Monday, October 10, 2011

Moneyball (2011)


Baseball is the sport to follow if you love numbers.  Almost every aspect of the game can be and is quantified by a percentage which both ball clubs and fans use to rank players.  The science of ranking players using particular categories, specifically on base percentage, is the foundation for an analysis program known as sabermetrics.  Moneyball never uses this term, but that is what they are talking about. 
Moneyball tells the story of the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season.  At the end of 2001, the A’s lost the divisional playoff series to the Yankees and then their three superstars left for free agency.  Compared to the Yankees and the vast majority of the rest of Major League Baseball teams, the Oakland A’s were poor.  They could not compete with the other clubs to put well known impact players on their roster.  General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) pleaded with his scouts to come up with a new way to identify players instead of the usual way it had been done for the past hundred years or so, mostly gut instinct and the usual power numbers. 
While in Cleveland on a bartering trip to replace the holes in his lineup, Billy meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a low level player analyst, who has some unconventional ideas about what it really takes to win games.  To win games, you have to produce runs.  To produce runs, you have to get on base, be it with hits or walks.  Scouts and baseball crowds prefer hits since they are far more sexy than walks; however, they are one in the same to Peter Brand and Billy Beane quickly becomes an acolyte to this new way of thinking.  Shifting focus to the most undervalued players in baseball, Oakland starts signing guys who are considered too old, sub-par fielders, and unimpressive at the plate.  Not only does the scouting staff start to revolt, but the coach, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) looks at Billy and his methods like they are from Mars.
Sabermetrics was not new in 2002, but no ball club ever put a team together using mostly stats before.  Everybody expected them to lose, be at the cellar of their division, and for Billy to be fired at the end of the season.  However, the 2002 season went in a different direction and produced some profound ripple effects throughout the rest of the league and how teams valued players afterwards.  Moneyball is definitely a film for baseball fans and stat geeks.  However, if you are not into baseball, you most likely will not enjoy Moneyball very much.  There is limited on field action and a lot of detailed conversations about baseball methods with its corresponding jargon. 
Moneyball is based on a 2004 book and is advertised as the true story of what happened in that 2002 season; however, there are a lot of dramatizations and changes.  First of all, there is no Peter Brand in real life.  In fact, Billy’s Assistant General Manager joined the team in 1999 and was named Paul DePodesta.  Mr. DePodesta did not like how they wrote his character in the script and asked that his name be changed.   He argues that he was not only focused on statistics to shape the team. 
I desperately wanted Moneyball to be an amazing film.  I love baseball and I really enjoy reading and talking about baseball stats.  Unfortunately, Moneyball is not a great movie, it is just ok.  It lacks a certain weight and depth.  Early scenes between Pitt and Hill could have been much deeper concerning their ideas to change the way the game is played, but they are light and choppy.  Peter Brand never really gets a long monologue to explain just how his ideas could create a winning team from start to finish.  Furthermore, the character of Coach Howe is ridiculous.  Philip Seymour Hoffman spends his very limited screen time hurling out one word guttural answers and just looks ill.  I know he was meant to disagree with the way the team was headed, but why make him look deathly pale and on the verge of a nervous breakdown? 
See Moneyball if you are a baseball fan; you will enjoy the behind the scenes look at the scouting meetings and the shenanigans which go on at the trade deadline.  However, be prepared for a light fiction film which can stray pretty far from what really happened that year. 

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