Dreadball Era: Why I’m Dreading Moneyball

In 2003, Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball hit bookshelves and touched off a firestorm of discussion all around the game of baseball. Fans argued about it, divying up sides: Stats vs. Scouts. Print journalists devoted a great deal of time to it. Grizzled baseball veterans in the national media, like Joe Morgan, took grave offense to it. Entire Major League front offices were re-shaped around the principles in the book. And now eight years after the book was released, a film about the book will be hitting theaters this fall. The trailer was released last week on Entertainment Tonight. At first blush, the film seems like a hardcore baseball fan’s dream come true. But there are red flags all over the place. Here’s why I’m filled with just as much dread as I am excitement about the movie.

First, let’s establish some more background. Here is the film’s trailer:

The book is the story of how the low-budget Oakland A’s used advanced statistics to populate their roster with players whose skills cost less, thereby allowing them to win more games for less money and go toe to toe in the American League with big budget titans like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and their kin. Michael Lewis detailed a great deal of General Manager Billy Beane’s methodology, and also focused on several of Beane’s top lieutenants (wiry Ivy League grad Paul DePodesta, elder statesman and Scouting Director Grady Fuson) and several of his under-the-radar player acquisition targets (draftee Jeremy Brown, 1B Scott Hattieberg). The book ultimately painted traditional baseball scouting methods as archaic, a ridiculous art somewhere in the ballpark of witchcraft, practiced by 60 year old neanderthals. It was through advanced metrics that Beane and his crew could identify undervalued commodities- players possessing abilities that still helped a team win games but typically cost less on the open market. Chief among these at the time the book was written was OBP- on-base percentage. Sounds great, right? Something that a baseball fan would want to see splashed on the silver screen? No.

The inherent problem is that the book itself won’t play with most audiences. Only the hardest of hardcore baseball fans want to see a bunch of Ivy League grads with calculators nerding it up over baseball players, essentially demystifying the allure of a game with a magnificent tradition. As a fan, I have no problem with teams employing people like this. Hell, I WANT my favorite team to use people like this. I want my favorite team to turn over every rock to find any advantage they can. But the fact of the matter is that it won’t play well on the silver screen. And so the people making the film are going to be forced to dramatize several aspects of the real story. To a diehard baseball fan, the story is enough. It was a pivotal piece of baseball history, defining what the game was all about for three or four years. By focusing on other aspects as the film will have to do, it cheapens the real thing.

There are several aspects of the story that seem ripe to be glossed over. For instance, you can see in the trailer that the emphasis is on on-base percentage. That’s not what the book was about. It’s a really big shortcut to take. The book was about identifying skills on the market that are undervalued. At the time, it was OBP but it’s since moved on to so many other things (thanks in large part to the book). For instance, the Tampa Bay Rays rode speed and defense to the 2008 World Series. Those skills were undervalued commodities as that team was being put together, and it allowed a low-budget team like the Rays to find a way to win without breaking their bank.

Another aspect obviously glossed over is the casting of Jonah Hill as Paul DePodesta… or “Peter Brand”, as the character is named in the movie. DePo, as he’s commonly known, got his start in Cleveland working for the Indians during their 1990’s halcyon days. He was part of a front office that included five future General Managers all working under John Hart. In short, he was a wünderkind with a wealth of information. And he had learned for several years while working alongside one of the most successful MLB front offices around. The film seems to show him as green (“this is my first job”), and far more bookish than the reality. DePo, after all, started with the Tribe as an advanced scout. Despite his bookish looks, it would be unfair to characterize him as purely a numbers guy, or to make him look like the mentee to Billy Beane’s mentor. And… he’s being played by Jonah Hill. Perhaps Jonah Hill will shock me in the role. To date, he’s been the same fat annoying crass guy in every movie he’s been in, showing zero range whatsoever. The fact that DePo revoked his permission to use his likeness in the film is a huge red flag.

Last but not least, it’s so simple- and so annoying- to characterize the whole issue as simply “stats vs. scouts”. But that’s what Lewis did in the book. It’s so much deeper than that. And there were people on both sides of this argument who loved to simplify it in that way. It was never about that. It was always about finding a fully-integrated front office that used all of the resources it had at its disposal to build as efficient a team as possible. If you think that the allegedly more sabermetrically inclined teams ignore traditional scouting methods, you’re fooling yourself. The same can be said if you reverse it (teams with strong traditional scouting also use advanced metrics). And yet, here we are- the film doesn’t have time to pay proper respect to both sides of the argument. It needs a hook, so the real meat of the story will be glossed over for the sake of making it more entertaining to viewers. The snarky overtones of Lewis’ book will only be amplified and the film’s viewers will never know the true story behind the story.

Of course, all of this is moot. The game has long since moved on. This discussion was last relevant among real baseball people four or five years ago. The game has moved on and whatever weight this story carried at one time has been lost. Teams have integrated their front offices to varying degrees, and the concepts in the book are now second-hand to anyone who gives info to Major League General Managers. The film needed to be made in 2006 or 2007. Or better yet, 2020 when the story had more of a chance to play out.

There it is. Admittedly, I’m looking at it through a very harsh lens. I understand that not everyone will see it this way. Mostly, my quandary with this movie should speak to the hardest of hardcore baseball fans, and not too many other people. But I hope at least that more novice baseball fans who see the film will see this and realize that there’s an incredible amount more to this story.


22 Comments

Filed under Movies

22 responses to “Dreadball Era: Why I’m Dreading Moneyball

  1. Hmmm I have no knowledge of this book, being from lil old Blighty!! Is it about rounders? or Cricket? HAHAHA

    That Jonah Hill casting is a nightmare though…yuck!!

    • You know, it’s tough to say for sure, but if you’ve got any interest at all in statistics, business, stocks, etc… stuff like that, you might actually enjoy the book even without the baseball background. It uses baseball as the backdrop, but as G-Lo points out, it works just as much as a book for business modeling and the like.

      (for the record, I don’t care about business modeling, stocks, etc., but if you wrap it up in baseball, I’ll read it)

      • I don’t know anything about baseball nor this book, but wow, after seeing the real guy, why in the world did they cast Jonah Hill??

        • I can’t even imagine, Ruth. I know that Jonah Hill is a baseball fan and perhaps it was that interest that made him a candidate? I don’t even mind that he doesn’t look that much like him but it’s not like it’s a good actor playing the role, someone who can take on a challenge. Hopefully he’ll prove me wrong.

  2. I read the book a few years back and was totally riveted (should be mandatory reading for business students. I actually thought about distributing a copy to the higher ups at work.). I think that has more to do with Michael Lewis as a writer than the actual subject matter (though the subject was pretty damn compelling as well). Michael Lewis can take an otherwise dry or boring subject and make it interesting (bond trading, real estate market collapse, etc). Few filmmakers have this ability (David Fincher might have the ability, i.e. The Social Network). This book would probably be a great documentary on PBS or HBO. The Blind Side was also an interesting subject (didn’t enjoy the book as much as Moneyball), and Hollywood turned it into a lame movie and Oscar vehicle for sassy Sandra Bullock. Surprised? I didn’t think so.

    Great article by the way!

    Cheers!
    G-LO

    • I think Lewis definitely made it entertaining… but I also loathe the snarky nature of it all. It’s so completely dismissive of a lot of people who have had a lot of success in the game of baseball. In short, he did (in the book) what he accused baseball’s old guard of doing for years to the more sabermetrically inclined.

  3. Don’t forget perhaps the most relevant fact of all… the A’s have not won a championship under Billy Beane. How will this movie end? With them winning… their division?

    Didn’t know that DePodesta wouldn’t allow his likeness in the movie. You’re right, that is a bad sign.

  4. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    Now, that’s the hardcore baseball fan I used to know! I thought your hardcore cinema fan had smothered your hardcore baseball fan with a pillow. I’m sure I’ll leave the movie with a mixed opinion, but that won’t stop me from going to see it.
    Also, what the hell are you talking about with Jonah Hill not having any range? I couldn’t believe it was the same actor in Superbad, Knocked Up, Funny People, Get Him to the Greek, and 40 year Old Virgin (ebay customer in one scene). He is a true chameleon on the silver screen as he transforms himself into each character that he takes on from film to film. I’m pretty sure he even played the love interest of Matthew McConaughey in some RomCom a few years ago.

    • Jonah Hill is one of my least favorite actors working today. Easily. I don’t even like to pick on actors like that but he’s a hard target to keep quiet about.

  5. Phil

    I’m not a baseball fan, so I have ever reason to be skeptical, but…

    #1) Brad Pitt – even if you don’t like him, he gets first choice in the best projects in Hollywood. He’s got a solid track record over the last 10 years.
    #2) Bennett Miller – he hasn’t done a lot, but Capote was excellent and PS Hoffman is back working with him again.
    #3) Aaron Sorkin – everyone thought The Social Network was going to be a boring movie about the internet and it ended up as the best movie and script of the year.

    I agree the trailer doesn’t look great like the Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tatoo trailers do, but I’ll give it a chance.

    Phil

    • No argument here- Hoffman, Pitt, the fact that it’s a baseball movie… That’s the other side of the coin for me. I also appreciate that they apparently cast some actual baseball players (most notably Royce Clayton as Miguel Tejada), which should make the games look more realistic. That’s the “excitement” part for me.

      The funny thing is, I think the subject matter has a chance of being boring to most people, but I assure you it won’t be to me. If I wind up disliking the movie, it’ll probably be because it played too loose with the facts. Ironically, my love of baseball will hurt my enjoyment of a baseball movie.

      • I’m somewhere in between the two of you, or, I just can’t make up my mind. You bring a lot of solid points to light (some of which I was already worried about, some of which I wasn’t aware of), but Phil does as well. I suppose it’s not going to be all that much different from most films I see anymore: walk in hoping for the best, but do so with extreme trepidation.

        Yes, it seems like a no-win situation. People in the know will get offended at the smoothing/glossing over of it all and/or misrepresentation, while people that don’t care about baseball will likely still not care about this movie, no matter how much they try to make it about people instead of the game. It’s a crazy-difficult line to balance upon, and I’m curious to see how it’s straddled. But either way, I can tell you that I’m still interested.

  6. FILMCRITHULK

    IT ALSO TOTALLY AMUSING THAT JOE MORGAN HATES SABERMETRICS WHEN EVER MAJOR METRICS PROPONENT EASILY ARGUE HE THE BEST 2ND BASEMAN OF ALL TIME. MEANING JOE MORGAN LITERALLY HAVE NO IDEA WHY HE SO GOOD AT BASEBALL.

    • Absolutely. That cracks me up. Joe Morgan is one of the best examples of a player whose skills were undervalued at the time yet fully recognized by the sabermetric crowd. I doubt anyone recognizes how great Morgan, the player, was as well as the sabermetric crowd. And yet, he can’t stop tripping all over himself to make fun of these people.

      • FILMCRITHULK

        AND HULK HOPING THAT MAYBE THE “GENERIC SPORTS MOVIE TONE” WE SEEING HERE MORE A MARKETING CONSTRUCT THAN A CONSTRUCT OF THE MOVIE. SOMETHING TELL HULK WE MAY GET SEQUENCES THAT MORE IN LINE WITH THE ALLURE OF HARDCORE METRICS (THINK THE FACE-MASH SEQUENCE FROM SOCIAL NETWORK)

        • I certainly hope so.

          Out of curiosity, I checked the IMDb cast list to see who’s represented in the movie (hoping for Grady Fuson). I see Ed Wade. I have my fingers crossed that he’s not made to look like a buffoon (even though I do think he’s one of the worst around). I also see Eric Kubota, which could be a great character to have. But alas, no Fuson. Given the way that whole thing shook out between Beane and Fuson, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that he didn’t give his name to the film.

      • “You know, back when I was playing the game, it was about the feel of the bat between your hands and the smell of the pine tar before you hit a pop-up to left field. It was about winning championships alongside Charlie Hustle and covering myself in semen before every game. It was back when the game was true and real, before computers and nerds got involved.”

        BTW, I hate Joe Morgan.

  7. Snayke

    Sup, JL, it’s Snayke. I just discovered your blog because of Jim. Very cool site.

    I agree with your assessment of the movie, in particular nailing how “Moneyball” is so misunderstood. Unless the movie makes it clear that Beane was trying to take advantage of market inefficiencies and under-utilized methods of acquiring talent, then we’re in for another “stats vs. scouts” war.

    And while Beane’s strategy was misrepresented by both sides, statheads have clearly been more pragmatic. It’s the seamheads who insist on being troglodytes.

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