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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Quick Review: Moneyball

Remember those days when I went to see at least one movie each week, if not more? It's been a while. Back then the Phillies were still winning games. Speaking of baseball, today I went to see "Moneyball." It's based on the Michael Lewis book about Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his use of sabermetrics to put together a competitive roster despite extremely limited financial resources, focusing particularly on the 2002 season. That year the A's, despite losing big names Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen to big-market clubs, won 103 games, including an AL-record 20 straight.

In other words, the stat geeks who are doing their best to ruin the game now have their own movie. And it stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane. So there's been a lot of hype about it in baseball circles as well as the usual places where movies are discussed.

Pitt is fine, but the movie itself doesn't entirely hold up. A lot of scenes -- Beane and his assistant GM (Jonah Hill, whose Peter Brand is either based on Paul DePodesta, the actual assistant GM, or some amalgam of DePodesta, Theo Epstein and possibly others, depending on what you read), going about rebuilding the club, aggravating the old-time scouts, or Beane's clashing with A's manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have snap to them, but to balance it out (or to try to attract people who don't like sports, or women, or something) there are also a few softer scenes featuring Beane and his daughter. These scenes, and the entire ending, in which Beane is wooed by the Red Sox after the 2002 season, drag the film down. And there's some other fictionalization. Trades that actually occurred two months apart are depicted as happening almost simultaneously at the trade deadline.

So the movie, like the concept, is flawed.
The stat geeks would have you believe that there's no such thing as intangibles (such as leadership). It's all about numbers to them. If that's so, why did that magical 2002 team lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Minnesota Twins? Why have the A's still never won a World Series, or even an American League pennant, under Beane? Their answer would be "it's just luck once you make the playoffs." Really? Isn't luck an intangible? And why have the A's not even been in the playoffs since 2006, with an 81-81 record last year their best showing in that time?

The fact is that while statistics can play a part, you still need to identify players with talent, and scouting them and seeing them play in person is as necessary as ever. You need to have a team with good chemistry that doesn't fall apart in tough times. And, yes, you need to spend at least some money. Stat geeks will cite the Boston Red Sox as proof that Moneyball works because their GM, the aforementioned Theo Epstein, is a disciple. They conveniently ignore the fact that the Red Sox spend nearly as much as the Yankees on players every year.

My grade: B-minus. (That's for the movie, not the practice; that I would give a C-minus at an absolute maximum.)

1 comment:

Dan O. said...

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. Check out mine when you get a chance.