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I accompanied Starpulse.com writer Evan Crean to a Sept. 7 press screening of “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Moneyball: the Art of Winning an Unfair Game is one of my favorite sports books, and I was eager to see how a book that mixes the history of sabermetrics – baseball’s statistics-based evaluation method – with a year-in-the-life look at Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and the 2002 season would translate on the screen.
The answer: not all that well.
“Moneyball” moves incredibly slowly, crawling through dialogue scenes. That’s especially infuriating considering the script was written by Aaron Sorkin, writer of “SportsNight,” “The West Wing,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “The Social Network,” among others. Sorkin’s dialogue works best when it’s quick-paced and self-referential to the point of almost being cyclical:
For some reason, every dialogue scene in “Moneyball” begins and ends with extended periods of people staring at each other. They don’t talk. They don’t communicate non-verbally. They rarely emote in any way. They just look at each other. Cutting these moments would have taken 15 minutes off a 133-minute film.
Adding to the length is a completely unnecessary (albeit historically factual) epilogue in which Beane is offered the highest-paying GM job in history to join the Red Sox and, Beane (insanely) turns it down. The ending following that scene is not nearly satisfying enough to justify that scene being anything more than a caption or two at the end.
“Moneyball” characterizes Beane in the best possible light. Pitt does a fine job playing a man who tries a new approach to baseball because he logically can’t find a way to make the so-called “five tools” evaluation method work when richer teams can steal his best players. The Beane in Michael Lewis’ book is as shrewd as Pitt’s is, but also far crazier.
The seminal scene in the book is one in which Beane desperately tries to force his way into an Expos-Red Sox trade so he can force the Red Sox to give him then-minor-league player Kevin Youkilis. The Expos don’t go for it (obviously). That scene is nowhere to be found in the movie, replaced by a far craftier move in which Beane purposefully gives up one of his own less-useful relievers to lower interest in a more-useful reliever he wants from another team.
The movie also portrays Beane as a man betrayed by the MLB player development system. The Mets offered him a huge contract provided he pass on a full ride to Stanford, Beane took it but never achieved the baseball superstardom the Mets assured him he would. Was Beane screwed over? Probably. Could Beane simply be a head case that no evaluation system would have caught? Also, probably. And seeing the mania of the grown-up Beane in the book shows that in a way the movie does not.
Regarding the rest of the cast, Philip Seymour Hoffman is wasted as manager Art Howe, another role composed mostly of staring, with a few drawn-out conversations for good measure. Jonah Hill stifles his explosive comedic side to play baseball-newcomer and tech-wizard Peter Brand, a far more wishy-washy version of Paul DePodesta, current Mets VP of player development and the man Brand’s character was based on.
Chris Pratt shines as Scott Hatteburg, injured catcher turned unlikely first baseman, capturing the sadness that accompanies career-ending injuries and the desperate hope that drives players to try anything just to stay in the game a bit longer.
The funniest lines come from Brent Jennings as Ron Washington, infield and first base coach. His scenes with Pitt and Pratt are the only ones in which Sorkin’s witty dialogue really delivers.
“Moneyball” succeeds at one thing the book did not: depicting the hostility with which the baseball world reacted to Beane’s new evaluation method. Pitt’s scenes with the scouting department – especially Grady Fuson, played by Ken Medlock – capture exactly how unwilling baseball had been to embrace sabermetrics.
Since “Moneyball,” however, most teams have accepted it and incorporated it at least in part into their player development strategies. And there’s no zealot like a convert.
Baseball has gone stat-crazy in the last 10 years. While some previously ignored statistics – OPS and its constituents the main ones – provide new, usable and otherwise unattainable knowledge about a player, many do not.
My least favorite is the comically named VORP, or “value over replacement player.” VORP measures how much better a player is against a hypothetical average player at the same position. The only problem is that there’s no such thing as an “average shortstop” (for example). There are just shortstops, each with his own strengths and weaknesses. And if your team needs a shortstop that season, you’re going after the best available shortstop. If he’s not great compared with some made-up player, who cares? A bad shortstop is still better than no shortstop.
Another useless statistic is sabermetrics-inventor Bill James’ “Temperature Gauge,” a quantified summary of how “hot” or “cold” a player is. What new information does this stat give? If a player is 12-for-17 with four home runs over the last five games, do I really need another number to tell me he’s doing well? And if a pitcher has given up eight home runs and has an ERA over 6.00 in his last three starts, do I really need another number to tell me he’s struggling? Statistics need to impart information that observation cannot or they serve no purpose.
The movie ends with a caption saying, “Billy Beane is still looking for that last win.” Beane’s daughter sings “you’re such a loser, Dad” repeatedly while the caption plays.
The A’s have only made the playoffs twice since 2002, with neither team reaching the World Series. Since winning the AL West in 2006, the A’s have finished higher than third exactly once.
Beane is not a Godsend to baseball, he’s just found a system that kind of worked for a little while, and now it doesn’t. Beane’s legacy is that other teams (including the Red Sox) have used his system to achieve far more than he has.
Does that make him a loser? Maybe not.
But it sure doesn’t make him a winner.
Tags: Aaron Sorkin, Bill James, Billy Beane, Boston Red Sox, Brad Pitt, Brent Jennings, Chris Pratt, Jonah Hill, Ken Medlock, Kevin Youkilis, Michael Lewis, Moneyball, Oakland Athletics, Philip Seymour Hoffman, sabermetrics