Wife Susie and I saw the baseball movie “Moneyball” last week. It starred Brad Pitt, normally not my favorite actor, but I thought he was good in the role of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager whose adoption of Bill James’s statistical slants on the game helped turn his low-payroll team into a winner in the first years of the present century. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s script excellently captured the content and rhythms of baseball speech, no small feat for an outsider.
We saw the movie in the company of a couple of non-fan friends, and afterward they asked me if I knew which parts of the movie were true and which weren’t. A few discrepancies occurred immediately, but I later did a bit of research and discovered several more. I pass them on here in the interest of sports education.
Let me say first that I understand the difference between life and art and the urge to sometimes improve on the former in the interest of the latter. The movie’s producers wanted to tell a compelling story and, for the most part, did. That’s the business they’re in, and good for them. Still, one shouldn’t confuse “based on truth” for the real thing. It’s not good for one’s mental health.
A main invention of the film was the character of assistant general manager Peter Brand, whom baseball-guy Beane hired to install Jamesian technology into the A’s field operations. Brand’s real-life counterpart is Paul DePodesta, who after his A’s stint became the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and now works in the New York Mets’ front office.
Character Brand, played by the actor Jonah Hill, held an economics degree from Yale. DePodesta has an economics degree from Harvard. Hill is plump and nerdy. DePodesta may be nerdy but his photos reveal him to be quite fit looking, and his Wikipedia biography says he played baseball and football at Harvard. Obviously, making Brand a schlub helped the filmmakers cast the movie A’s into a “Bad News Bears” mold, a tried-and-true movie device.
A more-basic and related divergence between film and truth had to do with the makeup of the 2002 A’s team that was the film’s focus. In the movie the A’s had been devastated by the loss to free agency of stars Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon and had to scour the castoff lists to replace them. It portrayed as the new stars of the team the weak-winged first-baseman Scott Hatteberg, the over-the-hill outfielder David Justice and the funny-throwing relief pitcher Cory Bradford, none of whose true value was apparent to anyone but the Beane braintrust.
While Hatteberg, Justice and Bradford were useful role players, the real ’02 A’s had a heckuva lineup otherwise. It included shortstop Miguel Tejada, whose .308 batting average, 34 home runs and 131 runs batted in won him election as the American League’s Most Valuable Player that season, and third-baseman Eric Chavez, another young power hitter (34 homers, 109 RBIs) of All-Star caliber.
Oakland’s starting-pitching rotation that year featured the young stars Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, whose combined won-lost record was 57-21. Zito (23-5) was the AL’s Cy Young Award winner, giving the team the league’s best pitcher as well as its best overall player. The Bad News Bears they weren’t.
It’s noteworthy that Tejada, Chavez, Zito, Hudson and Mulder (none of whose names I recall hearing in the movie) all were products of the Oakland farm system, signed as draftees or free agents by the team’s scouts, some before the Beane regime began in 1998. The scouts were portrayed in the movie as Neanderthals, sitting around spitting tobacco juice into paper cups and spouting baseball saws. I guess they weren’t so dumb after all.
Equally misleading, I thought, was the relationship between the statistical underpinnings of the “Moneyball” slant on baseball and the feats of the ’02 A’s, especially the 20-game winning streak that propelled them into that season’s playoffs. The streak was a great achievement, all right, but it was a fluke and not the result of sort of calculations on which Beane’s roster was built.
Much of what James contributed to baseball back then (he’s moved on since) stemmed from his fresh focus on on-base percentage (OPB; hits plus walks divided by times at bat) rather than straight batting average as the prime measure of offensive efficiency and defensive emphasis. As Beane succinctly put it in an interview I did with him for a 2003 piece in Sports Business Journal, “we look for batters who take balls and pitchers who throw strikes.” Often, that kind of player was undervalued on the baseball market, giving an edge to teams in the know.
Baseball is the game of the long haul and the small difference, and the difference between a hitter with an ordinary OBP of .330 and one with a quite-good .380 is five hits or walks in 100 plate appearances. That works out to one more scoring opportunity every four or five games, producing, maybe, an extra run or two over that span. A lineup of walk-taking hitters and walk-stingy pitchers might add a half-dozen or so wins for a team over a 162-game campaign. That’s a nice addition but alone is hardly the stuff of epic winning streaks.
The Beane-led A’s had a great run from 2000 through 2006, winning almost 59% of their games and several divisional titles. Alas for them, everyone else now knows what they do, and they haven’t had a winning season since. Now that his daughter is older, divorced-father Beane no longer is tied to the Oakland area, and no one would be surprised if he bails for a larger-market club.
Truth is, “Moneyball” is fine but being rich is better.