Moneyball

Last Updated: April 14, 2014By Tags: , , ,

No one wants to watch a movie about the Yankees.

No one wants to watch Throwing Money At It: Superstars, Dollar Signs, and Left-handed Relief Pitching. No one wants to hear the story about how the Pinstripes used their massive financial advantages to hire the best coaches, scouts and players in order to forge an American League dynasty–and guess what: they did it!

There is no market in the American imagination for the Goliaths of Gotham. We love the Davids of Decatur (himself a David in a real sea of Goliaths). Our national mythology trains us to root for the little guy, to imagine ourselves as the little guy even when, for example, we’re the world’s dominant power. We glorify the innovators and rebels at the expense of the proven and traditional.

So we make movies like Moneyball. Moneyball is the baseball term applied to the overrated success of the millennial-era Oakland A’s formed by general manager Billy Beane (played in an invitingly laconic big-star performance by Brad Pitt). These teams had a way of outperforming expectations in the regular season before dying in the playoffs. Beane achieved his success by elevating cutting-edge statistical analysis over traditional scouting, allowing Oakland to compete with the monetary advantages of the big-market teams.

Baseball shows reverence for certain player statistics handed down through the generations. Moneyballers (like the film’s Jonah Hill) gained their success by asking whether these statistics really mattered to winning baseball games. They favor on-base percentage and slugging percentage to batting average; average hits per nine innings to ERA. They love walks, runs, and going deep in the count. They hate steals, bunts, fielding percentage, and fielding percentages again.

The new stats allowed the A’s to identify and sign undervalued and inexpensive players. These players excelled at getting on base and helping the team score a pre-determined amount of runs over the course of a year. This number of runs had been calculated as the number needed to win a division. (The Moneyball system is not designed to beat more talented teams in seven-game playoff series–hence Beane’s teams never won a title. The source book by sportswriter Michael Lewis is subtitled “Winning at an Unfair Game.” It could just as easily be “A Better Variety of Losing.”)

The more spiritual fault of Moneyballers: they re-evaluate the statistical basis for producing wins but never ask if the real success of baseball is winning. Certainly that’s the immediate demand for front office people wanting to keep their jobs. But do we really want a game of baseball with a bunch of statistically-approved on-base robots drawing abnormal numbers of walks? Is the real value of athletics to society the sense of collective victory? Or is it mythology? Is it taking something common and contemporary and delivering it to the realm of the legendary and timeless?

To the credit of prominent screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), the script gets something like this, framing it as whether statistics rob the game of its sentimental romance (while the film’s dreadful pacing and Bennett Miller’s predictable, add-nothing direction nearly robs the film of it)

In one of the year’s best films, the documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, director Werner Herzog explores a French cave with the oldest-known cave paintings–recordings of the bears, lions and buffalo of the time. We also see the first sparks of narrative exaggeration, oversized horns, ferocious teeth, endless rumbling herds. We sense the tales of the great hunters, the legendary athletes of their time.

Thinking about that cave, and thinking again about Moneyball, I wondered, are the statisticians a vanguard of clairvoyants for the new reality? Or are they, to borrow Herzog’s creative formulation, crocodiles staring into the abyss?

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