How do you make an interesting film about the very recondite subject of baseball statistics? Not very easily is probably the correct answer and this is borne out by the fact that there had already been two abortive attempts before Moneyball made it to the big screen. Luckily you have some wonderful source material in the shape of the book Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game by the brilliant Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, etc). The book tells the true story how the poor and unfancied Oakland Athletics got the better of the super power teams in baseball, at least for a while. As a long standing fan of the book I have tried to explain its genius before and the conversation has usually gone along the lines of:
Friend: ‘what is the book actually about?’
Me: ‘well, I guess in essence it is about how statistical analysis changed baseball’
Friend: ‘oh .. ok….err, I think it is your round’
Perhaps I have not been a great salesman for the book but that really is quite a fair summary. Hence I went to see the film with a real intrigue about how they were going to pull this off more than with any great anticipation.
Brad Pitt plays A’s General Manager Billy Beane. As a young player, Beane was the near mythical ‘5 Tools’ guy that every scout trying to secure his services was certain was heading straight to The Hall Of Fame. He declined a scholarship at Stanford to go pro but he never made a mark in the game at all. Now, as GM of one the poorest teams in baseball, he has a problem: he can’t afford to recruit the elite talent and any talent on his books is soon poached by the wealthier teams. He realises that he needs to find a totally different way to operate.
Beane already has an existing interest in the use of statistics in the sport and to further this he hires an economic graduate from Yale (played by Jonah Hill). Together they revolutionise the recruitment and tactical policy of the A’s to quite astonishing effect. At this point I feared the film may lurch off into a typical Hollywood Underdog story but the film makers (director Bennett Miller and screenplay by Aaron Sorkin) avoid this well. They are helped by the way events unfold and also because the hard headed and sometimes frighteningly intense Beane and his Yale graduate Stats Man are not natural underdogs.
What the film brings out really well from the book is the clash between the new thinking of Beane and the old thinking as epitomised by the A’s scouts and the actual coach of the side played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The old guard are scandalised to have their knowledge questioned and their positions of influence and power threatened by a graduate from Yale and his laptop. In a great scene, one of the scouts confronts Beane and shouts something akin to ‘I have been doing this for 30 years, what do you know about it?’
This will resonate with any fan of any sport, some hoary old pundit or ex-player/manager/coach will reformulate that same argument, they may say something like ‘well unless you have played the game …’ but they all mean the same thing: you can’t know what I know.
What the book so brilliantly portrays and what the film captures well is that received wisdom can and indeed must be questioned. A person may well have been doing something for 30 years but if he has not given what he is doing any real thought for the last 29 of them there is every chance his methods and his thinking is out date.
Billy Beane would seem to be a rare case of a jock that always wanted to be a nerd and by finally becoming one, he has changed baseball (and increasingly other sports) far more than he would have by making it to The Hall Of Fame.
by Nilesh Bhagat