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Movie Review: 'Moneyball'

Posted online
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill, Robin Wright
Rated: PG-13

I'm not a sports guy but have always loved baseball. It's so Zen. I also love math and statistics.

In 1977, baseball-obsessed, statistician-geek Bill James changed the game of baseball profoundly.

He began self-publishing a newsletter he called “The Baseball Abstract.” James called his method of analysis “sabermetrics,” based on the concepts of Society for American Baseball Research, which he founded.

His contention was that conventional baseball wisdom was missing the point.     

The “experts” were concerned mostly with batting averages and how popular a player was for hitting home runs and drawing a crowd.

But James, using his sabermetric technique, opined that there were many things that went unnoticed but made a player worthy. And many of those players could be hired on a low budget. Things James considered the most important were on-base percentage - whether by a hit, a walk or getting hit by a pitch; which pitchers and catchers allowed the most stolen bases; and esoteric concepts such as what he called the Pythagorean Winning Percentage.

Old-school baseball people - from managers to scouts - thought James and his theories were crazy. Then one person in the business started studying sabermetrics and used it to rebuild his ball team.

That was Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane, in 2001.

“Moneyball,” based on the great book by Michael Lewis, is a fascinating film, even if it may not look so good on paper.

But it really is, and the character development far overshadows the stats and baseball angles, even though those points are the impetus for the film.

Beane is played by Brad Pitt, in his best role since “Seven.”

The A's had the lowest budget in the major leagues at this time. After making it to the playoffs - but never to the World Series - in 2000 and 2001, the A's lost their best  performers to teams with bigger budgets. Beane needed to replace them but couldn't afford the salaries that the “best” ballplayers were demanding.

And Beane hated to lose, even more than he loved winning.

He hired Peter Brand and made him assistant general manger.

Played perfectly by Jonah Hill, Brand is a computer whiz with a degree from Yale and has never played a game of baseball in his life. The A's front office was outraged and took Beane to task. But he stuck to his guns.

Brand started researching baseball players that were underrated and cheap to obtain. He used the sabermetric system to evaluate them. Again the owners and board of directors were upset. Again, Beane stuck  to his instincts and Brand's stats.

The result is a ragtag team that manages to start the season off miserably but then sets an American League record with 20 wins in a row. They gradually get to first place and, again, get to go to the American League playoffs.

Beane and Brand have proven that their radical ideas (based on James' sabermetric theories) actually work. While things don't work out perfectly for the A's,  the general manager and his computer geek feel vindicated.

In today's baseball universe, I can't imagine that there is any team not following the James method.

Pitt and Hill make an unlikely duo, but it works. Also on board are Philip Seymour Hoffman as A's manager Art Howe and Robin Wright as Beane's estranged wife. It's an all-star cast, and the performers obviously love the material. Pitt is credited as a producer, so he must have believed in the film from the start.

It's a surprisingly great movie even if you don't care about baseball.

And if you are a baseball fan or a statistics nerd, seek out James' books. There are ones from individual seasons as well as three massive volumes of “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.”

As baseball great Ernie Banks used to say, “It's a beautiful day for a ballgame - let's play two!”

So I'm going to see “Moneyball” a second time.[[In-content Ad]]


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