My thoughts on Moneyball the movie

This afternoon I watched Moneyball at a theater in midtown Atlanta. I was looking forward to watching the movie not just because I had read the book, but also because I lived in the Bay Area during 2001-02 when the Oakland A's were one of the best teams in Major League Baseball.  So I remember the criticism that Beane weathered in the early part of the season, the growing excitement as the team embarked on their American League-record winning streak, and the crushing disappointment (and recriminations by the baseball establishment) when the Minnesota Twins defeated the A's in the AL Division Series. 

Like Daryl Morey, I felt some trepidation that the movie would push the "geeks" versus "meatheads" line too hard and present a more idealistic view of statistical analysis in sport than the reality.  In my opinion, the movie did not do that.  In reality, there is more collaboration between the analysts and the established departments of a sports team, but it is a movie, after all.  I'm not going to write a spoiler for the movie except to say that the movie follows the book fairly well.  Yes, there are numbers involved, and the Baseball Pythagorean Formula makes a cameo appearance, but it's not a "wonkish" film, for which Aaron Sorkin should be credited.

There are two major themes in the movie that are intertwined.  The first is Beane's recollection of his recruitment to play professional baseball, the glowing commentary that the scouts made of him as a high school player, and the failure to meet those expectations.  The second is Beane's willingness to challenge the conventional thinking on the selection and in-season management of a baseball team.  The first theme motivates the second and strongly influences the relationship between Beane and his staff.  You see it in the initial conversations between Beane's character and Peter Brand (a pseudonym for Paul DePodesta and played by Jonah Hill) and in the deteriorating relationship between Beane and the A's head scout character.

Brad Pitt was involved with the movie since Steven Soderbergh conceived the initial project, and played Billy Beane.  I think Pitt communicated Beane's famed blow-ups and the passion for his approach very believably.  Pitt is naturally charismatic, and I think that allowed him to convey Beane's charisma. Jonah Hill's character was the hard-core analyst, but he seemed to be was off in the darkened video room looking at video, crunching numbers, developing reports.  I would protest that there is a lot more human interaction in the life an actual analyst, but yes, much of the work is like that.  I do find it interesting that once Beane and Brand started sharing the information and resulting insight with his players, in ways that they understood, that the team started to perform better and embarked on that famous streak, although I wonder if it actually happened that way.  I also wonder if Beane truly disregarded the impact of defense of team performance; if so, his team's performance in the playoffs and ensuring seasons may have forced a reconsideration of that view.

There is some expected artistic license taken director Bennett Miller — we see more of the relationship between Beane and his daughter than was ever discussed in the book — but it serves to sweeten the story a little.  The song that his daughter (Kathryn Morris) is very evocative and fits in very well.

In all, someone like me who works in numbers for a (theoretical) living will appreciate the human side of the practice offered by Miller.  Someone who is suspicious of numbers will gain some insight into the world of the quantitative analyst in sports and their quest to make rational sense of irrational processes. At just over two hours, it's also good entertainment, and I highly recommend this film.