Moneyball, the film based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, tells the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, and how he managed to make one of the poorest teams in baseball a success despite the financial deck being stacked against him. Beane figured out that he needed to question long-held assumptions and kick sacred cows to the curb in order to do accomplish the one thing that matters in sports … win.
Like Beane, I started looking at baseball, my favorite sport, in a different light myself. Before I started thinking about science and skepticism for a broad range of topics, everything from politics to video game design, there was baseball. When the Internet started really exploding in the late 1990’s, I started reading a column on ESPN.com by a man named Rob Neyer. Back then, I pretty much received and accepted the wisdom of longtime sages of the game, the television analysts, former players, and newspaper columnists, without any reservations except the typical barroom arguments.
Neyer changed that for me. He wrote about foreign concepts like “On Base Percentage” and “Win Shares” back when it was still a thing that got you mocked by everyone who was involved with the sport of baseball. He introduced me to the work of Bill James and sabermetrics. Most importantly, he introduced me to skepticism. What disadvantage is there to bunting? What are the benefits of a walk? And that’s something of what happens to Billy Beane when he meets Peter Brand.
Brad Pitt, as Beane, does a great job of showing a man frustrated by the status quo of baseball. Jonah Hill is perfect as the economics major turned assistant general manager, Brand, who provides Beane with the ammunition to revolutionize the game. Brand shows Beane the mathematics behind the very simplest concept in the game … scoring runs leads to winning more. The typical prejudices of ancient scouts who judge players on ‘five tools’ and facial features, and gauge talent based on intuition and the “intangibles”, just don’t make much economic sense for one of the lowest payrolls in the sport.
The script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin is witty and naturally expressive, and Bennett Miller’s direction engrosses the audience in another “conversations” movie along the lines of Social Network. The Moneyball method of searching out and exploiting market inefficiencies (i.e., picking up overlooked players on the cheap) actually turns out to be a great vehicle for dramatic tension.
I definitely recommend this movie, and the book, for baseball geeks that love looking at how the sausage is made, but I have to recommend this for non-baseball fans looking for a smart, funny, and dramatic story about questioning assumptions, overturning traditions and going wherever the data leads you.