Thursday, January 26, 2012

Movies: Moneyball


(Photo / Sony Pictures)
We're admittedly late to the show in reviewing Moneyball, but since the Oscars are approaching and it should rate a lot of mention there, a more generous take is that we're a month early.

Brad Pitt portrays the real-life Billy Beane, a former player and the Oakland A's GM since 1998. As a player Beane failed at the major league level (a lifetime .219 hitter over six seasons) despite being touted, per the movie, as a five-tool player. Throughout his tenure as GM with the A's, Beane has worked with a thin wallet, trying to assemble a club that could compete for the AL pennant with a team payroll often at the league's bottom.

Trying to play winning baseball without the money to pay for it is the premise for Moneyball, and it provides ample fodder. In the movie, Beane hires Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) to help find undervalued talent outside the conventional baseball wisdom that a good player looks the part. Sweet swing, easy stride, fluid motion - all can be indicators of baseball talent, but are as likely attractive masks of other flaws.

Brand is a composite character based largely on the real-life Paul DePodesta, who turned to overlooked statistics, rather than intuition, to rate the A's potential prospects. In 2002 the formula worked wonders for Oakland, as they finished the season with  103 wins, the same as the New York Yankees. The Bombers spent a hefty $126 Mn for those wins, while the A's parted with just $39 Mn.

Time has diminished the thrifty advantage that Beane once held over much of baseball, but for the 2002 season it was at its apex. The movie, and Michael Lewis's namesake book that provided its inspiration are perfectly placed in that year. Among the many accomplishments of the '02 A's was an AL record 20-game win streak. The movie smartly places it as a centerpiece.

There's little to fault anywhere in the film; Pitt is rightfully getting Oscar consideration for his portrayal of Beane. Philip Seymour Hoffman's depiction of Art Howe, while reportedly far less affable than the real life Art, is nonetheless a perfectly understated foil to Beane. And Hill is easy to envision as the guy next to you at the ball game completely immersed in his scorecard. Or perhaps, if you're like us, you're that guy.

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