Instant Nostalgia

Somewhere as a kid I used to sit there and figure out the on-base percentage of my fave players. This is way before I was introduced to Bill James. It came about because I made the observation that a guy who walked with 2 outs and then came home on a homerun was more valuable than the non-credit in the Batting Average that would represent.

Fast forward many years, and I was handed the Baseball Abstracts by Bill James, from a guy who was totally delighted to find I was interested in drawing walks and hitting for power on a team of weekend warriors. I’ve been a lurker over at Baseball Think Factory since the days it was called the Primer, and I’ve absorbed as much of the advanced metrics as I can find. Sabermetrics is a wonderful area of scholarship if one can understand the simple premise that the traditional baseball stats don’t capture the whole story.

Michael Lewis’ ‘Moneyball’ came out at exactly the moment when sabermetrics and its advanced stats were being picked up by the mainstream media and caused a furor; it was more or less a book that was pitched like a high, inside fastball. Nobody thought it could make a good movie – but amazingly Brad Pitt has staked his clout and persisted with it. In some ways it’s amazing that it got made, but then it took a superstar like Brad Pitt to want to do it. Sometimes that’s all it takes, and in some ways, it is everything you need to get a big movie up.

What’s Good About It

The film is interestingly prosaic and discursive for a subject that is given to romanticism. In that sense, the film is just as dispassionate in its narrative as Michael Lewis was in his explications in the book. The cinematography has a rough and ready look which brings to life beautiful renderings of real locations; and if anything is reminiscent of the starkness of ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’. The shooting style is also understated with nary a moment of glossy, over worked establishing shots. It’s a very sharp film that tells a very sharp story.

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane is amusing as well as compassionate. It’s passable enough that the performance can evoke the real Billy Beane in every one of these scenes, real and created for this movie. The biggest challenge was actually on the shoulders of Jonah Hill (Mr. Superbad) to tone down his usual bumbling fat guy schtick and play a fictional foil to Beane’s largely intellectual concerns. He’s certainly no Paul Depodesta, but the difference allows us to watch the film as fiction-loosely-based-on-fact than as a docudrama.

The casting is great, although Philip Seymour Hoffman (as much as I love his stuff) was probably just not right for Art Howe. The point of Art Howe in the book was that he looked like a skipper more than he contributed anything. Art Howe has since gone on the record saying the portrayal was more betrayal and unfair and you can see his point. Art Howe didn’t resist Beane’s moves out of resistance to the new ideas; he simply didn’t get that they were new ideas or where they were coming from. So he wasn’t Joe Morgan; he was more a buffoon. And you would get upset if you got likened to a Joe Morgan-like anti-intellectual loud mouth.

Plus, Royce Clayton plays Miguel Tejada, which is just awesome. Royce Clayton of course didn’t played himself in ‘The Rookie’ about when he got struck out by Jim Morris as played by Dennis Quaid.

What’s Bad About it

It was going to be impossible to do the whole book, but some of the things are out of balance. The 20 game winning streak was awesome, but it hardly proved that Beane was right any more than the post-season failure that year proved he was wrong. (It’s called small sample size – any team could do anything in a month, just as a player could do anything in 60 plate appearances) The whole scouting for the draft got dropped in favour of telling the Major league club stories, but in some ways the most interesting lessons are in the 2003 draft.

I have quibbles but they are minor. I can understand the choices they made, and in telescoping the book into a movie, they’ve had to skip the more abstruse aspects of sabermetric analysis. It’s not a major bad, but it’s not a good thing for me.

What’s Interesting About it

O where does one start?!

This might be the first baseball movie that doesn’t end with a winning moment. The end credits trail out with a song about Beane being a loser and a postscript that his A’s are yet to win the World Series. Its closest meme might be revenge of the nerds but I don’t think that that is the point of the narrative – that the thinking types beat out the sports jock traditionalists. What the film does is in its own way illustrate the distance traveled by the public consciousness about baseball in the 10years between the 2001 playoffs and the 2011 release of the film.

Back in 2001, OBP was such a stand out stat that it necessitated the elevation of Scott Hatteburg as much as it over-emphasised the value of Jason Giambi. Because defensive stats were still in their early phase, nobody put real stock in them, while OBP was as tangible a benefit as they came. Yes, Jason Giambi’s bat was great, but he gave back a lot of runs in the field. In the 10years since, we’ve come to appreciate such notions as the marginal win and what that costs. We understand the strengths of various projection systems as well as the limitations; we now know more about batting averages on balls in play and to what extent that belongs to the batter who has hit line-drives and speed than the defense behind the pitcher.

And they’re just the baseball things. Since the book came out, the Moneyball concept has been taken up by Hollywood itself as they try to wrestle with the idea of which stars are worth the millions being paid and which ones are not.

Brad Pitt’s ‘Blind Side’?

There’s a popular opinion out there that this could be Brad Pitt’s answer to Sandra Bullock’s ‘The Blind Side’. Both are sports movies about nurturing talent, but also both are based on excellent books by Michael Lewis. They’re like book-matched movies where one covers Football, this one covers Baseball; the other features Sandra Bullock as a foster mother, this one features Brad Pitt playing a divorcee father trying to stay in his daughter’s life.

The problem – if such a thing is a problem (it sure isn’t for me) – is that this film isn’t so much heart-warming as ‘The Blind Side’ was, but more Brain-warming. The feverish intellectual excitement of the book is what is at the heart of this film, so I don’t know if it’s going to be enough to move the voting Academy members, who are in my humble opinion, always decidedly un-cerebral when it comes to movies.

I don’t know if Brad Pitt deserves an Oscar for this. I don’t know how such things come to be. Plenty of undeserving people have won them over the years. Should Brad Pitt get one, one of these years? Possibly. Should he get it for this film? That one’s stronger than just a maybe. It’s just so hard to tell with these things. The problem with stars being cast is you just can’t get around the fact that you’re always aware that you’re watching the star. It’s an interesting film that way, in that you’re made to wonder what kind of performance a star should put in to win an Oscar. No wonder they hand them out to stars who wear the ugly makeup.

Billy Beane As Unbeliever In Baseball

The character of Billy Beane is fascinating exactly because he is looking at baseball as both a business and a game from the inside, but with the eyes of an outsider. His failures as a player earmark the reasons for his decisions on many a player. In the book, it is stated that he picks players who are unlike himself in temperament because he believes his temperament contributed greatly to his frustrating non-career as a player.

In the film, this gives rise to a beautiful irony when Peter Brand shows Billy the footage of Jeremy Brown, a fat catcher who stumbles and slips having rounded first, only to discover he’s hit a homerun. The deep romanticism of baseball manifests itself for Billy, but Billy himself is largely a victim of that projected romanticism. His own cross, his suffering comes mostly in part from his experiences of other people projecting expectations on to him. It crippled him as a player, and he is unable to watch his own team play. The pent-up frustration of a man with a mission is palpable and fascinating.

The central myth of baseball is how important it is in the wider culture. Billy Beane in both the book and the film portrayed by Brad Pitt casts a great big stone at the myth, but at the same time affirms the myth by having such an interesting part in it. For every traditionalist baseball fan that hates sabermetrics, there’s a sabermetrically inclined fan who reveres Billy Beane’s A’s. That kind of irony is delicious to watch in a film.

Does ‘Moneyball’ Really Work?

There are in fact many ways to approach any kind of market. The way that Billy Beane and the A’s take in the book and movie is to quantitatively analyze players and find who is being under-valued by the market. The fundamental assumption implicit in this is that the market misjudges the value of players all the time, and this is made very explicit in the movie. To tell you the truth, I’m not so convinced that valuing players diverge as greatly as implied in the film. For instance, we all know that Albert Pujols is likely one of the top3 best hitters in baseball, and we knew that the likes of Barry Bonds and A-Rod were the ones keeping him company. It’s actually the players that you try to decipher values for from rank 100 down that people’s perception and opinions begin to diverge.

You can test this out in any fantasy draft. Nobody drafts a surprise player in the first 3-5rounds in a draft. It’s after the 5th round or so that people start surprising you with the dark horse choices. So on the one hand, there probably is a better way to collect the players on your team to fill out the roster but you actually need to have your superstars in place. If anything, I think the benefits of shrewd analysis in finding unloved gems in any market is overstated.

Historically speaking, the other 30 teams have incorporated quantitative analysis as part of their arsenal of tools so clearly Billy Beane has lost that advantage already in the years since the release of ‘Moneyball’. It’s hard to say if he’s been able to find a new inefficiency in the market.

Other Lessons From ‘Moneyball’

The more subtle lesson to be drawn from ‘Moneyball’ is in how to assemble a group of people for a team. One of the choices taken away from Billy Beane is that of paying big money for a free agent star player. In fact, his is a position to lose his star players more than getting any. This situation actually applies to many small companies in various fields, and the best lesson I can relate is that the equivalent of the draft – recruiting junior staff – becomes extremely crucial. You want your young staff to grow up and grow into their roles within the company. It feels a bit risky, but it’s not. It’s more risky to get the equivalent of that ‘star player signing’, and have some veteran screw up your roster.

From my own experience, I can say this: it’s more rewarding for the organisation to build teams from the ground up than to build them around stars you inherit.


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Filed under Baseball, Cinema, Film, Movies

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