Moneyball: Hall of Fame Caliber Moviemaking

Having proved to be a hit with moviegoers, Moneyball, the baseball story that might feature an underdog but otherwise avoids most sports-film cliché, is picking up steam as we move into the heart of awards season: This fast-paced, engrossing movie has garnered four Golden Globe nominations, typically a bellwether for the World Series of filmdom recognition, the Academy Awards. Indeed, Moneyball is a Hall of Fame-worthy baseball flick.

Apart from some periodic tinkering with the mechanics, the game of baseball has remained fundamentally constant since 1901. By contrast, though, how the game is analyzed for performance and effectiveness has changed radically in the last 30 years. Similarly, baseball movies have matched that sophistication: Moneyball, released just before the start of the 2011 baseball postseason, not only avoids the "big game" showdown cliché, it concentrates on the front-office deals that staff the team on the field and not on the players themselves, and its human-interest focus makes it an engaging story for fans and non-fans alike.

The film Moneyball has its roots in Michael Lewis's 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which brought the sabermetricians out from behind their laptops and squarely in front of the baseball public. Lewis's cogently written book, which couches its examination of the revolution in how baseball talent is evaluated in the stories of several key individuals, reads like a page-turning novel; Lewis never forgets that it is people, his "characters," that make the story compelling. Likewise, the film, which had at least three different writers drafting scripts through a long gestation that began in 2004, makes Billy Beane, portrayed by Brad Pitt, its compelling focal point.

Beane was, and remains, the real-life general manager of the major-league Oakland Athletics, whose paltry payroll saw three of its stars lured away to richer clubs by 2002: First baseman Jason Giambi, the 2000 American League Most Valuable Player who essentially repeated his MVP-level offensive statistics in 2001, signed a free-agent contract with the New York Yankees; center fielder Johnny Damon, the speedster who had been traded from the Kansas City Royals after the 2000 season, signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox; and Jason Isringhausen, who had developed into an All-Star closer after having been traded from the New York Mets during the 1999 season, signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals. All three drew substantially more money than the A's, with a 2001 annual payroll less than 28 other teams (the Tampa Bay Rays had the lowest payroll in major league baseball at that time), could offer.

Despite the payroll woes, in 2001 the A's won 102 games, yet only managed to win the American League wild card—the Seattle Mariners won the AL West that year with an AL-record 116 wins—and were defeated in five games in the divisional series by the Yankees. But how were the A's going to field a postseason-worthy team in 2002 when three of their biggest stars jumped ship—and the franchise hadn't the money to attract one traditional replacement, let alone three?

The answer lay in finding players who were, as the term had it, undervalued. In a game that had existed for well more than a century, the practice of scouting for talent had matured into an art with its practitioners combing the nation from high school games on up for players—such as Billy Beane himself—who would develop into major-league talent. So, with the legions of scouts scouring the country (and, in the last three decades, other countries as well) for talent, how could undervalued players remain hidden from view?

Because, as a new breed of baseball analysts alleged, baseball had historically been looking at player performance in an incomplete and, some would maintain, incorrect manner. The emphasis had been on the wrong statistics. Batting average, the hallowed measure of a hitter's worth, only told half the story. What mattered more was getting on base—not just by hitting safely, but by taking a base on balls. Getting on base increased the probability of scoring runs, and scoring runs increased the probability of winning games, which was the point of the game. A hit would get you on base, but so would a walk, and for much of baseball's history the walk, or base on balls, was considered to be the sole failing of the pitcher. This was a half-truth. Yes, a walk resulted from a pitcher throwing outside the strike zone—but how many times does a batter swing at a pitch outside the strike zone? More specifically, how many times does a pitcher induce a batter to swing outside the strike zone? The batter who had plate discipline, who had learned not to swing at pitches that were not strikes, was more likely to draw a walk and thus get on base more often.

It might not be exciting baseball, but it is effective baseball. True, a walk won't drive in a run unless the bases are loaded, but a walk will put a runner on base; that runner then represents a potential run. And with a hitter like Jason Giambi, the A's had a player who not only got on base and scored runs—Giambi led the American League in on-base percentage in 2000 (.476) and 2001 (.477), and he scored 108 and 109 runs in those respective years—but who drove in runs with power: 43 HR and 137 RBI in 2000, 38 HR and 120 RBI in 2001. Replacing Jason Giambi was an impossible task even if the A's had the money to do so—there simply weren't other hitters like Giambi to get.

So, what did Billy Beane and his right-hand man Paul DePodesta do? They scoured baseball for players who might add up to what Giambi represented offensively, and they found two they could afford and whom other teams did not want, David Justice and Scott Hatteberg, while a third was already under contract: Jeremy Giambi, Jason's younger brother.

Justice was a high-profile slugger, having played in the World Series for three different teams (and had been married to actress Halle Berry), but by 2002 he was at the tail-end of his not-quite-Hall of Fame career. However, Justice could still work a count: In 471 plate appearances in 2002 with Oakland, Justice walked 70 times (against only 66 strikeouts), for an on-base percentage, .376, that was 120 points higher than his batting average. (Justice's career OBP of .378 is nearly 100 points higher than his career batting average of .279.) Justice also brought with him that intangible quality—"veteran presence in the clubhouse," although how Beane and DePodesta measured that is still to be revealed.

But if Justice (portrayed in Moneyball by former minor-league player Stephen Bishop) at least had a pedigree, the younger Giambi and Hatteberg were baseball mutts. The only skill Jeremy shared with his brother was an ability to get on base (.377 lifetime in 1704 plate appearances), while his ability as a left fielder was encapsulated by Lewis's description of him chasing a fly ball: he pursued it "like a postman trying to escape a mad dog." In fact, Jeremy Giambi didn't last through May with the A's in 2002—he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for John Mabry.

Hatteberg (portrayed in Moneyball by Chris Pratt) was an even more unlikely pick. A backup catcher with the Boston Red Sox, Hatteberg sustained an arm injury that left him unable to throw a baseball, effectively ending his career. He was out of baseball when Beane found him. Beane's plan was to convert him to a first baseman, so his need to throw would be minimal, in order to get his on-base ability at a bargain-basement price. (Hatteberg signed for $900,000, a relative pittance in major league baseball but right in line with Oakland's paltry budget.) Skeptical that he could be converted to a first baseman, Hatteberg needs to be convinced by Beane: In one of Moneyball's biggest laugh lines, Beane, in Hatteberg's home with his infield coach Ron Washington (portrayed in Moneyball by Brent Jennings), prevailed upon Washington to convince Hatteberg that playing first base is not so hard, whereupon Washington promptly contradicts Beane by informing Hatteberg that "it's incredibly hard." (Washington, before he left to manage the Texas Rangers in 2007, in fact worked successfully with Hatteberg to make him a league-average defensive first baseman, christening Hatteberg a "Pickin' Machine" to bolster his confidence, a story related approvingly by Lewis but not explored in the film.)

Finding overlooked value in pitchers as well, Beane also acquires right-handed relief pitcher Chad Bradford, considered an oddity because of his submarine delivery—he almost scrapes his knuckles on the ground as he delivers the ball—that yields an 80-mile-an-hour fastball but whose unorthodox style and control renders him a bargain. Actually acquired in 2001, Bradford (portrayed in Moneyball by Casey Bond) proved to be a solid setup man for three seasons.

Pulling together these components forms the goal of Moneyball, with Beane and "Peter Brand" (Jonah Hill) teaming to accomplish this goal. "Peter Brand" is a composite character drawn from DePodesta and other wonks. (DePodesta, although profiled positively in Lewis's book, did not want to be portrayed in the film.) The pairing of the soft, large, bespectacled Hill with the lean, chiseled, driven Pitt underscores the contrast between the two figures: Pitt, as Beane, looks as if he could have been a pro ballplayer, as indeed Beane was, while Hill, his big glasses peering above the lid of his laptop, is the very incarnation of the nerd trope, a statistical whiz-kid whose genius is in unearthing undervalued players, specifically those who can get on base and score runs.

Beane plucks Brand from the Cleveland Indians organization, even after Brand gives Beane an unflattering assessment as a player—Beane was a highly-touted prospect for the New York Mets, which picked him in the first round of the 1980 draft, but Brand tells him that he wouldn't have drafted him until the ninth round—and together they form an alliance based on unblinking pragmatism. Indeed, Beane, whose harsh, self-critical introspection sabotaged his chances to play successfully at the major-league level, channels that perception into evaluating other players, particularly in ways that others—scouts, managers, general managers, and owners—miss. Brand, with his logistical savvy and talent for spotting the hidden gems, is the ideal foil for Beane.

No dramatic goal is compelling without obstacles, and apart from the challenges of a tiny payroll, Beane and Brand encounter opposition from the rest of the Athletics' staff. First it is the scouts, the wizened men whose lives have been spent on an endless cycle of travel up and down the country (and also outside the country) observing countless games from high school on up, looking for prospects—and knowing when they've found them through a lifetime of instinct. Another big laugh line is when, in a meeting with Beane and Brand to assess upcoming talent, a scout dismisses a prospect for having an ugly girlfriend, which, he claims, shows he lacks self-confidence. The scouts are openly hostile to the mathematical approach to evaluating talent, with some of them defying Beane's directives. Director Bennett Miller, best known for 2005's Capote, in which he showed an ability to capture characters' feelings that garnered him an Academy Award nomination for best director, stages these scenes with realistic tension.

Personifying the old-school approach to baseball that opposes the Beane-Brand revolution is Art Howe, the manager of the A's, literally on the outside at the meetings at which the players whom Howe must manage are picked. Handed the thankless role of the obligatory villain, Philip Seymour Hoffman does what he can to bring gravitas to his portrayal of Howe, whose obstinacy in implementing the lineup changes Beane wants—for instance, replacing slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, a more traditional choice, with on-base machine Hatteberg—lends itself to confrontation in more ways than one. Not only does Howe square off with Beane, but when players like Pena are traded (Pena was actually part of a three-team trade in July 2002), Brand finds himself having to face the concrete and not just the abstract when Beane tells him to break the news to a departing player. Brand realizes that players are not just an aggregate of statistics but human beings with dreams and disappointments—and his remorseless analysis of their capabilities is why they are destined, at least in this case, to be disappointed.

Bringing Moneyball to the screen took several years, with a number of writers and directors attached to the project including director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven, Contagion), whose concept for the film included making it a semi-documentary; he was eventually dismissed in favor of Miller. Steven Zaillian had produced a working draft of that script, but with the re-imagining of the film, Aaron Sorkin was called in to revamp the script. Best-known for his politically-oriented work (The West Wing, The American President, Charlie Wilson's War), Sorkin was the creative force behind the criminally neglected television comedy-drama Sports Night, set at a cable sports-network news show, which not only featured intelligent characters but an impressive knowledge of sports. Sorkin has a flair for snappy dialogue (doubters need only watch Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise exchange barbs in A Few Good Men, based on Sorkin's play, culminating in Nicholson's classic sneer, "You can't handle the truth!"), and while too much of that can sound glib, it gives Moneyball a nervous energy while animating characters who could seem otherwise stodgy.

While Lewis's book addresses personal lives only in relation to how they reflect on his thesis, the film version cannot afford to be so focused, so Moneyball the movie features the subplot of Beane's relationship with his tween daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey). Divorced from wife Sharon (Robin Wright in another inoffensively ornamental role), Beane makes sure to distance himself from the front office often enough to maintain his relationship with Casey, nicely portrayed by Dorsey, who avoids the temptation to make the child overly cute or overly precocious, this despite a budding musical career suggested by a couple of scenes. Pitt, too, resists the urge to get sentimental in his scenes with Dorsey, and their chemistry is winning.

In the end, Pitt emerges as the backbone to Moneyball, its focus, its impetus, its embodiment. Like Beane, Pitt debuted with the world in the palm of his hand, an unfairly gorgeous man with appeal to spare. His physical blessings perhaps spurred him to seek substantial roles throughout his career (from Seven to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) to mitigate the perception that he was just another pretty face. Moneyball might have given Pitt the ideal role: As Billy Beane, Pitt has opportunities to display dimension without having to overreach. Most convincing is the supreme confidence Pitt, as Beane, exudes—confidence that is underscored by those moments of private reflection and doubt that Beane cannot afford to have anyone, not even daughter Casey, see. Beane, the first-round draft pick whose playing career was perhaps erroneously forecast by the very scouts he would later dismiss, who later channeled his intensity into running a baseball franchise instead of starring for one, finds outstanding embodiment in Pitt, whose charm and appeal is likewise channeled into a convincing portrayal that doesn't exceed the limits of his acting range. Pitt is Beane, and because of it, Moneyball succeeds much better than any sports movie has a right to when it concentrates on the action in the front office instead of on the action on the field.

To be sure, there is action on the field, and were it not for its grounding in actual events, it would look like the kind of dramatic story arc Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and their scriptwriting confederates studied when they first decided to break into the field. The 2002 Oakland A's, 102-game winners the previous season, did not get off to a strong start. This supplies ammunition to the critics of Beane's methods, although how much of that is manager Art Howe's refusal to implement those methods is another question. They are three games below .500 by the end of May, but despite a 21–7 record in June—including two eight-game winning streaks, a portent of things to come—the A's remain in third place, behind the Seattle Mariners and the Anaheim Angels in the AL West.

Then begins a winning streak on August 4 that sees the A's leap into first place by August 22—and the wins keep on coming until, on September 4, they find themselves having won 19 games in a row, with only the Kansas City Royals standing between them and establishing a new AL record for wins in a row. (Going into the game with Kansas City, they are tied with the 1906 Chicago White Sox and the 1947 New York Yankees.)

The A's seem set to win in a laugher: They jump out to a 11-run lead by the third inning—only to see the Royals, who would lose 100 games in 2002 (and yet finish ahead of the even more hapless Detroit Tigers in the AL Central), chip away at that lead off Oakland ace Tim Hudson, then off an equally ineffective A's bullpen including Chad Bradford, until the game is tied 11-all going into the bottom of the ninth.

Billy Beane has a quirk: He does not watch the games. Instead, he heads to the gym during game time, rarely even monitoring the score. However, on September 4, daughter Casey urges him to watch the A's try to make history. You know this has to have consequences, right? Sure enough, as Beane lurks in the stands at Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, the A's begin to cede runs to the Royals.

Director Miller, faced with the kind of dramatic centerpiece any baseball movie would kill for, does not let this pitch escape his wheelhouse. Miller moves his camera around the field, into the dugout, and into the stands, particularly to capture Pitt's reaction shots, as the A's struggle to win their 20th game in a row. The tension does indeed build until Art Howe, in the bottom of the ninth, sends a pinch-hitter to the plate. Of course, it's Scott Hatteberg, the "Pickin' Machine" whom Beane and Brand have staked so much on—for his getting on base, not necessarily for his hitting. So what does Hatteberg do? He hits a walk-off home run. The A's win, 12–11, and find themselves with the longest winning streak in American League history. (The A's go on to lose their next game, thus ending their chances to beat the major league record of 26 games held by the 1916 New York Giants.) Hollywood could not have scripted it any better—and it didn't need to because in the words of the great Casey Stengel: "You could look it up." It really did happen this way.

Moneyball is a new breed of baseball film, one that understands that its primary audience is not only conversant with the advanced characteristics of the sport but expects—demands—that its dramatic presentation similarly avoids the facile, feel-good cliché of the average sports movie. In that respect, Moneyball delivers like a Justin Verlander heater on the corner of the plate. Yet Moneyball has accessibility built into it to keep it from being pigeonholed as merely a baseball movie that will appeal only to that demographic. Moneyball might be a sabermetrician's dream—what other movie is going to sing the praises of Bill James?—but its human-interest angle is what makes it appealing. (My friend Debbie could care a whit for baseball, but she recently reminded me that Moneyball was one of the best movies she saw in 2011.) Billy Beane is not just an underdog battling both a paltry payroll with which to staff a winning baseball team and the resistance to the audacious methodology that will allow him to do just that, he is also a father trying to maintain his connection with his daughter, herself conflicted because of divorce.

Billy Beane is not a perfect man; indeed, his own failures as a player are what drive him to succeed as a general manager, and Brad Pitt delivers a believable performance that manages to convey that drive. Similarly, the Oakland A's, despite winning enough games to get into the postseason, were unable to advance beyond the first round in 2001 or 2002. (They have made the postseason only twice since then, losing the divisional series in 2003; in 2006, they swept the Minnesota Twins in the divisional series, only to get swept by the Detroit Tigers in the league championship series.) In the Moneyball epilogue, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (Arliss Howard) offers Beane the Red Sox's general manager's position; Beane refuses, despite being offered a salary that was almost half of the Athletics' entire payroll. The Red Sox, using sabermetrics (Henry hired Bill James in 2003), won the World Series in 2004 (with a team that included former Oakland Athletic Johnny Damon) and 2007—albeit with one of the largest payrolls in baseball, thus leaving unresolved the question of whether money really is the ultimate deciding factor in Moneyball.

Moneyball is not a perfect movie. Jonah Hill is colorless as the Paul DePodesta stand-in Peter Brand—any number of actors could have filled this role—and he is overmatched in his scenes with Pitt. And it's not that Philip Seymour Hoffman has to play the heavy—he has proved that he can do so in films from Mission Impossible III to Doubt—but that he doesn't get much chance to outline his opposition to Beane's strategies, a waste of Hoffman's great acting reserve. Similarly, the scouts and the players melt into background noise, but maybe that's the point: They are the obstacles to be evaluated and overcome, not necessarily to be understood. Not in this movie, anyway.

But Moneyball is the best kind of baseball movie: Thoroughly schooled in its subject, smart enough to avoid the hackneyed approaches of genre films, broad enough to engage viewers who would not normally see a baseball, or even sports, movie, and appealing enough to win them over. See it if you haven't already; then see it again if you have. Moneyball never fails to get on base.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 18:47

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