'Moneyball' A Disappointment

Under normal circumstances, I might not write about Moneyball, since I and SB Nation got advertising money from it. But since I watched that instead of the games tonight (okay, I caught a smidgen of the Brewers' win), and since I don't mind biting the hand that feeds me if it might provoke an interesting discussion, a few words. 

Writing the screenplay for this movie must have been difficult. There's a battle at its heart, but it's mostly an ideological battle, which probably is easier to convey through a book than through film. The way the movie deals with it is mostly to have cameras scan over reams of typewritten numbers, and then have Brad Pitt sit there for a long time and then throw something. The end result is that the film plods, and it's hard to imagine anyone who isn't already familiar with the terms of the battle really caring about it or finding compelling reasons to root for the characters. (Although, evidently, a lot of people must not feel that way.)

In the book upon which the movie is based, Billy Beane is portrayed as charismatic, almost maniacal, but the movie fails to take advantage of opportunities for that charisma to shine through. For example, a scene where he's arguing with his scouts about which ballplayers to sign isn't nearly as funny and sharp as it could be. A scene in which Beane is trying to swing a trade for Ricardo Rincon could have crackled with absurd humor and brisk energy, but it doesn't.

Also, there were a number of scenes that felt like loose ends - we abruptly learn that Chad Bradford is a devout Christian, for example, but then we never hear about it again.

As a drama, Moneyball isn't very good, and focusing much of the movie around the Athletics' long winning streak in 2002 feels like a mistake, since ultimately, the stakes are never much higher than just winning the next baseball game. It's less of a surprise that the movie is unsuccessful as an investigation of a way of thinking about baseball, but if they weren't going to make a Hollywood movie with a rip-roaring plot and a tear-jerking ending, I would have loved to see them go full geek and really explain everything.

One funny thing about both the book and the movie is that anyone with modest critical thinking skills and a basic understanding of the game can see that a lot of the strategies Beane adopts are problematic, to say the least. In the movie, he downplays the importance of defense, but then we see him taking an active interest in Scott Hatteberg's play at first. He rolls his eyes at his scouts' worries that Jeremy Giambi is too much of a party animal, but then trades him for exactly that reason. A big chunk of the movie features Beane gnashing his teeth about a young Carlos Pena, who Beane dumped along with Jeremy Bonderman in a very dubious trade, and who turned out (after several years, but still) to be a very good player.

And then there's the fact that, as everyone knows, Beane was lucky to get great performances from three young starting pitchers. That's not even mentioned in the movie, and I don't think Barry Zito or Mark Mulder are even in it. Tim Hudson is shown giving up runs in this game, but that's it. (Kudos, though, to the filmmakers for - I think? - correctly portraying a number of extremely obscure Royals players in that game, like Luis Ordaz and Kit Pellow.)

Billy Beane was, for a time, the best general manager in baseball, but even then, he was far from perfect. The movie manages to gloss over those imperfections, while at the same time failing to create a compelling good-guys-versus-bad-guys narrative. My brother's girlfriend, who isn't a baseball fan at all, came to see the movie with us, and I felt bad for her. Not even I was having that great a time.

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