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.