Moneyball (Miller, 2011)

I know that this is supposed to be a classic movie blog, but I went and saw a movie yesterday that I just had to write about afterwards. Part of it is because I’m a sports junkie, always have been, and the other is that I have some personal ties to the subject material.

Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is based on Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball:The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Lewis wrote The Blind Side a few years ago, which was also made into a film. Although Lewis has found success with his sports books, his background is in economics and financial journalism. While Moneyball is just as much about the personalities that made up the 2002 Oakland Athletics front office and clubhouse, it is at it’s core about the traditional ways of evaluating player value, and how young, Ivy-League educated minds with little or no baseball experience were changing the way those evaluations were done.

Baseball has always been a game of numbers. It translates very well. Go look at a box score in the newspaper and you can understand the game it describes perfectly. These numbers have always been around, but the old-school method of scouting new player prospects relies heavily on the trained eye. The goal was to find the “five-tool player,” the one with the great build, good arm, good hitting skills, etc. The solid numbers a good player would put up in a season were simply byproducts of these superior athletes living up to their potential. Well, what about the ones who weren’t, or the diamonds in the rough who were flying under the radar because they weren’t necessarily the whole package?

Obviously, once a player proves his value to a team through his playing skills and production, his monetary value goes up. If you’re a team like the New York Yankees, where money isn’t a problem, that doesn’t really matter. For smaller market teams, it becomes a big issue once their star players are up for a new contract, as they probably can’t afford to keep them. Baseball, unlike other sports, does not have a salary cap, and so owners may decide to spend as much or as little as they please on their teams. Teams like Oakland that are not big spenders lose the players they have developed into stars all the time to those teams that can pay them more money. Thus, a seemingly insurmountable divide is created between the big spenders and smaller money teams in the game.

Moneyball the film follows Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) as he tries to figure out a way to narrow this gap. The film opens with clips from the 2001 American League Division Series, the best of five opening round of the playoffs. The A’s are eliminated by the New York Yankees in Game 5. Worse, three of their star players are up for free agency: First baseman Jason Giambi, outfielder Johnny Damon and closer Jason Isringhausen. Beane knows he can’t offer multi-million dollar contracts to any of these players, and will need to find replacements for them.

On a trip to Cleveland to meet with the Indians about a potential trade, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, playing a character based on Paul DePodesta, assistant GM). Brand is a Yale economics graduate who is basically employed as a numbers-cruncher for the Indians. After talking about the work he does, and how statistics can be used to measure player potential (what has come to be called sabermetrics), Brand is hired by Beane as an assistant.

This creates a divide within the A’s player scouting and development department. Beane insists that this is the new way, that by looking at statistics, especially on-base percentage, they will be able to find players that the rest of the league has overlooked, and therefore will be affordable. The scouts, all old baseball men, are reluctant to buy into this whole idea, arguing that numbers and people with no baseball experience can’t possibly be able to pick out good players. Once Beane gets the players he wants, he still has to convince manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to play them.

The movie is very good about sticking to the human aspect of the story. Whereas the book delves into way more detail about the history and use of sabermetrics, the film is wise to avoid it. It chooses instead to focus on the conflict between old-school and new-school, winning and losing, which are staples of the sports film and are easy for any audience to understand and enjoy. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is smart and funny when it needs to be. They capture the business side of baseball well, one where players are treated as commodities to be bought and sold. One big thing that isn’t discussed at all in the film (and it’s been a while since I read the book, so I don’t know if this was left out of there as well) is the insane pitching staff the A’s had in 2002. Dubbed “The Big Three,” Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson were stumping opposing hitters as much as Beane’s undervalued hitters were getting on base. But again, probably best to stick to one main storyline, and statistical analysis explanation, than fry people’s brains with all of that stuff.

One thing I loved about the movie was that it appealed to me as a baseball fan, but I could tell the entire audience was engaged with it as well, and some were probably not big sports fans. I will admit I was very skeptical when I first heard this was going to be made into a movie, because I didn’t know how well it would translate to the screen. But hats off to Miller and the cast and crew, they pulled it off.

I first read Moneyball during my freshman year of high school, and was thoroughly blown away with it. In sophomore year English, every one had to choose a subject that they would write a 10-15 page research paper on to learn proper MLA style. I choose to write about sabermetrics in baseball. In addition to our book and online sources, we had to include at least one interview with an expert in our chosen field. I interviewed Rob Neyer, a baseball expert for ESPN, and decided that I would try and see if I could get in touch with Michael Lewis.  I was over the moon when he wrote me back and agreed to talk about the book with me. We had an hour long phone conversation, and I am forever grateful that he would take the time out of his day to speak with an interested high schooler for a research project.

I definately recommend seeing the film, and reading the book. The book goes more into the scouting of draft picks and other aspects of the game that the movie chose not to, but is interesting nonetheless. It speaks to Lewis’ talent as a writer to make statistical analysis interesting, and the book is really an engrossing read. Even though I have been a die-hard Angels fan for years (the team that won the 2002 World Series), and therefore kind of hate the A’s, what they were able to accomplish that year with the budget they had was pretty amazing. This film captures the struggle to win when the odds are stacked against you, and that is a timeless film story, no matter what the setting or premise may be.

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