Moneyball Cooks the Books
September 23, 2011 - 12:10 am
Moneyball is a highly polished piece of entertainment that knows how to please an audience. Does it matter if this movie is essentially wrong?
Based on the celebrated bestseller by Michael Lewis, the film is a diluted version of The Social Network – a tale of a misfit who hit it big by bucking the system. But picture a Social Network that was made by people who actually liked their subject — liked him so much they hired Brad Pitt to play him.
Pitt is Billy Beane, the (now-legendary) general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team during the glory years when they won so many World Series titles — in the early 2000s.
Except the A’s haven’t won any World Series lately. Or even made it to the World Series. That is a problem for this film, which instead uses as its climactic moment an (ultimately trivial) 20-game winning streak the team enjoyed in 2002. That glorious season came after Beane, whose small-market team had a budget roughly one-fourth the size of that of the best-funded one, the New York Yankees, lost three of his best players to free agency and then, seemingly in a fit of pique, traded away a couple of key starting players in midseason.
Beane is a perfect character for this moment — he’s portrayed as being ruthlessly empirical, technocratic, concerned with results instead of the appearances that obsess his staff of old-time baseball scouts and their avatar, the team’s recalcitrant, traditionalist manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Pitt’s Beane is also one of the few bosses in the history of movies who is portrayed as doing the brave, smart, and proper thing every time he fires or demotes one of his workers.
His partner as he bucks the system is a nerdy Yale graduate, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, in straight-man mode), an economics graduate and budding genius who teaches Beane about how to analyze players using raw number-crunching. A great level of detail about these numbers is in Lewis’s book, but the big-screen version (directed by Bennett Miller, who previously made Capote) is almost devoid of stats. What we learn about Beane and Brant’s newfangled way of looking at baseball is that some players are worth much more or less than their apparent market value, that a walk is as good as a hit, and that bunting and base-stealing are bad ideas.
Beane says he wants not just for the A’s to win but to “change the game,” and the movie makes it clear that he at least succeeds in this latter goal. But did he? Moneyball is about rigorous facts, so it wouldn’t want us to be so sentimental as to say that, because the A’s made the playoffs five times under Beane’s system, they’re a great team or even an above-average one. This year will mark their fifth straight year of missing the playoffs in a system in which almost thirty percent of the teams make it to the postseason.
The movie’s argument — that the A’s did things no other team was doing and vastly outperformed expectations because of it — is hampered by the fact that toward the end of the story the A’s are shown being eliminated from the 2002 playoffs by the Minnesota Twins, a team with a virtually identical budget. (The A’s payroll was third lowest in the league that year; the Twins were a single notch up). The movie also says that the Boston Red Sox borrowed Beane’s techniques, hired the Beane-like stats guru Bill James, and rode them to a World Series title in 2004. But that Red Sox team spent hugely, with a payroll that dwarfed that of every team save one (the Yankees, who annually top the charts in player compensation). If the Sox are so “Moneyball,” then why are they this year virtually tied with the Tampa Bay Rays, whose payroll is one-fourth of Boston’s? If Moneyball were correct, the Sox’ combination of wealth and superior insight should make this no contest.
Moreover, the Hill character is based on Paul DePodesta, who far from being a game-changer has bounced from the Dodgers, who had one winning and one losing season while he was there, to the Padres, who were an average team while he was there, to the Mets, who have compiled one losing season since his arrival last year.
Moneyball cheers on lovable losers picked by Beane such as A’s first baseman Scott Hatteberg, who did indeed turn out to be better than anyone but Beane predicted, but Beane-favored catcher Jeremy Brown (who appears at the end of the movie and is a memorable presence in the book) earned himself five games in the big leagues. Ultimately baseball is about spotting talent, and Beane’s record is mixed on this point.
Amusing though it is, Moneyball is guilty of the same sins it ascribes to poor, fat Art Howe and the crusty veteran scouts who are mercilessly lampooned as being idiots who sit around telling each other about how the ball “explodes off the bat” of a hitter whose stats prove to Beane that he can’t play. The movie is simplistic, it’s superficial, it’s dismissive, and it relies on a cliché — that the bold, rude young rebel is necessarily smarter than the stodgy and experienced old hand.