Moneyball: The Art of Filming an Unfair Game

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane

Three names go conspicuously unmentioned in the new film adaptation of Moneyball: Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder. There are two ways to react to this omission.

The first is to think that their exclusion is unacceptable for a film that purports to tell the story of the 2002 Oakland A’s. After all, the trio combined to win 57 games and pitch 675 innings to a combined 3.05 ERA that year. Zito in particular led the league in wins, en route to a Cy Young Award. Without those three, a team that won 103 games would have almost certainly missed the playoffs.

The other way to react to their absence, though, is to realize that it is entirely appropriate. Moneyball is not really a movie about the 2002 Oakland A’s—it’s a movie about Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) and his radical reinvention of the game. And it doesn’t take much reinvention to stick with a trio that was coming off a 2001 season in which they won 56 games and pitched 678 innings to a 3.43 ERA.

Beane’s real challenge—and the one the movie focuses on—was to cope with the departures of Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen to free agency. As virtually every baseball fan knows by now, thanks to Michael Lewis’ best-selling book, Beane sought players with undervalued assets, like high on-base percentages, in order to compete with richer teams. Rather than focus on the trio of aces, the movie highlights the guys Beane picked up off the scrap heap, like Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, and Jeremy Giambi.*

*Though here the movie takes some liberties: Jason’s little brother was already on the A’s in 2001, though the film makes it seem like Jeremy was brought in the next year as a hopelessly inadequate replacement.

Does it matter that these guys didn’t really make up for the departure of Jason Giambi (How could they?), and that Oakland scored 84 fewer runs in 2002 than it had the year before? Not really: This movie’s not about really about the virtues or flaws of sabermetrics.

In fact, the movie makes the crucial choice to not delve very deeply into the subject of advanced stats. While this is likely to upset a lot of baseball fans, it’s probably a wise narrative choice—long scenes that explain statistics are rarely compelling. More importantly, it would be entirely redundant to do so—anyone interested likely already knows what WAR is and how WHIP compares to xFIP.

Of course, Moneyball doesn’t ignore these things, but it mainly uses them to illustrate how isolated Beane is in his thinking. We hear briefly about Bill James, and the value of walks, and we get glimpses of various computer models and spreadsheets, but these mainly serve to contrast Beane’s methods with those of the rest of the baseball world.

At times this contrast is almost cartoonish. Almost all of Beane’s employees, from his manager Art Howe (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose talents are largely wasted) to his head of scouting, are crusty old baseball men who fight him at every step and refuse to stop referring to players’ “good bodies.”

During a pivotal scene midway through the movie, with the A’s mired in last place, Beane tells Peter Brand, his sole ally on the team (played by Jonah Hill and essentially a stand-in for Paul DePodesta, who didn’t want his name used in the movie), about a bunch of trades he wants to make to shake things up. When Brand insists that these moves will seem desperate, Beane persists. “It’s not good that you think you have to explain yourself,” Beane warns, before going ahead with the trades.

Does it matter that one of the players traded, Carlos Peña, would soon develop into precisely the kind of cheaply productive player that Oakland covets? Not really, because this story is more about Beane’s determination than his strategy.

Brad Pitt’s commitment to this film as it went through numerous scripts and directors confused some people—Pitt can get almost any role he wants in Hollywood, and he admits to not being much of a baseball fan—but it’s obvious upon seeing the final product why he was so drawn to the story. Moneyball is essentially a character piece, placing Beane at the center of a century-old, stubborn institution. Pitt is great at conveying a strange blend of confidence and desperation as he fights quietly with managers, scouts, and even players. His rapport with Hill is very good, and even his reaction to the bittersweet end of Oakland’s season helps save an otherwise anticlimactic ending.* In other words, Pitt carries this movie.

*Honestly, of all the things that make Moneyball the book so hard to film, probably the biggest obstacle is the simple fact that the 2002 A’s lost in the Division Series AGAIN. It’s a movie without a climax.

The only problem is that I’m not sure where he carries it. The movie meanders in a dozen different directions, but never really settles on one. There are some scenes between Beane and his daughter that are good, but they feel weirdly out of place, as if half of their story was lost in editing.* We also get a lot of background on Beane’s own playing career, the irony of which is that Beane was the kind of player he would later despise drafting—a high-upside high school talent with ineffable qualities like a “good face.” This gets a small payoff when Beane dismisses his head scout’s certainty as dishonest—reminded him that he’s “been in those meetings” with young prospects—but there’s very little in the rest of the film that suggests Beane’s empathy with players.

*It was not even clear to me where she lives. Early in the movie he seems to go pick her up at his ex-wife’s house in a fancier part of the Bay Area, but then he has several scenes where he is picking her up or dropping her off at the airport inexplicably. Later, he seems to turn down a job offer in Boston to stay close to her.

There is even some acknowledgment of the tension between using rigid analysis to break down a game that so often comes down to flukes—the on-field climax of the film is Oakland’s 20-game wining streak, which any statistician would surely dismiss as random variance—but even this is slight.

It’s not that Moneyball is a bad movie—it’s funny and well-directed and it features some very good performances from Pitt and Hill and Kerris Dorsey (playing Beane’s daughter)—but it feels bound to disappoint a lot of baseball fans, and especially fans of the book on which it is based. There’s little discussion of the ideas that made the book famous,* and there’s not enough of a movie beyond that.

*One idea that I wish the film had made more of pops up when the Brand character explains the difference between buying players and buying wins. His explanation of the value big market teams place on buying stars and marquee names—a value small-market teams can’t really afford—is one that hasn’t really been explored fully, and is probably easier to develop a narrative around than, say, the perils of bunting.

The film concludes with the idea that Billy Beane changed baseball with how he handled the 2002 season. Maybe the biggest flaw in the movie, though, is that it seems more accurate to say that Michael Lewis changed baseball by writing about how Beane handled the ’02 season. The watershed moment for Beane wasn’t anything that happened during the season, but the publication of Lewis’ book, which collected ideas that had been brewing on the outskirts of baseball fandom and in the corners of GM offices for decades. The book began the long process of taking those ideas to the mainstream. If nothing else, this movie completes the journey—there’s nothing more mainstream than a movie staring Brad Pitt.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Teresa on October 23, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    Actually during the movie when Beane lets a pitcher know that he is going back to AAA, he passes a group of players playing cards. A player wearing ’75’ has his back directly against that scene…Zito. So there is a small reference.

    Reply

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