Wednesday, February 22, 2012

MONEYBALL (2011): Billy Beane and Baseball Stats

Moneyball would be a decent movie if you didn’t buy into the premise that it’s supposed to be based upon an actual baseball team playing for the pennant.  Billy Beane was the General Manager (GM) for the Oakland Athletics in 2002 when the A’s went 103-59 for the season.  And yes, the A’s dropped the playoffs to the Minnesota Twins.  And the team did have a few players that surprised the league for their performance.  But much of the rest of the film is pure fiction.

This supposed team of ragtag and low salaried underdog players disposed of by other teams and picked up only by Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Assistant GM, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who had a genius for baseball statistics, was put together to somehow compete with the hated New York Yankees.  Except that the Oakland A’s of 2002 also had on their team besides David Justice (Steven Bishop), Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Jermaine Dye, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder – with virtually none of these players recruited through Billy Beane’s “moneyball” scheme or referred to in the movie Moneyball.  By the way, the Assistant GM’s actual name was Paul DePodesta, but Depodesta asked that his name not be used because he in no way resembled the character of Peter Brand - as portrayed in the movie.

The movie is predictable.  Billy Beane decides to implement the new moneybal scheme because he’s tired of losing every year to the Yankees and he understands that his payroll will never compete with that of the Bronx Bombers.  Beane receives an incredible amount of resistance to his new scheme from the baseball scouts in the organization and from the team’s Manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  The team gets off to a slow start, but Beane is determined not to abandon his plan.

Beane resists the pleas of the scouts and of Howe and forces his system upon the organization.  Then the team goes on a roll and manages a 20 game winning streak.  By then everyone becomes a believer in moneyball until the team loses in the American League Divisional Series.  Then the baseball announcers and critics are telling about how you just can’t discard the scouting methods that had been going on in baseball for over a century.

Beane is nevertheless offered a shot at being GM for the Boston Red Sox.  Though he turns the offer down, we are erroneously led to believe that the Red Sox used the moneyball scheme to win their own World Series in 2004.  (I say erroneously because the Red Sox won that series the same way the Yankees had won so many series – by paying large salaries for players.)

If the film Moneyball works it is mainly due to the acting of Brad Pitt.  (I could hardly believe in any of the other characters in the movie including Peter Brand played by Jonah Hill.)  The movie is rather long (133 minutes) but moves well because of the screenplay of Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame and the direction of Bennett Miller.  The movie is probably going to be interesting to individuals with a passing interest in baseball and a more passionate interest in baseball movies. 

While claiming that the moneyball strategy is all about the numbers, Moneyball will especially appeal to filmgoers that do not want to take a close look at what the numbers actually mean.  Nobody that enjoys this movie will actually look up the salaries of the 2002 Oakland Athletics or the 2004 Boston Red Sox.  Nobody will pay too close attention to the good run the Athletics had during the early years following 2000 and the mostly mediocre years that followed during the last half decade while Billy Beane has stayed on as GM.

I don’t even know what to say about what is false concerning the movie other than it’s false like so many other movies.  The film unnecessarily humiliates the manager of the team, Art Howe, and makes one assume he made no major contribution towards a team that won over 100 games that season.  And in truth, Brad Pitt actually looked more like Assistant GM Paul DePodesta than he did Billy Beane.  Jonah Hill was probably called in to play Assistant GM Peter Brand to make him appear more like a lovable loser.

I have the feeling that the screenwriters wanted to make more of a feel good ending to the film by actually having them go on to win the World Series, but that would mean they would have to acknowledge that the film was based on a fictional plot.  Yet having the team lose in the divisional playoffs at least gives the movie an added dose of realism.  Everything else in the film comes together too smoothly for a “true story.”

Moneyball has had its accolades and is probably as good as any other current film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2011.  I’ve long discounted the merit of most films nominated in any case, and I’ve lost further faith due to there now being ten nominees rather than five.  Yet this David vs. Goliath type film would be more convincing if I didn’t feel manipulated by the manufactured facts.

February 22, 2012

© Robert S. Miller, 2012