visit there last year, but more importantly, it represents a great moment where we see what really matters to Billy Beane.

I’ll stop short of attempting to grade Moneyball, since it means something to me that is entirely different from what it will mean to most moviegoers or even most baseball fans.  I thought it was both entertaining and faithful to its source material, a book which was meaningful for me in a different (and less emotional) way.  It’s a good movie to see whether or not you are a baseball fan, but particularly if you are one or have interests in the business world.  Most anyone who is reading this will know that any movie glamorizing the appropriate use of baseball stats is probably going to be a winner in my book.  So as you might have guessed had you just skipped here from the beginning of this review, I think Moneyball the movie is a solid winner.

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.

Moneyball: The Movie

Perhaps this is old news to you, but perhaps it is not.  Maybe, like me, you read some of the headlines about a Moneyball movie back in October, but you figured it was just some kind of joke, and a bad joke at that.

If that was the case, you and I would both be wrong.

I’m a self-described sabermetrician, so I welcomed Michael Lewis’ book, hoping that one day baseball’s anti-intellectual crowd would eventually be overcome by a desire to understand a better, more all-encompassing way to analyze the game we all love.  There are a few people out there who are still vigilant in their opposition, but most baseball people understand that they need to get the very best information in order to succeed.

Lewis’ book, which chronicles the front office transformation in the Oakland A’s organization, led by GM Billy Beane, paints the picture of one group of people in baseball who “got it” and exploited MLB’s market inefficiencies to tremendous gain.

That’s great reading for you and I, assuming that if you’re reading this post, you’re probably a baseball fan of some sort, perhaps also with an interest in baseball analysis.  If so, you and I also understand that we’re part of a small niche in the world.  Clearly, not everyone is a baseball fan with an affinity for numbers.

So what on earth is Columbia doing making a movie out of this kind of book?  When Field of Dreams was just the 19th-highest-grossing film of 1989, in a pre-1994-strike, pre-steroid-revelation world, how do they think they’re going to turn Moneyball into a movie that Joe the Plumber is going to want to take his family to see?

They’ve done their part, reportedly getting Brad Pitt and Important Things’ Demetri Martin to fill the roles of Beane and Paul DePodesta, so they’re probably going to be marketing this thing heavily.  But I’ve read the book, and I just don’t see the appeal to any group other than people like me, economists, and hardcore baseball fans.

I’ve liked several of Steven Soderbergh’s movies, but mainly the one’s he’s produced (Michael Clayton, Syriana, and Pleasantville among them) rather than one’s he’s directed (which would include the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Solaris).  He’s directing this one.  Hopefully he’ll do the book justice, and maybe he’ll find a way to make it appealing to more than just you and me.  Hopefully he won’t turn off the rest of the old baseball guard for good.

For now, consider me a skeptic.


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