Friday, January 20, 2012

Catching up with 2011: Moneyball

“Nobody reinvents this game.”
– Joe Morgan, ESPN sportscaster and baseball dinosaur

This quote comes at the end of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball – his adaptation of the highly successful, highly controversial look at the inner-workings of the Billy Beane run Oakland Athletics during the 2002 season from the point of view of author Michael Lewis – a frustratingly mediocre film that gets one thing absolutely right: the dichotomy of the old pro scouts (the dinosaurs who don’t think the game can be re-invented) of baseball versus the new, “geeky” sabermetric system (the kids). If it weren’t for this element – and my general love and enthusiasm for all things nerdy about baseball statistics – there wouldn’t have been much to enjoy about Miller’s prosaic film.

Before we get to the film, though, let’s talk a little about the philosophies at war as they’re discussed in Moneyball. If there’s one thing that truly brought me into the film, it was the front office scenes and the way Miller gets out of the way of himself and lets his fine actors verbally spar. The film was written by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, and Moneyball is definitely a more subdued version of a Sorkin script (now whether that’s due to the efficient, yet boring, Zaillian, or because the based-on-actual-characters don’t talk the way Sorkin writes, I don’t know), yet it didn’t really bother me that the trademark rapid fire Sorkin dialogue was absent from the film. Brad Pitt (who plays Beane) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who plays A’s manager Art Howe) don’t seem like the kind of actors that like to rush through dialogue, so perhaps it would have seemed unnatural for them to do so. Nevertheless, it is their tête-à-têtes that give the film an interesting flavor as being representative of the seismic shift in baseball scouting philosophy that was going on at the time.

In the film Beane – with the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill playing an amalgam of various front office types, but most notably he is playing Paul DePodesta, who would later go on to be the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers for two years, and JP Ricciardi, who would go on to be the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays) – constructs a team whose sole identity and design is to look for wins, not players. By taking certain algorithms (created by Bill James) and finding players that get on base instead of players who simply have the “tools” (great swing, nice looks, great glove, et al) or look the part, a general manager can easily find undervalued players that get on base at a premium. Essentially, you’re looking at quantity that will equal the quality of one star player. Unless one follows baseball closely, I think it’s impossible to convey what a radical idea this was when it was introduced in James’ bible of sabermetics, Baseball Prospectus. Essentially, there were hundreds of players being undervalued because they didn’t come up on the radars of these archaic scouting systems/methods. So, even though Beane wasn’t an innovator in coming up with these algorithms, he certainly deserves the credit in being smart enough to run with it.

Miller (who directed Capote) does a good job of showing that Beane wasn’t the first individual to recognize this plan, though. Mark Shaprio, general manage of the Cleveland Indians, was one of the first people to flirt with this idea. The Boston Red Sox – lest you think sabermetrics and “Moneyball” is only for the small market teams – hired Bill James, and, when Beane turned down their lucrative GM offer (mentioned at the end of the film), went and hired a young, brilliant Ivy League guy with no major league experience in Theo Epstein (who is now with the Cubs in hopes of breaking another curse for a franchise).

And that brings me back to my original point: the quote at the top of the page. Even though I can’t be 100% sure, it really sounded like Joe Morgan who said that quote (and definitely sounds like something he would say) as he proclaims that “Moneyball” simply does not work because you have to get men in scoring position, have clutch hitting, bunt, steal, etc. The problem sabermetric people have with this theory – and one of the great things about the movie – is that, as Beane and Brand explain to their old scouts at their first off-season meeting (one of the best scenes of the film), it’s an inherently flawed theory because you’re essentially giving the other team outs when you bunt; increasing your chance to get out when you steal; and trying to logically explain things like “clutch hitting.” It just doesn’t work within the sabermetric model, yet because it comes from a math/economics background, the scouts with years and years of playing and scouting experience refuse to see its value because it’s coming from outsiders. They don’t agree with Beane’s “adapt or die” mentality – a cogent theme and metaphor that reaches beyond sports. I think this is one of the absolute best elements of the film, and it’s a shame that Miller and co. didn’t stick with this idea throughout the film (probably not marketable enough, though) because the other aspects of the film – Beane as a failed “can’t miss prospect,” Beane as family man, etc. – just didn’t do anything for me. Instead, the studio and its director are content appealing to the awards crowd and creating a blasé and pedestrian sports film.

It’s not the actors fault, though. Pitt does the best he can despite his director’s complete lack of understanding on how to make consecutive scenes interesting. Art Howe – definitely an old timer but treated pretty rough in the film – is painted in too broad a brush despite Hoffman trying his hardest to make him into a complex character who feels like he’s being sabotaged by his general manager in the last year of his contract. There’s a brief moment away from the front offices (the scenes that work) that actually does work: Beane and his daughter are shopping for guitars, and his daughter finds the perfect one, sits down, and begins strumming. At first, she merely hums a tune, but Beane, ever the over-reaching weekend father, convinces her to sing for him. The song she sings is too on-point, sure I concede that, but regardless, it’s a nice little poignant scene that clearly explains the inner conflict of Beane.

I understand that in order to make a film that will engage people – not to mention rake in the awards – you have to try and humanize a character. It’s, just, I think I would have preferred a no-nonsense approach to the material – an approach that seems wholly appropriate for a film dealing with general manager of a sports team who decided to look at his players as statistics instead of people. Now, I get it that the flashbacks are there to show us that Beane is not your average GM in that he did play – and was signed right out of high school in the first round to the Mets – and bounce around from team to team who all thought they could fix this “toolsy” player that just wasn’t working out. Yes, those moments allow us to see Beane as a guy who can simultaneously cut/trade players and yet relate to them as an ex-ball player. I just wish the film had a little more of an edge to it with the whole traditional scouting versus sabermetrics theme, and the uphill battle Beane had in trying to implement his plan.

I’m at about 1,000 words and I feel like I haven’t really talked a ton about the technical aspects of the movie – but that’s because Miller just isn’t an interesting enough director to warrant anything more than mere admiration for the way he tackles the subject and gets out of the way of his actors. A clearer distinction between the Bill James’ and the Joe Morgan’s or Tim McCarver’s would have been a much more interesting film for this baseball fan. Still, it’s an interesting mainstream look at why sabermetrics works. Sure, it may not have worked in Oakland in getting them a World Series championship, but it worked in bringing excitement to a team that had lost three of its most talented and popular players the year before.

There’s an interesting moment in the film when the A’s are losing badly to start the year. Every sportscaster – from the idiotic Morgan to the annoyingly smug Bob Costas – rants and raves about why this is precisely why you can’t re-invent the game and that Art Howe – the manager – is not to blame (even though he was a stubborn dinosaur who refused to play the right players) because he wasn’t given the players to succeed. Yet, on any other team when the team is losing as badly as the A’s were the manager (the most overrated person in deciding the outcome of a game in all of sports) is always to blame. Flash forward to “the streak” (when the A’s broke the American League record for consecutive games won with 20) and now all of these same people are saying what a great manager Howe is because his team (after some great trades by Beane to get rid of the players Howe so stubbornly continued to play) without giving any credit to Beane. And that is what is so hilariously frustrating about the game of baseball and its roots in traditions: The new school of thinking simply can’t win – oh sure there definitely has been progress in terms of sites like Fangraphs* and the way writers are beginning to vote on awards beyond the basic, more random, statistics like win/loss record and ERA – because it’s always labeled as a fluke (Costas, again, says this in the film when talking about the A’s will break the win streak record and talk about how lucky there were; however, I guarantee if it were a different team designed a different way, the song would not be the same from Costas) perpetrated by nerds with calculators who never played the game.

The threat to the old way of understanding how baseball can be done is the most interesting conflict of Moneyball, and it’s only there for about half of the movie. It’s an uneven movie with some great moments interspliced here and there (mostly taking place in the front office) and some equally great performances from Pitt, Hoffman, and Hill. It would have been interesting to see what this movie could have been had it not had such a problematic production which ultimately led to the film ending up in the hands of Miller. Steven Soderbergh wanted to make the film, back in 2007, more of a hybrid using real players as actors in the film and using interviews throughout as well; that, to me, sounds more interesting, but Sony balked at this approach to make a non-traditional sports movie (which would have been appropriate considering the source material) and instead passed the movie on to Miller. It’s a shame. The potential was there for Moneyball to earn its spot on all those year-end lists I’ve been seeing it on, but there’s just not enough here to warrant more than faint enthusiasm.

*If you were at all interested in the front office/sabermetric stuff in the film, I highly recommend Fangraphs for your daily baseball reading. It’s a fantastic site that looks at the game through the same theories (now evolved since the writing of “Moneyball”) introduced by Bill James, DePodesta, and others. It’s fun to see all of the formulas they use to figure out player value. Check it out; it’s easily my favorite baseball site.


  1. It may not feel quite like the classic baseball movie others have achieved, but it’s certainly pleasant enough to be enjoyable even by non-sports fan, and features great performances from Hill and Pitt. Good review Hugo.

  2. Nice job, man. Yeah, this movie hit us the same way. A few thoughts ...

    * I love the scene with the daughter singing, even though it's on-the-nose. And yet at the same time, the daughter thing drives me crazy because throughout the entire film it feels like a get-out-of-jail-free card. It's the screenwriters' way of making Beane a hero when he turns down the Boston job, so that people don't go, "Wait, where's the happy ending!? He should take the big job! This blows!"

    * The Beane flashbacks are equally problematic. The best part about them is that they show that Beane is intimately aware that "tools" evaluations of players are problematic. But, much like the stuff with the daughter, the rest of it feels too Screenwriting 101, building a motivation for Beane and a deep need to prove himself, as if he couldn't want to win and prove himself just cuz.

    * Craig Simpson pointed out the irony that I missed: that the standoff between Beane and Howe about Hatteberg about whether he should start or come off the bench is undercut by the fact that Hatteberg's "big moment" is in a pinch hitting role ... off the bench. So, if you think about it, the scene is actually a tribute to Howe as much as Beane. Oops.

    * We've already discussed this, but it feels a little slimy the way the movie repeats the sins of Lewis and ignores the studly pitching staff and, oh, hey, MVP Miguel Tejada -- all of it talent that wasn't high-priced yet but played like it.

    * It's an enjoyable movie. I certainly don't hate it. But it does strike me as one of those movies that got a lot of attention when it first came out that will be forgotten by this time next year. Of course, the same thing happens to even better films. So it goes ...

  3. Jason:

    The scene with his daughter in the guitar shop is a great, isolated moments, but it does ring false when considered within the context of the movie.

    I like what you say about the flashbacks feeling very "Screenwriter 101" in their attempts to get the audience to see Beane as someone who has something to prove. Here's a man who had a full ride offer to Stanford and turned it down, got paid a lot of money coming out of high school, bounced around from major league team to major league team, and then had success as a scout and then GM. There's nothing exactly tragic about this guys life that makes me really want to get behind him and root for his success. Most of my rooting interest in the film is for the progressive ideas butting heads with the "time-tested" methods.

    One of the problems with Lewis' book is, as you said, that he focuses too much on moves of Hatteberg, Justice, and Bradford. It's true that A's -- despite their low payroll -- were not a bad team that surprised people, yet that's what Bennett's film often felt like (especially when it shows them losing to the Twins, an equally small market team with notoriously cheap ownership). Here's a team that clearly had the best 1-3 starting pitching since those 90s Braves teams and a SS who was an MVP candidate (not to mention a 3B that was well above league average at that point in Chavez and a good OF in Jermaine Dye).

    There's a lot of small market teams that have done better than the A's (the Marlins, obviously, winning two WS is an example...and then they go and sell off their team and rebuild...and the Rays are the best example of this recently) through the draft and scouting -- and that's what I wish the movie would have focused more on. Not just the offseason pick-ups, but the full extent of how teams are constructed. Beane was good in the draft, and I think that would have been an interesting part of the film for non-sports fans to see how much work goes into constructing a MLB team.

    The philosophy of "moneyball" gave Beane a way to decrease the risk when signing undervalued free agents, and that's a great story, but I also would have liked to see how "moneyball" allowed him to outsmart people in the draft which led to the A's ability to reload their roster year-in-year-out after they would lose their star players who were asking for too much money. That's the more interesting conflict to me.

    I'm with ya all the way: it's a movie I like, but I doubt I'll be remembering even six months from now.

    Thanks for stopping by, Jason!

  4. The "idiotic" Joe Morgan? One should have a better built home before tossing such rocks.