Saturday, September 24, 2011

Moneyball: Innovation, using math, helps sports teams with lower payrolls, shows how intelligence achieves "justice"

If there will be Rollerball (remember that movie), then, eventually, be Moneyball.

Bennett Miller directed this film for Columbia Pictures, and writers Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin recreated the andante morality play that we saw Sorkin deliver with “Social Network”. It’s based on the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis.
Before getting into much more about the movie, let me say that Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane’s (Brad Pitt) theory works today. In 2011, the Washington Nationals brought up the reserves in September and got spectacular results, with road 4-game sweeps (however improbable) of the Mets and Phillies. Their young pitchers were identified by both scouting and analysis. It’s not just Steve Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. Now it’s Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock, and Ross Detwiler.  And note something else. Jason Werth may have a disappointing batting average, but opposing teams make a lot of errors on grounders he hits and when he’s running the bases.  So Werth contributes to the Nats’s run production in a way statistics usually doesn’t measure.

In fact, Thomas Boswell has a Washington Post column Sept. 25  on what September portends for the Nationals here.  Remember Manager Jim Riggleman's resignation during a Nat's win streak over a battle with the GM Rizzo? Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (generally pretty articulate compared to some of the ballplayers in the movie) called it "shocking", sotto voce.  The real life dispute between the GM and field manager with the improving 2011 Nats resembles the conflict in the movie.  But there's no remark in the movie script like replacement Davey Johnson's comment about preferring hairy-chested pinch hitters (after one of Johnson's first walkoff home wins).  

Stonewalled by ownership about being forced to compete with a low payroll (after losing free agents like Giambi to richer teams -- reinforcing the old adage that the A's were a "farm club" for the Yankees) , Beane hires (from Cleveland) a young, geeky an unathletic statistician Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to model the selection of players. The rest of management resents it, most of all field manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). (I live the salty comments from some of those old codgers about the players, like "His legs are gone." So are theirs.)  He takes Peter’s advice about “getting on base” percentages and signs former catcher and slugger Scott Hatteberg (played by Chris Pratt, a major star in the WB series “Everwood” as Bright Abbott; I met Chris along with Gregory Smith at a public mall appearance near Philadelphia in 2005). Hatteberg has to struggle to learn to play first base. But he hits a critical pinch walkoff homer in the A’s 20th consecutive win in late 2002.

Beane’s “people skills” come through all the time in the movie, and he teachers some of that to Peter, who, to the shock of the players, takes on some real authority.  Beane, oddly, doesn't like to watch the games (so Peter does the road trips), and says he shouldn't socialize with the players, about whom he makes decisions. 

But it’s their cleaning house in mid 2002 that turns the A’s around, leading to a 103-59 finish.  You can check all the facts in the film at Baseball Reference (link).

Here’s the official site. The film is shot in standard aspect, without Cinemascope.

Nevertheless, here's a rebuke of the movie in the Washington Post Oct. 25 by David Maraniss, link. Scouts really had found the top 3 starting pitchers for the A's in 2002 without the new math.  Like the question with "Social Network", is fidelity to truth necessary to win "best picture"?

Update: Sept. 7, 2018

Thomas Boswell explains the flawed Moneyball played by (Washington) Nats owner Mark Lerner and general maager Rizzo during this troubled season, here. When you have a lot of veterans on a roster in the last year of their contracts, the atmosphere gets distracting to the rest of the team. The waiver system needs reform:  the Nats let the Cubs and Cardinals loot them when the Nats still had to play them. 

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