Screening Room and Sport

The Joys and Compromises of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball

By posted at 6:00 am on September 30, 2011 2

coverIt would be difficult to overstate the ambivalence I felt toward the looming release of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, the new movie about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. Take whatever it is that’s important to you – knitting, perhaps, or mountain biking – and then imagine waiting for a feature film about it. Would you be excited or nervous? Or a mix of both? Or would you simply be dreading how Hollywood would manage to fuck up your passion? I’d wondered what an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball would be like ever since the film went into development…eight years ago. Would they be able to translate the plot, in so far as there is one, to the screen? Or would Moneyball be based on the book in the same way that Syriana was “inspired by” Robert Baer’s See No Evil, an adaptation in name only (So much so that Syriana was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars)?

By the time of the film’s release, I had overcome enough of my anxiety to be firmly in the excited camp. No matter how bad the movie was, at least I’d get to laugh at idiots like Joe Morgan for two hours, right? Before the screening, when my wife and I were standing in the concessions line, she asked me what kind of candy I wanted. “Are you kidding?” I said. “We’re about to watch a movie about advanced statistical analysis in baseball. Get whatever you want.”

We weren’t, of course, about to watch a movie about sabrmetrics — the use of advanced statistical analysis to evaluate baseball players and teams — and how the cash-strapped Oakland A’s used it to remain competitive with free-spending teams like the New York Yankees. A part of me knew that going in; such a movie would bore 99.9 percent of the audience and probably infuriate the remaining tenth of a percent. No, the filmmakers had to do something to make a more cinematic story of Lewis’s 2003 book. The question was not would the movie differ from the book, but how.

Moneyball is the story of an idea. The thesis of the book is that major league baseball teams had long ignored valuable statistical information about their players, relying instead on eye-witness evaluation by seasoned scouts. These scouts used observation and intuition to identify the best players (For example, one scout in the film claims a player is no good because his girlfriend isn’t attractive enough. “He’s got an ugly girlfriend. An ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”). As one might expect from such an unscientific method, it produced variable results. One of the players traditional scouting misidentified as a future star was none other than Billy Beane, who fizzled out after a mediocre major league career. All of this led to an inefficient market in baseball talent. Some players were radically undervalued, while others earned much more money than they deserved. Operating from a position of financial weakness, Billy Beane and his Oakland A’s bucked traditional scouting methods and employed deep statistical analysis to find the undervalued players they could afford.

To build a movie out of a book about an idea, the filmmakers made several important compromises. First, they decided to narrow the scope of their film to Billy Beane. Interlacing Beane’s backstory with the primary narrative of building a team from the scrap heap of unwanted players was a brilliant choice, as it provided a psychological motivation for his skepticism of traditional baseball scouting. From the very beginning, we see Beane’s doubt come to the fore. “If he’s such a good hitter, how come he doesn’t hit good?” he asks his scouts. “You keep giving me the same ‘good face’ nonsense like we’re selling jeans here.” He challenges Peter Brand (the stand-in for A’s Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, who refused to allow his name to be used in the film): “Would you have drafted me in the first round?” It’s obvious what answer Beane’s hoping for, and when he gets it, an odd couple is created — the athletic Beane (played by demigod Brad Pitt) and the, well, not-so-athletic Brand (a not-yet-thin Jonah Hill). Beane plays Galileo — the lone voice of rationality in a world that worships superstition– and Hill is, I don’t know…Galileo’s assistant?

The pairing works because it plays to each actor’s strengths — Pitt’s arrogance is tempered by his sense of humor and creates a fairly convincing portrait of a man obsessed with being right. Hill, for his part, stammers and blinks his way through awkward scene after awkward scene, his comedic timing stealing many of them. Good casting also helps the film eke every ounce of goodness out of the story of Scott Hatteberg, the one-time catcher whose career appears to be over after a freak nerve injury. Hatteberg, played by loveable oaf Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation), sees his career resurrected by Beane and Brand, who value his innate ability to do the single most important thing in baseball — get on base. Pratt isn’t given much screen-time to work with, but he makes the most of it, giving soul to a character who might have easily been overlooked.

The other major compromise the filmmakers settled on is significantly less successful. A major reason for Oakland’s success in the early 2000s was their dominant starting pitching. Blessed with “The Big Three” – Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito – three of the best pitchers in the game, Oakland was able to count on a solid performance from its starting pitching three out of every five games. For instance, during the 2002 season depicted in the film, the A’s got roughly 685 innings of all star-caliber pitching from The Big Three alone, including 230 innings from Cy Young-winner and singer-songwriter Barry Zito (The late Cory Lidle was no slouch himself, contributing nearly 200 above-average innings, as well). Without these contributions, no number of walks would’ve mattered. Leaving these players out of the film is a bit like filming the New Testament and never mentioning that Jesus fellow.

And yet, the words “Hudson,” “Mulder,” and “Zito” are never uttered in the film. The only pitchers given any screen-time are relievers Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon. Bradford, whose bizarre throwing motion was so off-putting it disguised his extraordinary abilities as a relief pitcher, is a central part of Lewis’s book. In the film, he gets a 10 second mention early in the film, and then a condescending scene that plays his religiosity for laughs. It seems that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to handle more stats, and so they chose simply to focus on the offensive side of things, and hammer home the mantra of “get on base.” This might very well have been necessary for storytelling’s sake, but it means providing a skewed version of events. Scott Hatteberg had a fine year, especially when judged against his salary, but his 136 games of 116 OPS+ play was hardly the reason Oakland challenged for the pennant in 2002. Ironically, Moneyball may have succumbed to the casual baseball fan’s long-standing bias in favor of offense and position players.

More troubling, in my opinion, is the lack of depth with which the film explores the various “moneyball” principles that Beane employs. It’s all well and good to talk about getting on base, but why? Why is it important to get on base? Sure, you score more runs, and yes, you burn out the other team’s pitching staff, but the real reason is that you simply aren’t making outs. As Beane says at one point, “Why bother attacking? There’s no clock in this game.” Outs are the clock in baseball, and if you don’t make them, you can live forever. Likewise, if your pitchers get people out, you don’t much care whether they are throwing 100 miles per hour or using a herky-jerky delivery to do so. The reason Chad Bradford, with his funky underhanded pitching motion, got batters out was because he made the batter hit the ball on the ground. It’s very difficult to hit the ball over the fence when you’re hitting it on the ground (In fact, it’s impossible). But you’d never know that from watching the movie. Moneyball gets at the why of Oakland’s success without ever really examining the how.

Of course, from the average moviegoer’s perspective, I don’t think it makes much of a difference. The basic tenets of the sabrmetric philosophy are clearly presented in the film, and while it’s sometimes a bit broad, the movie does a remarkable job of dramatizing the concepts. The sins of the film – such as giving Beane too much credit for his strategy (Other GMs, including Sandy Alderson and even Branch Rickey, the legendary GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals, studied statistics as part of their evaluation methods) –are often those of the book, as well (and I would argue that Pitt’s performance does more to show Beane’s arrogance than Lewis’s somewhat rose-colored portrait does). The major argument against Moneyball has always been that Beane failed to win the World Series (or any other post-season series, for that matter). This is where the film truly shines, in my opinion, as the drama is not so much whether the A’s will win the World Series, but whether Beane and Brand’s crazy idea will work.

The idea does work, as demonstrated in the chapter of the book called “The Speed of the Idea.” This chapter produced my favorite scene in the film. Beane, after a remarkable season, is summoned to Boston to meet with the new owner of the Red Sox, billionaire hedge fund manager John Henry. Henry is enamored with Beane’s strategies and wants to hire him. Oakland has offered Beane a new contract, though, one Beane would be happy to accept. Henry asks Beane why he even bothered to come to the meeting then. “Because you hired Bill James, for one thing,” he replies. James, the patron saint of statistical baseball study, had never had a job in the game before Henry decided to give him one; he was too hated. This gives Henry an excuse to explain to Beane that whenever a new idea threatens the status quo — whether that’s in government, business, or sports — those in power fight it tooth and nail. What choice do they have? Their livelihoods are at stake. “Anybody not out there right now remaking their team with your principles is done. They’re dinosaurs,” Henry says.

Watching this scene in the theater, I found myself thinking not of baseball, but of another spectacularly inefficient industry that’s close to my heart — the publishing business. For the past two centuries, publishers have relied primarily on that most ephemeral and unscientific of qualities, editors’ taste, to decide which books to spend their money on and which books to decline. Their results are not much better than the scouts Beane summarily dismisses in Moneyball (Though, presumably, with less chewing tobacco). In a recent Vanity Fair article about the publishing industry, Keith Gessen writes: “If it is the writer’s first book, and she has no sales track, you can come up with similar-seeming books (“comp titles”) and see how many copies those sold. But this is precision masquerading as insight. No two books are the same book, and no two authors are the same author. The fact is: no one has any idea how many copies of a book will sell.” With that in mind, how long will it be before the Billy Beane of the publishing world finds a better way? After all, “We’re not selling jeans here.”

Selling jeans or not, if you pay to see a sports movie you expect to see some sweat. It’s telling that the most physical exertion we see is not on the field but in the weight room, as Billy Beane prefers to pump iron in the bowels of the Oakland Coliseum rather than watch his team play. I found myself wondering at one point whether this was much of a sports movie at all. In the end, I decided it must be, since it looked a lot like Friday Night Lights — tortured close-ups, jittery hand-held camerawork, sports talk radio overlays, silenced crowd shots, and Explosions in the Sky-esque soundtrack. If Hoosiers were remade today (Note to Hollywood: Don’t get any funny ideas.), it would look a lot like this.

In the end, Moneyball isn’t Syriana. In fact, it has more in common with another adaptation of recent years – The Social Network. Both are compelling dramas about recent history that are probably better considered fiction than nonfiction. Still, I must admit that I felt something special while watching Moneyball. True, it didn’t cover everything I wanted it to (There wasn’t, for instance, any mention of Beane’s Ahab-like quest to acquire Mexican on-base machine Erubiel Durazo, and there was apparently no time to work in a vignette about the great challenge trade of Billy Koch for Keith Foulke), but it was still a rare thrill to watch a movie about a subject I cared about and to see it rendered with love and humor. We should all be so lucky.





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2 Responses to “The Joys and Compromises of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball”

  1. Ben
    at 6:22 pm on September 30, 2011

    Great write-up. Much better than The New Yorker’s take: Oakland didn’t win the World Series, therefore the movie, Oakland, and Beane aren’t worthy of a movie or the critic’s time. (wanking motion)

    There was a lot missing, as you made clear, but it was watchable and interesting and felt important somehow. So much more enjoyable than I expected.

  2. Catie
    at 12:19 pm on October 1, 2011

    As a casual baseball fan who knows nothing about baseball statistics, I didn’t see the gaps in the Billy Beane/statistical analysis parts of the story – though I did spend a little bit of time wondering what the starting pitchers were doing. I spent a little bit of time wondering if the moral of the statistical story was going to be: it doesn’t matter how many runs you score if you can’t stop the other team from scoring more runs than you. I guess the A’s didn’t have to worry so much about defense that year.

    I think Moneyball qualifies as a sports movie because although there wasn’t much gameplay, they scenes that were there were well executed. The stakes felt real, in fact, the gameplay scenes had the tension of a real game.

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