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Moneyball Cooks the Books

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.