I know enough about baseball to know that I don’t want to be a general manager. Every other professional sports league has a salary cap which helps to prevent the big market teams from dominating their smaller competition. It’s the reason the Green Bay Packers of football and Detroit Red Wings of hockey can enjoy recent championships and the New York Knicks of basketball have been waiting for 40 years. The New York Yankees, however, are able to spend as much as they’ve got and as the most marketable brand in American sports, they’ve got quite a lot that allows them to buy up the best players. But baseball isn’t basketball or hockey where the team can pass to their best player whenever they need a score. To quote Aaron Sorkin, one of the screenwriters of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, “the rules prevent [a player] from batting before and after himself.” It takes more than good players to win in baseball and it can’t be bought (though you need money) and it can’t be figured out statistically. Sometimes the ball just bounces your way.
In Moneyball, Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) finds that the ball doesn’t bounce his way very often. His is a small market team and his owner won’t spend what it takes to win. The A’s have just been eliminated from the 2001 playoffs and their chances in 2002 don’t look much better. Richer teams from Boston and New York are taking all of Oakland’s marquee free agents and Beane finds his scouts can tell him all about the players who “look good” and “have pretty swings” but don’t reveal much more substance than that. He hires a geeky economics major named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) from a rival team because he believes he has a theory that will allow Oakland to find value on the field without spending much money. That theory is sabermetrics. The idea is to boil down all the numbers associated with the game to one: wins. How many games it will take to win your division. How many runs it will take to win those games. How many runs must you prevent. Based on the numbers a smart GM must assemble a team that will collectively generate those runs.
The old guard scouts are flummoxed to hear the players their boss is considering hiring, guys who are old, or play bad defense, or throw funny. They don’t pass the eye test. Beane and Brand aren’t interested in how they look, just how the stats say they’ll perform. Oakland’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is upset to begin with that the team he took to the playoffs the previous year has been gutted and replaced with nobodies and castoffs. He’s further annoyed when he’s told how to fill out his lineup card according to a philosophy he doesn’t believe in. The season starts badly and Oakland falls in the standings. Beane’s daughter worries for her father’s job. But after making enough trades to fill out the roster (and force Howe’s hand by trading players so that their preferable back-ups get in the game) the team begins to perform as designed and eventually wins more games than they had the previous year, punctuated by winning 20 in a row, an American League record. Moneyball is only partially interested in the team however; this is more of a story of the man who put it together, what drives him, and what he’s up against. Beane was a former player and in flashbacks we see him being evaluated the way the dinosaurs on his scouting staff still evaluate players. He was a five-tool player, a can’t-miss prospect. Except he did miss. Baseball people say that sure things flame out all the time but Beane can’t understand why then they are called sure things. Brand reveals in a makeshift interview that he would have valued Beane the prospect much lower than he was. It’s enough to get him the job. This is a man compelled to compete. “I hate losing,” he says. “More than I want to win. There’s a difference.” He can hardly watch A’s games, spending that time driving in his truck or working out in the clubhouse gym, not out of nerves, but a frustration that he can’t control the outcome.
Moneyball is a very good picture, with a first-rate cast. Brad Pitt is fantastic as a thinking man’s jock. Some of the best casting work is done with his contemporaries with the A’s and other teams. They range from hotshot slick wheeler-dealers to weathered old codgers. Moneyball also benefits from luxuries in small roles such as Robin Wright in literally one scene and Hoffman as the maligned manager. The screenplay is by a dream pairing of Sorkin and Steven Zaillian perhaps the two best writers working today and they craft an impossibly entertaining story about a niche idea (sports statistics) and make it a David vs. Goliath tale. They are able to write smart dialogue about a complicated idea without alienating non-sports fans. Scenes sparkle with funny dialogue and brisk exposition. The weak link is Bennett Miller who never directs with the ease found in the screenplay. The pacing is tepid and routine. He does however make good hay during the film’s only on-field drama, the record-setting twentieth straight win, which is just good moviemaking, though Beane mentions that a streak like that is an outlier that doesn’t mean much.
The screenplay is based on the book by Michael Lewis titled Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. But Billy Beane never does win. Despite the twenty-game streak, the A’s are eliminated in the playoffs again, and Beane, Brand and their new way of thinking are written off. The reason baseball is an unfair game is because it takes 162 games to decide who the best teams are, an ungodly number more than twice any other sport, and then makes those teams compete in five- or seven-game spats. Sample size is what killed the A’s. Beane is offered a job by the Red Sox at the end of the film, an offer that would have made him the richest general manager in sports. He turned it down. Moneyball ends with a subtitle that says Boston would go on to win the World Series using the same theories that Oakland developed under Beane. Unfair game indeed.