Comfortable and Furious

Moneyball Critiques

Moneyball Pitt Hill

Bill James worked on various mathematical models analyzing why some teams win and some do not over much of his life, culminating in his grand opus Bill James Baseball Abstract in 1977. This has since been refined, using statistical analysis he termed sabermetrics in what value a player brings to a given team. Essentially it breaks down the team dynamic into how many runs a person creates based on how many bases they take. Sounds like pretty dry stuff, but his book contains a wealth of fascinating facts and historical anecdotes that dragged baseball into a more scientific area of study. He was once named one of the most influential people in the world, as one statistics aficionado and the general manager he influenced changed the way the game is played and how teams are built. Moneyball is an expertly crafted and surprisingly entertaining demonstration of how this process was applied in the laboratory of the Athletics baseball team. More importantly, it is a dramatization of the triumph of data over gut feelings. No matter what the endeavor, it is only data that will save you. All else is the anarchy of superstition.

Moneyball is a mature film similar to Eight Men Out that regards baseball as a profession and a product first and foremost. There are nods given to the romantic aspects of the game, but at the end of the day, revenues are what matter. Fans are said to worship the players and the team and the august nature of America’s Pastime, but all that they really care about are the wins. The film opens with the playoff game of 2000, when the Yankees using a $144 million team beat the Athletics, a $39 million team. The larger markets, as one would expect, simply outspends the smaller ones. Billy Beane is the losing general manager, and he hates losing. He hates it more than he loves winning, and throughout the film he shies away from being at the stadium or even following the games to avoid hearing any bad news. And he now faces the next season losing his best players to the Yankees who spend as much on Jason Giambi’s contract per year as half his entire club’s budget. This means the man who hates losing must reconcile himself with losing forever unless he finds another way.

Rather than succumbing to an ulcer, he adapts, and finds a kid just out of college who expresses his value for players based on how often they reach base. The entire Athletics club is turned upside down as they acquire players whom nobody wants based solely on how many runs they produce. This brings together a – well, it isn’t a team. They play terribly until many adjustments are made to produce a cohesive product, but it is a product nonetheless. We see virtually nothing of the games, and even less of the players. We spend the majority of our time with video analysis, statistical recreations of batting performance based on pitches to various plate locations, behavioral modification to compel players to wait for a walk rather than strive for hits, and endless spreadsheets to make clear that this is a program driven by data. And when his star first baseman is played by a skeptical manager in place of an inferior looking player with better runs-produced stats, that star is traded. Players are let go or traded with no mercy or attachment.

The film is a cold one, never carried away with the usual beats of a sports underdog film. One sequence of triumph is countered immediately by a downer, lest we get emotional. In one scene they successfully acquire a valuable player, and right away we cut to sending another player down to the minors. The greatest winning streak in baseball by this statistically productive freak show is tempered by a monologue in which Beane’s character makes clear that it is all meaningless. Only the final game of the year matters. Until then, they rely on the stats to guide them. Data has no feelings, and no regard, just cool information. This is its sole aspect and only advantage, but that advantage is total. Still, this is a film actually based in the real world, and there is no romantic ending for Moneyball. Cash is still king at the end of the day, but with Beane’s extraordinary gamble, money is no longer the only monarch on the field.

Moneyball contains enough personal touches to prevent it from seeming too distant a subject. The champions of this new method are above all passionate about the sport, and about the inspiration one feels from a job well done. Beane does not get exactly what he came for – the coda of the film makes clear he got considerably more. The sharp dialogue by Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorokin create an intelligent and often funny story that never gets lost in the mythology of baseball. Winning is never made out to be everything, and life does not stop at the diamond. Otherwise borderline fanatics like Beane would have died long ago. An interesting parallel thread is drawn about Beane the ballplayer; before he worked administration, he was one of the hottest prospects in the nation. And when he was drafted, he stepped to the plate in the majors, and was absolutely crushed by the competition. And for a man who hates to lose, he managed to find another way to live. The themes of adaptation and the power of data are the true stars of Moneyball, and resonate beyond this sport, any sport, and any facet of life.

Also Check another review by Dick