Saturday, September 24, 2011

Moneyball Review

I'm a fan of the Cincinnati Reds, so when I went to see the baseball film Moneyball, I had some knowledge of the material. The movie is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis about Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane. The book itself is based on the statistical theories of Bill James.

Now, Bill James as the movie correctly points out was a security guard at Stokley Van Camp Pork and Beans when he started writing on a different approach on evaluating players. This different approach which he would call sabermetrics emphasized the on base percentage of a player. What that means is how often a player gets on base, either through a hit or walk. Not everything in sabermetrics is that logical or non-controversial. The approach diminishes strikeouts as just another out. But if you strikeout, you can't get a hit or get on with an error. And when James commented that Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson was more lucky than talented, Sparky replied that James was a, "a fat little bearded man who knows nothing about nothing."

Anyway, the movie starts out in 2001. The cash strapped Oakland A's have just lost in the playoffs to the very rich New York Yankees. At the end of the season, the A's will lose three major players to free agency Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and reliever Jason Isringhausen. A's GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) tries to beg for more money from the team's owner for the 2002 season but is turned down. Later he goes to the office of Cleveland Indians to personally engage in trade talks to get players to replace the three. It's there he notices that an Indians executive, Peter Brand, (Jonah Hill) has the ear of the Indians GM. Beane later confronts Brand, who by the way is a fictional character, about how he analyzes players. Brand informs Beane of a new way to analyze players, one that uses particular statistics. Beane hires Brand to assist him in Oakland.

It's at the meeting of A's scouts with Beane and Brand that they challenge baseball's conventional wisdom. In the old ways, goofy things like how pretty a player's girlfriend would come into an evaluation. Now Brand would bring sabermetrics directly into picking players. In a scene reminiscent from the movie Major League (1989) where Vegas showgirl Rachel Phelps picks a bunch of unknowns, Beane and Brand pick a group of pedestrian players to replace stars Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen. And it's just as funny. The biggest unconventional pick is the choice of Scott Hatteberg, a washed up catcher to play first base. The attraction of Hatteberg? He gets on base. But with these radical picks, the A's go on to win 103 games.

Screenplay writers Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) have crafted a story that captures the conflict of philosophies. It's old vs. new. That concept is dramatized extremely well in the fight between Beane and A's manager Art Howe's (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) refusal to play Hatteberg. Director Bennett Miller gives the movie a documentary feel. And thankfully, he stays out of the way of the performances.

And speaking of performances, two stand out. First, I would have thought that Phillip Seymour Hoffman would have been a terrible choice to play manager Art Howe. But he makes Howe believable as self absorbed, conservative and stubborn baseball man. Brad Pitt is now 47. He reminds me of a mature Robert Redford. This film is his best performance to date. He beautifully makes his Beane a confused, stressed and eventually a courageous man. It's a performance that is Oscar worthy.

But if you know anything about baseball, how accurate is Moneyball? Did sabermetrics make the Oakland A's of 2002? And while I can agree with the ideal of having a good on base percentage, there's more to baseball than cold statistics. The most important thing in baseball is pitching. One thing the movie does not reflect is that the A's hit gold when they developed three aces. They were Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The great seasons that the A's had from 2001 to 2003 were due to no small part by the pitching of these three.

Money is still very important in major league baseball. The A's unable to keep pace financially have been not very good from 2007 to the present. One of the funniest lines in this comedy-drama is at the end. The movie ends with the line that the Boston Red Sox won a World Series in 2004 by using sabermetrics. Sort of. The Boston Red Sox had twice the payroll of the A's. (Street and Smith's Baseball 2005 Yearbook, pg. 98) It's money that enables big market teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox to make the playoffs. And the importance of money was readily proved this year. The Milwaukee Brewers spent money to get ace Zack Greineke and solid starting pitcher Shaun Marcum. The result? The Brewers have just won the NL Central Division.

Moneyball is only partially accurate in its view on how to field a winning baseball team. But as a film it does a good job showing a man's struggle to overcome adversity. The grade is B +.

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