Think about it. One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks.
— Michael Lewis, Moneyball
Moneyball is all about what you can’t tell, by watching. It’s about how remarkable this notion was, when Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane put it into practice during the early years of this century. And it’s about how difficult this notion is — still — to make visible.
The eminently watchable movie Moneyball is based on Michael Lewis’ terrific book. Published in 2003, that book explains the mathematical system by which baseball might be understood, a system made at least nominally visible by Bill James and a few other hardy souls, toiling in basements and on their lunch breaks, and taken seriously by Beane and Harvard grad Paul DePodesta in 1999.
As the book has it, the system was ridiculed by baseball veterans, whose careers were premised on watching, on interpreting what they watched, and on watching again (these same veterans and their descendents now use the system). James’ ideas flew in the face of that, and as Beane and DePodesta adopted it, they looked at stats rather than players, at teams rather than individuals. And in drawing conclusions from what they didn’t watch, they changed the game. Sort of.
Baseball remains a game that’s mostly premised on watching, on seasoned scouts and managers sorting through film and making decisions (and best guesses and gambles) based on what they see, and also on fans who pay to watch, in various ways. But Moneyball, the movie, is less about baseball than it is about the guys who play and manage it, and about Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, paired with Peter Brand (the DePodesta character, played by Jonah Hill).
While Bennett Miller’s film surely appreciates the beauty of baseball, the green fields and the athletic plays, it also provides other visual attractions. These include Pitt, of course, as well as some less necessary accoutrements to Beane as a character, a willowy ex-wife (Robin Wright), a lovely daughter (Kerris Dorsey), a barely furnished home where he spends precious little time. Flashbacks show you the brilliant, young, five-tool player Billy once was (Reed Thompson), how he loved the game and how he failed to play it well.
As Billy sees the abstractions of baseball as well as the business, he’s working with a minimalist payroll at the A’s ($39 million, compared to, say, the Yankees’ $114 million: as Lewis puts it, “There is no simple way to approach the problem Billy was trying to solve”). Knowing he’ll never win if he plays the game by the Yankees’ rules, Billy turns to other sorts of numbers, not hits (so visible on TV), but on-base percentage (OBP), which counts walks as a means to runs, as well as other Jamesian innovations, runs created and range factors.
The film Moneyball helps you to understand what Billy can tell by showing him in action. Where the book describes Beane on the phone, reports what he says while making deals for players and cajoling other general managers who might realize what he’s doing but hope there’s something in it for them anyway (the book, thus, imagines what those GMs are thinking), here you see him with people. He flies out to meet with managers, sits down with his scouts, even encourages his players in the locker room. It has him arguing with manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), furious that the front office thinks it knows more about how to run the team on the field than he does, but also revealed to be wrong about that, because Billy and Peter do know more: they’ve put together pieces that need to work together in a certain way in order to produce the mathematical results they expect.
Billy Beane here is voracious: he reads, he processes data, he discusses that data with Peter. When he’s sure he’s right, which is pretty much always, he uses Peter as a source in front of the doubters (as Peter has extraordinary recall of numbers and formulas), literally pointing to him as a cue during one perfectly choreographed meeting. This and another scene, where Billy has a competing GM on speaker phone and Peter in the chair across form his desk — exemplify what the film does well. He’s talking and thinking, mostly out loud, and the camera cuts from one face to another, creating a comic rhythm that has as much to do with what’s not said as what is.
The film exploits Pitt-as-Billy’s photogenic beauty when he drives, which he does a lot, during games he can’t bear to watch, but only listen to on a portable radio: the shots are close and low, the shadows striking. And the fun also makes fun of that same point, as it shows Billy eating, which he also does a lot. Billy eats in most every scene, everything from candies and peanuts to popcorn and Twinkies. The eating helps to make discernible the internal workings that otherwise you might miss.
Billy’s interest in players stops at their stats, and the movie explains this in sympathetic terms. He doesn’t want to know their life stories because he will, eventually, have to fire them. He and Peter sit in an office with a computer screen at the ready, as they explain to players the deep value of walks or the unreasonable risk of stealing bases.
The players listen intently, most of them apparently believers by the time Moneyball gets to the part of the A’s incredible 20-game winning streak. Billy, notoriously superstitious about watching, does his best not to. And then he does, which leads to on-field drama and close-ups and big music. As you watch all this hackneyed nonsense and know it’s been contrived for you, you’re briefly distracted. And then the movie, having revealed again the seductive fiction of baseball, the romance and the mythology, returns to what you can tell, and them various ways you can tell it. And now you know, these are fictions too.