The impending release on Friday, September 23, 2011, of the Moneyball movie, based on the 2003 book of the same name by author Michael Lewis, seems to be one of the most anticipated baseball films in years. The controversial chronicling of the Oakland A’s under general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt in the movie) was called “the single most influential baseball book ever” by SABR member Rob Neyer. The story of the Beane front office and its reliance on outside-the-box statistical analysis and other sabermetric tools has drawn even greater scrutiny among baseball fans who discuss every day the best ways to evaluate player and team performances.
Sabermetrics, as originally defined by Bill James in 1980 — he coined the phrase in part to honor SABR, of which he has been a longtime member — is “the search for objective knowledge about baseball”, often using statistical analysis to question traditional measures of baseball evaluation such as batting average and pitcher wins. James’ theories were largely mocked (or worse: ignored) by the baseball establishment, but as Joe Posnanski wrote last week in “The Ballad of Bill James”, over time his work started to be recognized. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The Boston Red Sox hired him, and he received two World Series rings.
James is still asking relevant questions today at billjamesonline.com, and so are legions of his disciples such as Rob Neyer, baseball editor at SB Nation (who detailed his personal connections to the Moneyball story Friday); Phil Birnbaum, who edits the SABR Statistical Analysis Committee newsletter, “By the Numbers”, and writes at Sabermetric Research; and all the great writers at Baseball Analysts, Baseball Prospectus, Beyond the Box Score, FanGraphs, The Book, The Hardball Times and other sites. See our SABR Blog Roll page for more sites focusing on sabermetrics and other baseball research.
Want a primer on sabermetrics? Check out the FanGraphs Library for down-to-earth explanations of advanced metrics such as wOBA (weighted on-base average), FIP (fielding-independent pitching) and WAR (wins above replacement), written by Steve Slowinski. SABR members can also read cutting-edge articles on statistical analysis in every issue of the Baseball Research Journal, such as “The Many Flavors of DIPS: A History and Overview”, by Dan Basco and Michael Davies.
As Moneyball premieres nationwide, we’re linking to various interviews and reviews we think you’ll find interesting as you get set to watch the film.
Former A’s designated hitter Scott Hatteberg, who hit the game-ending home run in Oakland’s record-setting 20th consecutive win on September 4, 2002, one of the climatic scenes in the film, weighs in on his portrayal by actor Chris Pratt at BaseballProspectus.com:
“It was just surreal watching someone playing me in a movie. You wonder what you’re going to look like once the movie is finished, but Chris was great. He’s a right-handed hitter and I hit left-handed, but he worked at it and wound up having a pretty good lefty swing. He was able to mimic my bow-legged walk and he did a great job of playing an unsure, slew-footed guy trying to learn how to play first base, which is exactly what I was when I came to the A’s. It was pretty ugly at first, and scenes in the movie where I keep misplaying balls are not exaggerated.”
Former A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson, now an advisor at Bloomberg Sports, talks about how more teams have embraced technology at The Big Lead:
“It’s amazing how quickly technology has advance the game, almost like what people were doing with the first big bulky cell phones and looking at where we are today with smart phones. What we have today is so user friendly that players can adapt very quickly, because technology is part of their life. They understand, they link data with video and as a result things can be done so much quicker in terms of player analysis. It is not much different from the business world overall, where now technology drives everything. We may have been the first club in, but now even what we were doing then pales in comparison to what teams can do today.”
Dan Szymborski, editor-in-chief at Baseball Think Factory and the inventor of the ZIPS fielding projection system, is interviewed by SABR member Graham Womack at Baseball Past and Present:
“I know Keith Law [of ESPN.com] wasn’t too thrilled with it, but my stance on it is: This is it. This is the sabermetric movie. There’s not going to be another one, so even if it’s not completely faithful, if there’s dramatic license and all that, this is a sabermetrics movie, so we might as well enjoy it. It’s not like they’re going to have The Bill James Story or any of these guys. I mean, they’re great guys, but none of us are going to have movies except for this. And essentially, one of the most notorious/famous users of statistics, Billy Beane, I mean he’s played by Brad Pitt, in a movie, about sabermetrics. This is it, guys.”
Looking back at Moneyball, the book
Speaking of Keith Law, the former Blue Jays analyst’s negative review of Moneyball (“an absolute mess of a film”) caused a kerfuffle around the blogosphere last week when author Michael Lewis responded to his claims that the story overexaggerated Law’s bias against traditional scouting. But, as the pseudonymous writer The Common Man at The Platoon Advantage points out, sabermetrics has evolved quite a bit since the Moneyball book first came out:
“It was published eight years ago, in 2003, which probably means the interviews Lewis did to write it were conducted in 2002. That’s practically a lifetime when it comes to baseball and the statistical revolution. Statheads in both baseball’s front offices and in the online writing community have grown significantly since those bad old days where scouts were denigrated, spreadsheets worshipped as golden idols, and on-base percentage was the only thing that mattered. … [Law has] seen that good scouting has incredible value to an organization and can be used in tandem with numbers and figures to get a complete picture of a player or an organization. Those who reject either stats or scouting as useless are dinosaurs who can’t help but be lapped by their more flexible rivals. What’s amazing is that Lewis’ rigidity is completely counter to the thesis that most of us seem to take from his seminal work in Moneyball, for organizations to zig when others zag, to find undervalued resources, and to exploit every advantage over a competitor in order to maintain their competitive advantage.
Justin Bopp at Beyond the Box Score also warns of taking Beane’s approach in Moneyball as sabermetric gospel now that the book is eight years old:
“When Moneyball was released, on base percentage still wasn’t that widely used to describe players conversationally, now … I’m pretty sure most of us think about players as a triple slash. .300/.400/.500. That’s a great player. But it’s not just us that changed the way we think, the big money clubs took notice and changed what they valued as well. Naturally, the market on “guys that get on base” shrank and prices went up. What remains, I believe, is a ghost of an idea victim to the teams with more money to see it through. If Moneyball was the launching point of low salary clubs competing using under-valued skill sets, then the sabermetric revolution has been the launching point to ensure that those that have both money and brains remain at the top of the standings throughout. I’m not sure if the book or even the concept of undervalued talent is still relevant, honestly.
Joe Sheehan at Sports Illustrated writes that the most lasting legacy of Moneyball is that people who haven’t played professional baseball now feel they can make a contribution within front offices:
It’s because of Moneyball and the ideas within that every team has statistical analysts, many drawn from the ranks of Prospectus alums, many my own friends and former colleagues. Keith Law went to the Blue Jays and came back to media. Woolner and Fox were contributors to the surprising early success this year of the Indians and Pirates, respectively. Chaim Bloom and James Click are in the Rays’ front office. Outside of Prospectus, there’s Mitchell Lichtman and Ron Shandler and “Tom Tango” and many other smart guys whose intelligence about the game we love has been tapped because of the path blazed by DePodesta, who himself advanced to GM of the Dodgers and helped build division winners in Los Angeles before being scapegoated by an owner desperate to curry favor with the craven local media.
Over at Baseball Nation, Rob Neyer has posted links to several other well-written profiles of the A’s, Beane, Bill James and Moneyball that are worth your time.
Reviews of Moneyball, the film
Here are some more reviews of Moneyball, which premieres today (Friday, September 23):
“I’ve read Michael Lewis’ book twice and consider it some of the best, most important baseball writing of all time, but I was never quite sure how exactly it could be turned into a compelling narrative film. And I’m still not sure, but I do know that it was definitely an enjoyable two hours. As a hardcore baseball fan who paid close attention to Billy Beane and the A’s during the period portrayed in the film there were a lot of specifics that stood out as questionable, particularly in terms of the movie’s time lines and exaggerated portrayals of certain characters (although the book is guilty of the latter as well). However, what the movie lacked in historical accuracy it made up for in witty dialogue, likable characters, and a surprising amount of humor.”
Since so many viewers will bring a tremendous amount of subject material knowledge into the theater with them—sort of like a professor specializing in colonial American history sitting down to watch The Patriot—they’re going to have some issues with the film. … It’s a fair adaptation of the book, and I suppose that means those who found Lewis’ borderline deification of A’s general manager Billy Beane aggravating in the text shouldn’t be surprised if they come away with the same feeling from the movie.
“Moneyball is not a traditional sports movie, and indeed should be just as gripping for non-sports fans. It’s not a series of Big Games. When it goes to the field, it’s for well-chosen crucial moments. … There are a lot of laughs, but only one or two are inspired by lines intended to be funny. Instead, our laughter comes from recognition, an awareness of irony, an appreciation of perfect zingers — and, best of all, insights into human nature. This is really a movie about business. None of the individual players have major roles. The drama all happens in the mind of a general manager and his numbers guy.”
“Authenticity and entertainment don’t often go well together. And this, I think, was the great challenge of Moneyball — perhaps even the unwinnable challenge. They were making a movie largely about baseball statistics, for crying out loud, but they were making it with a star-studded Hollywood cast (Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt and Robin Wright, who is in the movie for about 48 seconds and got considerably less screen time than the Rincon deal), a terrific director (Bennett Miller, who did Capote), and an incredible writing team (Aaron Sorkin wrote “The Social Network” and Steven Zaillian wrote “Schindler’s List” among others). They were making a Brad Pitt movie without a love interest, a baseball movie without a climactic home run, a buddy movie about on-base percentage and a big Hollywood movie about a general manager who has never led his team to the World Series. … I have to admit, seeing it was one of the strangest movie experiences of my life.”
For more reviews by SABR members, click here.
— Compiled by Jacob Pomrenke
Originally published: September 23, 2011. Last Updated: May 6, 2020.