Monday, September 26, 2011

Moneyball

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1210166/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv115.htm
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110921/REVIEWS/110929999

Moneyball, directed by Bennet Miller, screenplay by Steven Zaillen and Aaron Sorkin, story by Stan Chervin, based on the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, tells the story of the remarkable 2002 season of the Oakland A's.  That year, with the lowest payroll in Major League Baseball, they set an all-time Major League record of winning 20 straight games and advancing the same distance in the playoffs as they did the previous year (despite having lost their three best players from that previous team to higher paying franchises). 

How can a relatively poor team in a relatively small TV market compete big-pocketed teams like the New York Yankees?  Well there have been relatively small market teams like the Oakland A's, the Minnesota Twins, and especially the Saint Louis Cardinals (in decades past, I would have included the Pittsburg Pirates on that list) who have managed to consistently assemble competitive, even top teams on a relatively shoe-string budget.

It seems however, that there were two things that made the 2002 A's special: (1) They really were gutted by free-agency after the 2001 season and (2) the general manager Bille Beane (played by Brad Pitt) decided to take a radically different approach to rebuilding the team.  Beane decided to take a full-bore leap into  computer analysis of the game and a search for the kind of players he needed to win (and could afford).  In the movie, he announces this decision to his shocked team of talent scouts, telling them "we're going into card counting," while presenting to them a decidedly unathletic Yale economics graduate Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) whose computer wizardry was going to assemble a winning team for them on the budget that they were stuck with.  No more hunches, no more intuition, just a full-bore leap into computer statistics.

Now for those who don't necessarily know much about baseball, it is a sport that lends itself to such statistical analysis.   There are 162 regular games in a Major League season.  In each game, each starter is going to be at bat 3-5 times, facing dozens of pitches per game.  Starting pitchers will probably throw 100 pitches a game.  Each one of those pitches is analyzable -- type (fastball, slider, curve ball, left handed, right handed, etc), speed, ball, strike, location within/outside the strike zone.  Everyone of the batter's at-bats is similarly analyzable (what pitches he hits, what pitches he tends to miss, if he hits the ball where does it go).  Baseball is statistician's dream.  Yet despite this and perhaps because of the huge number of compilable statistics, the game has generally remained a game of hunches that have kept talent scouts employed for over 100 years.

In 2002, Beane and Brand attempted to say "no more."  The only statistics that the two chose to consider were the percentage of times a player at bat got on base (one needs to get on base to score...) and how much the player was being paid.  If the player was being underpaid, they sought to buy his contract.   As Brand put it in the movie, they were trying to assemble a team out of an "island of misfit toys."

This produced some very interesting challenges:  For instance, the two sought to purchase the contract of a washed-up catcher (because he had a phenomenal ability of getting on base).  But A's already had a good catcher.  So they tried to teach him to play a position, first base, that he had never played.  To attempt to do that in major league professional sports was, to say the least, stunning.  So the manager, Art Howe (played magnificently by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who was never really on-board, tried really hard to make his own sense of the players that Beane and Brand were sending him, to their enormous frustration.  It was only after Beane, as general manager began to trade the players that Howe was playing instead of the players that Beane and Brand were sending him that Howe began to manage the team along the concept that Beane and Brand had envisioned, and it was then (at least according to the movie) that the Oakland A's began to turn their season around, and then go on that spectacular Major League record breaking 20 game winning streak.

Kudos to the director and screen-writers for making a movie largely about baseball statistics exciting.  Then again, Aaron Sorkin, wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for The Social Network that made computer code exciting as well.  So he has some experience in the matter.

Annother aspect of this film that I found fascinating and worth reflecting on was the brutal "perform or you're gone" aspect of professional sports.  As general manager (the one who hires and fires players), Beane didn't even go to the games because he didn't want to even get to know the players.  It's harder to fire or trade people that you know.  In the movie, he started teaching Brand how to fire players, telling him to just tell players being traded: "[Sir], you've been traded.  This is the number of the transition person who'll help you make the needed arrangements.  He's a good guy. Thank you for your service to the team. Good luck in the next phase of your career."  Beane explained that saying anything more would just prolong the agony, asking, Brand, "Would you prefer to just be shot in the head and have it over with, or shot five times in the chest and still have to bleed to death?"

The firing scenes of this movie are something that tens of millions of Americans can relate to these days as a result of their being "let go" from their own jobs.  In Moneyball, those players being fired were actually being traded (though inevitably to other parts of the country, causing a good deal of dislocation in their lives and the lives of their families).  Still, these were highly paid individuals who at least in the short term were not going to feel financial pain.  In real life, layoffs/firings cause real pain.  Still there always is a "performance" aspect to work.

So for those interested, the firing scenes in Moneyball become an interesting invitation to perhaps read (or reread) Pope John Paul II's (now Blessed John Paul II's) famous encyclical letter On the Dignity of Human Work (Laborem Excercens).

All in all, the movie is enjoyable for anyone who's ever been a fan of professional baseball.  There is nothing in the movie that would be problematic for kids (except that it might prove to be a little boring for them).  And the movie does offer viewers the opportunity then to reflect on the nature of work and the justice of the economic system in which we work.  


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