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September 24, 2011

The last ten years have seen a revolution in the way baseball is watched and played. Long-standing traditions and intangibles have been usurped by a new focus on statistical valuation and data mining. The “Sabermetrics” laid out by Bill James and the Society for American Baseball Research allowed teams with low payrolls to identify players that the traditional scouting rubrics undervalued. But someone had to be the first to try it in practice; Billy Beane, as general manager of the Oakland Athletics, was that someone, and Moneyball tells the story.

In outline, it’s pretty simple, and it’s a story I’m reasonably confident any baseball fan knows already. Beane (Brad Pitt) was frustrated at the A’s losing the division title in 2001. He went to Cleveland to negotiate a trade, where he noticed the manager taking cues from some random assistant, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). After some digging he learned what Brand was seeing and hired him on as assistant GM because, it seemed, he didn’t have much to lose. The team had lost three of its biggest stars and there was no way they could be affordably replaced; Brand’s application of James’ ideas could be the new idea Beane needed to revitalize the franchise.

Of course, it wasn’t going to be as simple as that. Beane had to expect a lot of hard push back from his organization, especially from his scouting team and his manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who were all wedded to the old systems they came up in. And in a way, they weren’t wrong. Prediction is difficult, Yogi Berra famously noted, especially about the future. And baseball is such a complicated game with so many variables that it’s hard for anyone to say with certainty how even a single game will play out. Scouts, coaches, and managers all used any number of rules of thumb — from the sound of their hits to their body language to their girlfriends’ appearances — as proxies for actual performance potential.

Sabermetrics comes in to say that nothing really matters except the numbers. Where the proxies try to explain performance — ugly girlfriend means a lack of confidence means choking up at critical moments — Sabermetrics just looks at the numbers. The same principle is behind Google’s translation engine; instead of trying to say this word or phrase in English “means the same” as that one in French, it just looks to see how often native speakers would substitute the one for the other. The whole semantic question is secondary to the syntactic one of which words occur in which orders the most frequently. Particularly radical linguists would say that this is all language actually is, and “meaning” — even of our own utterances — is somewhat of a convenient interpretation after the fact.

Or so goes the theory: put the right numbers in place in the right combinations; bases, runs, and wins will follow. And it doesn’t really matter why this guy gets on base, so long as he does. But would it hold up in practice?

Baseball is not a fast game, as many detractors have complained. Writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin seem to have incorporated this into their screenplay, with a long, slow arc that encourages contemplation more than the intense emotional rushes of most sports movies. They build on the basic story with reflections on Beane’s own career as a young player (portrayed in flashback by Reed Thompson), and his relationship with his daughter. At times these work, but they can end up seeming like filler as well.

Director Bennett Miller makes the most of this script. This is a man who truly knows how to use silences to their greatest effect, not to mention an artist’s eye for a shot. The result feels nothing like any sports movie I can remember. And while I can definitely see fans of the more traditional style being left cold, it’s a great idea that’s well worth a try.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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