Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How True is Moneyball?

Hollywood is famous for stretching the truth and for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. But it turns out that Moneyball is a fairly accurate account of what Billy Beane did for the Oakland Athletics in 2002 (though hardly as single-handedly as depicted). If you haven’t seen the movie yet stop reading and go rent it, it’s pretty good.

As shown in the movie, the A’s had finished first in the AL West in 2001 but had lost 3 games to 2 to the New York Yankees – whose payroll was three times that of the A’s – in the first round of the playoffs. Beane has had tremendous success with the A’s, making the most of his small payroll while continually winning in the AL West, though his team always struggles in the post season.

Moneyball focuses on Beane’s methods of prospect selection. Sabermetricians argue that a college baseball player's chance of MLB success is much higher than a traditional high school draft pick. Beane maintains that high draft picks spent on high school prospects, regardless of talent or physical potential as evaluated by traditional scouting, are riskier than if they were spent on more polished college players. Micheal Lewis’ 2003 book, on which the movie is based, documents Beane’s often-tense discussions with his scouting staff who favored traditional subjective evaluation of potential rather than objective sabermetrics. In the movie the scouts seem stuck in the 1940s.

Bill James is referred to a number of times in Moneyball. He was invited to its debut (perhaps a first for a statistician). James says that people need to understand that he’s not as big a deal as Moneyball makes him out to be. “It’s somewhat exaggerated,” he says, “but my contributions to the game have been a bit exaggerated for quite a while now.” Not that he’s complaining. “I thought it was a terrific movie,” James says. “Among all the baseball movies of the last generation, this was the baseballest.”

The movie dwells on Oakland’s loss of three star players (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen) after the 2001 season and Beane's efforts to replace them. Presumably he can't because his owner will not increase the payroll. His choices are Jason Giambi, Scott Hattenburg, and David Justice. His scouts are appalled. In truth, Jeremy Giambi was actually on the 2001 Oakland A’s and not acquired in the off-season. Justice ended up leading the team in walks, but only played in 118 games and Hatteberg, contrary to what the film presents, was a fixture in the line-up.

Hatteburg and David Justice significantly led the team in On Base Percentage, the big draw for Beane and his nerdy advisor, Paul Brand, played by Jonah Hill. Brand is supposed to be Paul DePodesta. DePodesta insisted that his name be changed in the film. In reality DePodesta isn’t a nerd, he had been a major league scout – as had Billy Beane.

In the movie the team starts out horribly as everyone is saying, “Told you so” about his preference for statistics over the wisdom of the scouts. His daughter is worried Beane will be fired. In reality the A’s won their first three games and 6 of their first 8 though they did go on a 4-15 skid soon after.

Beane (Brad Pitt) talks about counting runs like cards in a casino, but there is no reference to how many the other team scores. In real life the 2002 American West Champion A’s were kings of stopping the other team from scoring. The staff led the American League in ERA and boasted three of the six best starting pitchers in the game. Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder combined for 57 wins, 493 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.05 over 675 innings.

The A’s staff certainly warrant more attention then they received in both the film and book. Brad Pitt is portrayed as a genius for acquiring reliever Chad Bradford in spite of his unusual delivery. In truth Bradford did okay – 3.11 ERA in spot apppearances. No mention of Billy Koch’s 44 saves. And how about the hitters? Miquel Tejado was 34, 131, .308. Eric Chavez was 34, 109, .275, and Jeremy Dye helped out with 24 home runs. No mention of them either.

Playing Oakland manager Art Howe is sloppy, overweight Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Howe has always been trim and athletic.) Howe is portrayed as gruff and priggish, which is kinda the exact opposite of what the real-life Art Howe is like. The original director Steven Soderbergh planned to have many principals, including Howe, play themselves, but Soderbergh left the project.

Howe, who was interviewed for just ten minutes by the movie makers, is portrayed as being preoccupied with his contract when in reality his contract ran through the 2003 season. In the movie Howe stubbornly refuses to put Hattenburg at first to replace Carlos Pena, who wasn’t hitting. Well, yes and no. Pena played every game at first until the middle of May. But Hattenburg played every day too – as the DH.

In real life Beane didn’t trade Pena because Howe wouldn’t play him, Pena just wasn’t hitting – .218 with 7 home runs in 40 games. Hatteberg played his first game at first against the Blue Jays on May 17. He committed only 5 errors (in 91 games) at first after that.

As I watched the movie I wondered how Art Howe reacted when he saw it. I was right. He was not happy.
“I don’t know how you can get away with saying it’s a true movie,” Howe said. “In the movie, it’s Billy Beane who tells Mike Magnante he’s being released, and he tells Magnante, “Thank you so much for everything, Mike.”

“Give me a break. I’m the one who had to tell Magnante, and he was less than a week away from getting his full pension. I like Mike, I tried hard to get him those days, I told them to put him on the DL to get him the time; it wouldn’t have cost them anything.” They wouldn’t. (How could Brad Pitt be so mean?)

“I’ve spent my whole career trying to build a good reputation and be a good baseball man and someone who people like to play for and all of the above. Then in two hours all these people across the country are going to go in and get this perception of me that’s totally unfair and untruthful. I'm very upset.”

It’s typical Hollywood to emphasize the differences between characters to develop tension and conflict. In reality the A’s scouts were not that ancient and out of touch. Not portrayed in the movie is J.P. Ricciardi. He was the East Coast Scouting Supervisor and then assistant to Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson before the Beane era began. Under Beane, Ricciardi (a minor league teammate of his), became Director of Player Personnel. Ricciardi certainly embraces the sabermetric analysis of the game.

In reality Beane wasn’t quite that brilliant, Brand (DePodesta) that nerdy, nor Howe that selfish and obtuse. But it’s a great movie about baseball even if you do need to take it with a grain of salt and a chaw of chewing tobacco.

And you know me, I gotta finish with a bit of old baseball history. Yes, the 2002 Oakland A’s did set a modern-day record for most consecutive wins (20). The greatest of all time? The 1916 New York Giants won 26 consecutive (with one tie in the middle). The odd thing – they were all at home. Talk about a good home stand! You could look it up.

4 comments:

  1. My first thought with a movie like this or The Social Network is to be disappointed with the film vs. reality. As you said, what's the point of making a film based on reality if there is little reality involved? Over time I've tried to separate the two and view the films as good stories that dabble in truth but are ultimately fiction. With respect to Moneyball (which I thought was a great film), I can absolutely understand how Art Howe (and others) could be upset at their portrayals. Fictional moments attributed to real people...it's not completely fair to the parties involved.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Actually, Oakland did not finish in first place in the American League West in 2001. The Athletics won 103 games that season, but made the playoffs as the AL Wild Card, finishing a distant second behind the Seattle Mariners and their 116 wins.

    Also, you meant that Jeremy Giambi had already played for Oakland in 2001.

    As a narrative, "Moneyball" is basically a fraud for the reasons that you cited (even if you wouldn't use that label). Indeed, consider how Oakland's 'sabermetric' approach worked in the organization's vaunted 2002 draft. Of the eight picks that the Athletics enjoyed in the first two rounds, four never even reached the major leagues, while a fifth only played five games in the majors.

    ReplyDelete
  3. ... I did enjoy the blog entry and was intrigued to learn of Soderbergh's idea, a more phenomenological approach. I would have liked to have seen that.

    ReplyDelete

Come on! Tell us what you think. You know you want to...