I’m still enjoying the post season immensely and I’m rooting hard for the Cardinals and the Tigers to win tonight. Rooting for the Tigers and the Cardinals? Could it be that what I really want out of all of this is epic trash talk on Red State Blue State? While that interpretation of the facts certainly makes for an entertaining story, it is not an accurate statement. Hmmm…could there be a better segue for my review of Moneyball? I think not:
So I saw Moneyball a few days back (Didn’t we all?) and, eh, I didn’t love it, but I did like it. Look, when not stressed beyond capacity I read voraciously, have done so all my life. Given the number of movies based on books out there, the vast majority of them quite loosely indeed, this means I either had to stop watching movies or learn pretty early on to view movies as a completely separate entity from books. …And from history actually because for every cinematic crime against literature, there are at least three against history. Yes, I was a history major. Why do you ask? 😉
Looking at Moneyball strictly as a movie, I thought it was good. Enjoyable. A little overlong in parts – namely the Brad Pitt moping, and worrying and moping some more parts. Some of the scenes with Brad Pitt’s family were forced and trite. On the other hand, the acting was excellent, some of the dialog was genuinely stirring and the story was appealing. I love underdogs. I love upsets. Heck, I was rooting for the movie A’s by the end of it. From a story telling standpoint, especially knowing that Aaron Sorkin was one of the final script writers, I felt it was missing a big, gorgeous, eloquent mini-speech about baseball or two. Also, once the decision was made to concentrate on the 2002 major league team rather than the draft class the book actually focused on, I wish they had also decided to incorporate more of the players’ background stories as presented in the book – especially when given the choice between including 20 extra minutes of Brad Pitt brooding in a car or 10 minutes each of the story behind Chad Bradford’s unusual even for a submariner style and Scott Hatteberg’s need to socialize. A little sarcastic dialog from a 1st base conversation or two would have been a nice way to break up the montages.
So I enjoyed Moneyball as a movie, but what about as a cinematic glimpse of baseball history? Well it wasn’t that at all, actually. Notice I refer to Brad Pitt as Brad Pitt above, not Billy Beane? That’s because the characters in Moneyball were just that, characters in a fictional movie, loosely based on something that actually happened and, truth be told, a loose interpretation of the book as well. The mischaracterizations and inaccuracies were pretty epic. The movie completely forgets to mention non-Moneyball players, even though a Cy Young performance from Barry Zito and an MVP performance from Miguel Tejada might have contributed to the A’s 2002 success, you know, maybe just a little, along with strong performances from the rest of the non-Chad Bradford pitching staff and other returning A’s players. And as for the Moneyball stuff, Carlos Pena wasn’t traded to force Art Howe to play Scott Hatteberg. Hatteberg was already playing more games than not as a DH because, yes, he didn’t just walk a lot, he could actually hit. He also grew into a decent fielding first baseman. And I could go on and on. All of these creative licenses were clearly taken with the intent to make Moneyball into a better story. And, in that sense, I believe that the creative team behind the movie succeeded. But what happens when we change the truth to make it a better story, especially so much of the truth? Exactly.
Okay, so it was entertaining but took creative license to the extreme with the history. So what about all of the folks who don’t know any of the history behind the movie? Are they going to start running around quoting Moneyball as fact? I don’t really see this happening to any degree that should concern. Look, here’s the thing with movies. They rarely if ever get it right and when they do the authenticity usually lies more in the feelings than the actual facts. And for a movie based on history, touting “based on a true story” in the ad campaign means roughly the same thing as using the author’s name in the title of a movie adapted from a book – what appears on screen bears only passing resemblance to the source material. And I think that most savvy movie goers understand this.
What’s that you say? The typical movie goer may not be savvy? Maybe these anecdotes will quell a few fears:
A few weeks ago, a casual baseball fan friend of mine told me about this great looking movie he just saw a preview for, Moneyball. After describing the gist of the plot he had gleaned from the preview he said, But here’s the weird thing. Did you know that they’re using the Oakland A’s for this movie? I mean, using the Cleveland Indians made sense in Major League. But I can’t figure out why anyone would want to use the Oakland A’s for a feel good comeback story movie. My apologies to A’s fans everywhere. These were my friend’s words, not mine. But I relate them here to demonstrate that some folks with more distance from the game than we lot kind of gloss over the “based on a true story” angle and just assume the whole thing is fiction.
And the non baseball fan’s perspective? I was chatting with a good friend a few months back who grasps the concept of baseball and goes to the occasional Dodger game when tickets fall into his hands as they are wont to do from time to time if you live and work in Los Angeles County, but who would not describe himself as even a casual fan. I mentioned enjoying chatting and snarking with a couple of Tigers fans at the Big A on 4th of July. He gave me a really confused look that typically means, “Explain?” So I explained that the Angels were playing the Tigers that night. He repeated the confused look and I gave him one of my own. I mean, what more could one explain?
(Close your eyes Michael David.) I am sorry to say that he then asked The Tigers? That’s not a team I’m familiar with? Okay, this is a very smart man. And he’s up on current events and popular culture. And he grew up in Maryland and went to a few games at Camden Yards as a child so this isn’t some sort of weird west coast bias thing. Apparently if you aren’t really a baseball fan, any team that isn’t the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, your local team(s) or a few isolated others, then that team could be a completely fictional movie team for all that you know…and seeing as fictional movie team comes pretty close to describing the 2002 Oakland A’s as depicted in the film Moneyball, maybe in this case that’s a good thing.
So, if this movie still hath offended think but this and all is…well…if not outright mended, perhaps a bit more in perspective. Those who are close to baseball know how weak and idle this particular theme was from a historical standpoint and those who are not close to the game are very likely to think it’s fiction for a completely different reason. And as for the folks who believe it to be gospel…well…they probably believe almost everything the movies tell them anyway, like the Da Vinci Code is word for word real…and that the 300 Spartans went to war in nothing but teeny, tiny leather speedos…and, and that Nicolas Cage has a broad acting range and can deftly insert himself into the leading role – and accent! – in any action movie.
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Notice that I reviewed Moneyball without ever once offering my opinion on Moneyball philosophy and/or sabermetrics? Yeah, I thought I’d be a little different. Besides, there is enough fodder there to declare Moneyball an entertaining movie but a bad “based on a true story” without ever touching sabermetrics. However, for the record, I think that sabermetric stats are one of many great tools available for assessing baseball players but they are just that, only one tool in the belt. I also think that traditional stats, paying attention to a player’s intangibles and also just plain old gut feel, instinct and observation are important tools for assessing baseball players. I think that it makes the most sense for baseball teams to use every tool available. Completely ignoring any of the tools in favor of one particular tool might work on an occasional player by player basis. But you can’t build a team that way…nor, if you read Michael Lewis’ original book was he initially theorizing that you could. He…a…got a little carried away there by the end of the book and strayed from his own premise. But I’ve got a whole post about that back in the archives if you’re really interested in reading my thoughts on the book.
Scott Kazmir – The Final Chapter?
A final decision regarding Kaz came even sooner than I thought. On Tuesday, the date of my last post, Angels GM Tony Reagins and former Angels GM Bill Stoneman attended a Salt Lake City Bees game to assess Scott Kazmir’s performance and it was terrible. Six earned runs on five hits, three walks and one hit batsman in 1.2 innings terrible. Wednesday morning, the Angels put Kaz on waivers with the intention of unconditionally releasing him if he remains unclaimed. While I’m sad that a young pitcher who had a lot of early success lost all speed and control and seemingly can’t regain it, I think this was a good decision. The Angels have been patient, but it was time to release him. More than time.
However, I had not anticipated the rumors that the Mets are considering claiming Kaz or signing him after his release. I suppose it makes sense, if it is indeed anything more than a rumor. Kaz was the Mets draft pick. Maybe they think they can get him back in the proper headspace to pitch like he used to again? If they can, more power to them and best wishes to all involved, but I don’t see any improvement happening for a very long time if ever.
Mike Scioscia is taking advantage of this off day to adjust the starting rotation slightly, flipping Dan Haren and Tyler Chatwood’s starts in order to push Chatwood back and give him a little more rest. The Angels are starting to monitor Chatwood’s innings count and do not want to see it climb much over 170 innings for the season. Future off days are likely to be used in a similar fashion. I think the Angels should use the innings count as a guideline and monitor how Chatwood himself seems to be performing and how his arm is wearing through those innings more than a setting a strict numerical guideline. There is ample anecdotal evidence both for and against such handling of rookie pitchers and I really think that in the end the personality, physical makeup and style of pitching of the individual are what determines if such an innings limit is beneficial or detrimental in the long run.
The Moneyball trailer is up, and included below. It passed the goosebumps test for both my husband and me, and after seeing it I am jonesing for the movie release even more than before. Goosebumps test you ask? I tend to get goosebumps whenever I see something I love done beautifully, wonderfully right, such a movie adaptation of a book I adored that absolutely nails the book. Thus trailers must pass the goosebumps test in order to ensure my complete anticipation. The trailer for the Shawshank Redemption where I could tell exactly what it was they had adapted from second one when the warden slaps the bible on the table? The scene from the Watchmen trailer where Jon Osterman becomes Dr. Manhattan? The first glimpse of the Ents in the Two Towers trailer? Or, more recently, pretty much every split second flash in the American remake of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I was planning on passing on as unnecessary until I saw the trailer)? Killer goosebump generators all.
So, Moneyball the movie. Is it going to contain factual inaccuracies, oversimplifications and overly romanticized details? Yes. Will some scenes frustrate the historically knowledgeable baseball fan? More than likely. Will it leave some non-baseball fans with the mistaken impression that the Oakland A’s have gone on to sweep the division time and time again? Actually, I have some hopes on this front. Aaron Sorkin did work the modern consequences of Charlie Wilson’s War into the end of the movie in a poignant way, so maybe not. But, alas, it is possible.
However, will Moneyball include Aaron Sorkin’s typically gorgeous dialog waxing poetic about one of my favorite subjects? Absolutely. And this, more than anything else, is the reason I am dying to see this movie. The baseball equivalent of the ‘Two Cathedrals’ soliloquy, the “May we have it back please” debate sarcasm, or Gust Avrakotes’ rant? I’m getting chills just thinking about it. Old baseball scouts and other staff discussing how they first fell in love with the game (the ‘how did I get here’ speech being a Sorkin staple)? Oh. Yes. Please. …And the by now de rigueur Gilbert and Sullivan reference? I have absolutely no idea how Sorkin is going to work one into a baseball movie, but somehow I am sure he will manage. (Yes, Seth. They’re all about duty. 😉 )
My father-in-law discovered Michael Lewis this Christmas. One relative gave him The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Lewis’ new book on the mortgage meltdown and my husband and I loaned him Liar’s Poker, Lewis’ first book about his early career as a Wall Street bond trader in the 1980’s. He’s really enjoying The Big Short and we got into a huge discussion about both books and all things Michael Lewis over the weekend. And, of course, you can’t talk about Michael Lewis without talking about Moneyball, or at least I can’t.
My father-in-law is as much of a numbers geek as I am. I hooked him on the idea of reading Moneyball with my descriptions of the newer sabermetric stats and Lewis’ comparison of the analysis of certain key pieces of a baseball player’s skill set to the derivatives trade market. However, while I also appreciated these aspects of Moneyball when I read the book, they are not the reason it is one of my favorite baseball books. No, what grabbed my attention were the strong but unintentional arguments Michael Lewis made on the way to arguing his main points: namely that personalities, clubhouse/teammate chemistry and other intangibles that stats cannot measure are every bit as important as those skills the stats can measure and that being a passionate baseball fan sometimes causes you to defy logic and reason. If this doesn’t sound like the Moneyball you read or have heard about, check my logic here:
In talking about on base percentage, slugging percentage and other at the time undervalued stats Lewis dedicates a entire chapter each to A’s acquisitions Jeremy Brown, Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford. Each player exhibited one or more sabermetrically valuable skills while lacking many of the qualities that Major League Baseball placed a high value on. In the course of outlining the different ways this situation made each player a brilliant bargain for Billy Beane’s larger vision for the A’s an entirely different argument emerges. In telling their stories, Lewis’ also describes a crucial unexpected personal element that helps each player achieve success. Brown, for example, is a talented hitter who suffers from the fragile psychology of the chronically picked on kid. In Lewis’ telling, once Brown makes the first jump away from the A’s rookie team, he is on the verge of crumpling from a lack of confidence when his friend, the much more socially adept Nick Swisher, gives him the encouragement he needs, a sympathetic ear and a one-man cheerleading squad in the dugout.
Scott Hatteberg’s story is my favorite. A former catcher with a damaged elbow that destroyed his throwing arm, Hatteberg’s high on base percentage brings him to the attention of the A’s who want to retrain him as a first baseman. What the A’s have no way of knowing is how much Hatteberg’s love for baseball is built around the chats and personal interactions he had with the opposing teams’ batters when he used to catch. What I took from Lewis’s argument is that, more than the desire to excel at baseball again, it was the realization that he could have that same level of personal interaction and possibly even longer conversations with opposing players as a first baseman that gave Hatteberg the drive he needed to learn the challenging new position.
Hatteberg’s personality becomes a real asset when Chad Bradford begins pitching for the A’s. Lewis describes Bradford almost crumpling under the pressure of past manager’s reactions to his quirky submarine pitching style until Hatteberg gives him a timely confidence boost by sharing the hitters shocked and impressed reactions to the pitches when they reach first base. I assume that Lewis’ point in sharing these stories is that they are great stories which bring a compelling personal element to the book. But after reading them, I for one can’t imagine any of the players functioning in the way Beane felt their stats indicated they would perform if the intangible qualities in the player and/or their teammates weren’t there right along with the tangible ones. I know this is not what Lewis intended to argue at all, but the argument is there nevertheless and largely, I think, becuase you can’t escape the importance the human element plays in baseball no matter how you crunch the numbers.
As to the unintentional argument about the passion of baseball fans, one of Moneyball‘s biggest controversies is the perception that Lewis argues in favor of new sabermetric stats hands down over traditional stats. This isn’t Lewis’ original argument at all. He starts out by saying that sabermetrics allows managers to pick and choose undervalued skills, the skills that can give a less wealthy team the most talent for their limited dollars. His central premise is not that a team with relatively unlimited resources should prize these undervalued skills over traditionally valued skills…but it sure doesn’t sound that way by the time you get to the draft scenes in the middle of the book. Lewis begins to praise the skill sets the A’s have chosen to focus on to a greater and greater degree as the book progresses. He brings things back around to his central point by the end but seems unaware of the degree to which he strayed from it in the middle…and, understandably, it is the points where Lewis strays that the book’s detractors fixate on. Why the discrepancy? I think Lewis’ own obviously growing enthusiasm and occasional downright giddiness in describing his subject tells the whole story. By the end of his research, Michael Lewis has evolved from an interested but unbiased researcher into passionate baseball fan. And who among us really sounds logical and reasonable once we start talking about our team and their chances in any given season?
As much I appreciated Lewis’ sabermetrics history and analysis of the new stats, to me the combination of his intentional and unintentional arguments cuts right to the heart of baseball. The stats are important. The stats give you an amazing amount of crucial information. The newer stats give you even more. But the stats can never and will never tell you the whole story. I hope my father-in-law asks to borrow Moneyball soon. I want to discuss this with him and see if he thinks it compares to gut instinct vs. in depth market analysis on the stock market.