Pointless Nonsense

Posted in movies by Bill on May 23, 2012

I put off seeing Moneyball because I didn’t see how the book, basically a piece of journalism about baseball, math, and rejecting conventional wisdom, could be a non-documentary movie. I’d been told that it was good, but I didn’t buy it. And, I dunno, maybe it would be good to someone less familiar with the book and the real story. Not only did I read the book, but 2002 was near the peak of both my baseball obsession and my interest in sabermetrics (the Sox were competitive, very close to finally winning, but hadn’t quite managed it yet). I remember basically every player they mentioned. And I remember basically everything they adapted from the book. And I basically spent the entire movie nitpicking. I absolutely could not help it.

Jonah Hill’s character Peter Brand, for example, is a stand-in for Paul DePodesta, who apparently didn’t want his name or likeness in the movie. Brand joins the A’s right after the departure of Giambi, Damon, and Isringhausen, when the real DePodesta joined the A’s several years prior. He’d been pushing sabermetric ideas on Beane for years before the 2002 season. (also, he’s thin, he was a scout, and I think he may have played in the minors)

The movie implies a lot more about the contributions of Scott Hatteberg and David Justice than actually happened (it also seems to imply they picked up Chad Bradford for the 2002 year, even though he’d already been on the team). The very talented (and cheap) core of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, the pickup of Billy Koch to replace Isringhausen (and basically the one really good year Koch would ever have), and the acquisition of Ray Durham at the deadline, that was how the A’s won. Chavez is actually mentioned by name once, Tejada a couple of times, and Ray Durham has some lines, but the rest of them, other than their names appearing on the backs of uniforms here and there, aren’t mentioned. Filling in pieces like Hatteberg and Justice were helpful, but it was the already present talent that put that team in the playoffs.

I’m also amused that they skipped the Moneyball draft entirely and the notion of compensation picks, admittedly, two difficult concepts to get across to an audience.. A huge portion of the book is about the draft and DePodesta and Beane’s preference for college players over high school ones, and how losing those free agents to big market teams would be made up for in the long run by drafting the team of the future with compensation picks. But the draft didn’t really pan out. Nick Swisher has been about what they’d hoped for (though they traded him after only 2 really productive years in Oakland), but I don’t think anyone else turned out to be particularly valuable. Joe Blanton might be the next best, which isn’t all that great. But because it didn’t work out, and therefore didn’t fit the narrative, they ignored it.

There were two parts that bothered me from a sabermetric point of view. Bill James wrote a really nice summary of what he knew in 1988. Two of the things on there are how the platoon split (the traditional belief that righty vs righty and lefty vs lefty is an advantage for the pitcher, and righty vs left and lefty vs righty is an advantage for the batter) is very real*, and the idea of the defensive spectrum. Yet Beane gets pissed at Art Howe (who they basically make into a buffoon in the movie, I’m sure he was pissed) for playing the platoon splits with regard to pitching Chad Bradford (and Bradford’s numbers reflect exactly what one would think, that he’s far better against righties than lefties). Then with the Hatteberg thing, they ignore the idea of the defensive spectrum regarding his switch to first, which, going from the most difficult position to the easiest, shouldn’t have been that hard. And wasn’t… there have always been defensively inept first basemen who were there for their hitting, and Hatteberg, as far as I can remember, didn’t stand out as being particularly bad (in fact, the numbers show his defense cost the 2002 A’s half a win, exactly the same half a win Giambi cost with his defense the year before).

And then, I guess a less anal thing, but they barely even touched on why the hell OBP matters. Or the traditional obsession with batting average and RBI. Or even that the main philosophy of the A’s was to seek out undervalued players, which also went largely unnoticed by the public, even those who read the book. They thought it was all about taking walks, when it actually just happened that OBP was the undervalued thing at the time. Since then, when OBP became en vogue, the math said that defense was undervalued, and lots of forward-thinking teams, using the same philosophy, built the opposite kind of team.

The characterization of Beane seemed a little off. The stuff with his daughter seemed spot on, but one of my favorite things from Moneyball is him going from a lunatic during the draft and the regular season to being kinda zen in the playoffs, saying “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.” Which I think not only says something about Beane, but also about the realities of baseball. That over the course of a season, 10% of your games is the difference between .500 and the playoffs, so your chances in a 5 game series (which is what they played at the time) have a lot more to do with who happens to play well at the time than the true ability of your team. Or anything a GM can plan for.

There were some things I did like:

  • I’m glad they stuck with the idea that Beane was both a smooth-talking negotiator and a chair-throwing maniac when things didn’t go his way.
  • They kind of went overboard making the scouts look like idiots, but I liked the general idea.
  • The inclusion of Jeremy “fat catcher” Brown (who was the real reason for the “we’re not trying to sell jeans” quote) was nice, and although I’m pretty sure that was fake footage, that was a real incident.
  • And I’m glad they had a clip of Joe Morgan trashing Billy Beane and sabermetrics, because he does love to do that, and sounds like an idiot every time.
  • The part at the end which was not in the book (because I think it happened after) was handled really well. And to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that the guy who played the real life guy at the end did a phenomenal job.

But I was totally unable to enjoy the movie as a whole because I couldn’t get past all this stuff that popped into my head while watching.

* – one of the most interesting things sabermetrics revealed to me is that there are many left-handed hitters in the majors who are just plain not very good at hitting lefties, but there are virtually no right-handed hitters in the majors who can’t hit righties. It’s assumed that this is due to selection bias. Right-handed pitchers are so much more common in lower levels (little league, high school, even college) that if a player can’t hit righties, he’s assumed to not be good enough for the pros. But a lefty can suck at hitting lefties, since he’ll face so few good ones that he will look great most of the time.

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